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Mademoiselle
Cover of Mademoiselle
Mademoiselle
Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History
Borrow Borrow
NATIONAL BESTSELLER
Certain lives are at once so exceptional, and yet so in step with their historical moments, that they illuminate cultural forces far beyond the scope of a single person. Such is the case with Coco Chanel, whose life offers one of the most fascinating tales of the twentieth century—throwing into dramatic relief an era of war, fashion, ardent nationalism, and earth-shaking change—here brilliantly treated, for the first time, with wide-ranging and incisive historical scrutiny.
 
Coco Chanel transformed forever the way women dressed. Her influence remains so pervasive that to this day we can see her afterimage a dozen times while just walking down a single street: in all the little black dresses, flat shoes, costume jewelry, cardigan sweaters, and tortoiseshell eyeglasses on women of every age and background. A bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume is sold every three seconds. Arguably, no other individual has had a deeper impact on the visual aesthetic of the world. But how did a poor orphan become a global icon of both luxury and everyday style? How did she develop such vast, undying influence? And what does our ongoing love of all things Chanel tell us about ourselves? These are the mysteries that Rhonda K. Garelick unravels in Mademoiselle.
 
Raised in rural poverty and orphaned early, the young Chanel supported herself as best she could. Then, as an uneducated nineteen-year-old café singer, she attracted the attention of a wealthy and powerful admirer and parlayed his support into her own hat design business. For the rest of Chanel’s life, the professional, personal, and political were interwoven; her lovers included diplomat Boy Capel; composer Igor Stravinsky; Romanov heir Grand Duke Dmitri; Hugh Grosvenor, the Duke of Westminster; poet Pierre Reverdy; a Nazi officer; and several women as well. For all that, she was profoundly alone, her romantic life relentlessly plagued by abandonment and tragedy.
 
Chanel’s ambitions and accomplishments were unparalleled. Her hat shop evolved into a clothing empire. She became a noted theatrical and film costume designer, collaborating with the likes of Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and Luchino Visconti. The genius of Coco Chanel, Garelick shows, lay in the way she absorbed the zeitgeist, reflecting it back to the world in her designs and in what Garelick calls “wearable personality”—the irresistible and contagious style infused with both world history and Chanel’s nearly unbelievable life saga. By age forty, Chanel had become a multimillionaire and a household name, and her Chanel Corporation is still the highest-earning privately owned luxury goods manufacturer in the world.
 
In Mademoiselle, Garelick delivers the most probing, well-researched, and insightful biography to date on this seemingly familiar but endlessly surprising figure—a work that is truly both a heady intellectual study and a literary page-turner.
Praise for Mademoiselle
 
“A detailed, wry and nuanced portrait of a complicated woman that leaves the reader in a state of utterly satisfying confusion—blissfully mesmerized and confounded by the reality of the human spirit.”The Washington Post
 
“Writing an exhaustive biography of Chanel is a challenge comparable to racing a four-horse chariot. . . . This makes the assured confidence with which Garelick tells her story all the more remarkable.”The New York Review of Books

“Broadly focused and beautifully written.”The Wall Street...
NATIONAL BESTSELLER
Certain lives are at once so exceptional, and yet so in step with their historical moments, that they illuminate cultural forces far beyond the scope of a single person. Such is the case with Coco Chanel, whose life offers one of the most fascinating tales of the twentieth century—throwing into dramatic relief an era of war, fashion, ardent nationalism, and earth-shaking change—here brilliantly treated, for the first time, with wide-ranging and incisive historical scrutiny.
 
Coco Chanel transformed forever the way women dressed. Her influence remains so pervasive that to this day we can see her afterimage a dozen times while just walking down a single street: in all the little black dresses, flat shoes, costume jewelry, cardigan sweaters, and tortoiseshell eyeglasses on women of every age and background. A bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume is sold every three seconds. Arguably, no other individual has had a deeper impact on the visual aesthetic of the world. But how did a poor orphan become a global icon of both luxury and everyday style? How did she develop such vast, undying influence? And what does our ongoing love of all things Chanel tell us about ourselves? These are the mysteries that Rhonda K. Garelick unravels in Mademoiselle.
 
Raised in rural poverty and orphaned early, the young Chanel supported herself as best she could. Then, as an uneducated nineteen-year-old café singer, she attracted the attention of a wealthy and powerful admirer and parlayed his support into her own hat design business. For the rest of Chanel’s life, the professional, personal, and political were interwoven; her lovers included diplomat Boy Capel; composer Igor Stravinsky; Romanov heir Grand Duke Dmitri; Hugh Grosvenor, the Duke of Westminster; poet Pierre Reverdy; a Nazi officer; and several women as well. For all that, she was profoundly alone, her romantic life relentlessly plagued by abandonment and tragedy.
 
Chanel’s ambitions and accomplishments were unparalleled. Her hat shop evolved into a clothing empire. She became a noted theatrical and film costume designer, collaborating with the likes of Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and Luchino Visconti. The genius of Coco Chanel, Garelick shows, lay in the way she absorbed the zeitgeist, reflecting it back to the world in her designs and in what Garelick calls “wearable personality”—the irresistible and contagious style infused with both world history and Chanel’s nearly unbelievable life saga. By age forty, Chanel had become a multimillionaire and a household name, and her Chanel Corporation is still the highest-earning privately owned luxury goods manufacturer in the world.
 
In Mademoiselle, Garelick delivers the most probing, well-researched, and insightful biography to date on this seemingly familiar but endlessly surprising figure—a work that is truly both a heady intellectual study and a literary page-turner.
Praise for Mademoiselle
 
“A detailed, wry and nuanced portrait of a complicated woman that leaves the reader in a state of utterly satisfying confusion—blissfully mesmerized and confounded by the reality of the human spirit.”The Washington Post
 
“Writing an exhaustive biography of Chanel is a challenge comparable to racing a four-horse chariot. . . . This makes the assured confidence with which Garelick tells her story all the more remarkable.”The New York Review of Books

“Broadly focused and beautifully written.”The Wall Street...
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Excerpts-
  • Chapter One

    Early Life

    If there's one thing that interests no one, it's someone's life. If I wrote a book about my life, I would begin with today, with tomorrow. Why begin with childhood? Why youth? One should first offer an opinion about the era in which one is living--­that's more logical, newer, and more amusing.

    --­Coco Chanel

    Gabrielle Chanel turned her existence into a glamorous, cinematic soap opera that garnered near-­constant chronicling by the press, but she always refused to offer concrete details of her earliest years. Instead, she chose to dispense occasional tidbits of truth, hidden amid the ever-­changing fantasies she used to embellish the grim reality of her childhood and, perhaps, to soften for herself the legacy of a youth beset by poverty, tragic loss, and wounding betrayals by those closest to her.

    Ferociously determined till the very end to obscure her true origins, Chanel lived in the present tense. Such insistence upon the "now," upon the "era in which one is living," as she put it, may help account for the saving grace of her life: her startling ability to interpret the moment, to create relevant fashion for most of sixty years. Perhaps if Chanel had had a more accepting relationship to her own nineteenth-­century rural childhood, she would never have become a standard-­bearer for twentieth-­century urban womanhood.

    But Chanel's modernist revolution and its ongoing power have their roots in that long-­buried childhood of hers, in the flinty soil of France's Cévennes region where she was born, in her hardscrabble, peasant ancestors, and in the two major institutions that left their aesthetic, moral, and psychological stamp on her: the Roman Catholic Church and the military.

    Chanel liked to tell people that she was a native Auvergnat, born in the south central region of Auvergne, in France's Massif Central--­a gorgeous, still heavily rural area known for its agriculture, its myriad volcanoes--­all extinct for thousands of years--­and its highly mineralized water, reputed to hold curative properties. It was a slight untruth. Although Auvergne played a significant role in Chanel's life, and although her tempestuous nature often evoked comparisons with those many volcanoes, Gabrielle Chanel was actually born far from Auvergne's rugged beauty, in the northwest Loire Valley town of Saumur. The small lie was telling, though.

    Auvergne was, for generations, home to the Chanel family--­the region where her father, Albert Chanel, was born, the region where her grandparents eventually settled. Auvergne was also the place she was conceived. Claiming Auvergne as her birthplace, Chanel tried to knit herself a bit more tightly into her family history, into the clan that, for the most part, had severed its ties to her when she was a child. She later reciprocated the gesture.

    In 1883, the year of Gabrielle's birth, the Chanel family's circumstances were bleak. Judged against even the modest standards of their rural peasant world, Gabrielle's parents, Albert Chanel and Jeanne Devolle, began their life together at a great disadvantage. At twenty-­eight, Albert had little in the way of steady employment. With no trade, no particular skills, and owning almost nothing, he occupied one of the lowest rungs on the social ladder of nineteenth-­century France: Like his father before him, he was an itinerant peddler. But unlike his father, Albert did not restrict his travels to the family's native area of southern France. Bolder, more adventurous, and quite comfortable out on his own, he peddled far and wide, moving north and west, riding a horse-­drawn cart filled with...

About the Author-
  • Rhonda K. Garelick writes on fashion, performance, art, and cultural politics. Her books include Rising Star: Dandyism, Gender, and Performance in the Fin de Siècle, Electric Salome: Loie Fuller's Performance of Modernism, and, as co-editor, Fabulous Harlequin: ORLAN and the Patchwork Self. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, New York Newsday, International Herald Tribune, and The Sydney Morning Herald, as well as in numerous journals and museum catalogs in the United States and Europe. She is a Guggenheim fellow and has also received awards from the Getty Research Institute, the Dedalus Foundation, the American Association of University Women, the Whiting Foundation, and the American Council of Learned Societies. Garelick received her B.A. and Ph.D. in comparative literature and French from Yale University.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    July 28, 2014
    Iconic fashion designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883–1971) wanted to both hide her life story and to share it, a contradiction that confounded previous potential biographers. In this well-researched and buoyant biography, fashion writer Garelick’s stated goal is to analyze the “uncanny historical reach of Coco Chanel” and the ways in which Chanel’s constant reinvention provides a model for modern women. From Chanel’s childhood in the Loire Valley—characterized by illness, poverty and abandonment—to her infirm final years, when her closest companion was her butler, Francois Mironnet, Garelick (Rising Star) reveals the dramatic details that Chanel decided to publicly disclose and those facts she hid or embellished. While the book is even-handed in its critical, probing approach to Chanel’s life, its strongest chapter concerns its very core: the designer’s intimate relationship to fascism and fascists, such as writer, diplomat, and Vichy official Paul Morand, the German intelligence officer Hans Gunther von Dincklage, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Garelick deftly situates Chanel in political and cultural history; in addition, the book’s extensive archival sources and new interviews make it a valuable resource for scholars. Photos. Agent: Andrew Wylie, the Wylie Agency.

  • Kirkus

    July 15, 2014
    An admiring but evenhanded portrait of Coco Chanel's (1883-1971) life and loves.Cultural biographer Garelick (Electric Salome: Loie Fuller's Performance of Modernism, 2007, etc.) fully acknowledges the spate of recent research into Chanel's wartime collaboration with the Nazis from her Hotel Ritz perch in occupied Paris-e.g., Hal Vaughan's hard-hitting Sleeping with the Enemy (2011). Though providing no new revelations, Garelick offers a fine psychological portrait of the poor orphaned girl who spent seven years in an abbey, where she learned to sew and feel safety within its reassuring order and cleanliness (traits with which she would later imbue her couture). From working as a seamstress with her aunt Adrienne, then trying her luck as a backing singer in cafes and "water girl" in the Vichy spas, she possessed charm rather than beauty and, more than anything, the drive to attain her freedom the only way she knew how: with lots of money. A companion to rich playboys, she found in Englishman Arthur Capel a like-minded feminist partner; he set her up making hats out of his Paris apartment, then among the fledgling clothing boutiques in Deauville and Biarritz. A natural saleswoman and commander of workers, she succeeded smashingly on her own terms, adopting mannish, comfortable clothing that freed the feminine form from corsets and bindings, elevating cheap jersey and faux pearls as elements of high style, and essentially remaking the female silhouette in her own image: boyish, slim-hipped, flat-chested and athletic. Garelick pursues the catalog of Chanel's subsequent ill-fated lovers, her work with the Ballets Russes, her vast earnings from Chanel No. 5 and her fraught partnership with the Wertheimer brothers while frankly discussing her relentless, social-climbing attraction to right-wing, reactionary and racist elements.Certainly a definitive portrait, especially considering Garelick's intriguing venture into modern "branding."

    COPYRIGHT(2014) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    September 1, 2014
    John Updike once proclaimed, Chanel was, in a way, France itself. Coco Gabrielle Chanel (18831971), the couturier and real woman, was fully transformed by her times into an aesthetic, a symbol, and a way of life. In this captivating biography, Garelick, whose many honors include a Guggenheim fellowship, takes on Chanel's relationship to French nationalism and to the changing currents of European society. While the fashion designer herself remains a somewhat contradictory and elusive figure, she is newly illuminated as a major player on the world stage, a figure who precisely maneuvered within the unstable politics and economy wrought by the two world wars. Chapters focusing on Chanel's many friends and lovers illustrate the complexity of her political circumstances. Garelick argues that it is through the prism of her relationships (which included leftists, royalty, fascists, and spies) that Chanel filtered the rapidly changing times and translated them into her unique design aesthetic. While fashonistas will find much of interest in the book's revelations of Chanel's influences, these tales of couture are deftly woven into a larger narrative of twentieth-century history.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2014, American Library Association.)

  • Library Journal

    May 15, 2014

    Drawing on the Chanel archives, extensive interviews, and her own background as an author with a Yale PhD in French and comparative literature who covers fashion, performance, art, and cultural politics, Garelick shows how Coco Chanel's fashions reflected the historical and cultural crosscurrents around her. The publication date may move up.

    Copyright 2014 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Library Journal

    September 1, 2014

    Biographies of Coco Chanel (1883-1971) abound, reflecting the embellishments and inconsistencies of the designer's own tales. Beyond those are novels, children's books, films, and the 1970 musical Coco starring Katharine Hepburn. Recent exhibitions revere Chanel and her creations (the little black dress, Chanel No. 5) as sacred objects. In this monumental biography, Garelick, who writes widely on fashion, gender, and performance, anchors Chanel's remarkable story within larger cultural, social, and political forces, including gender norms, French nationalism, and the rise of Nazism. She supports and questions existing narratives of the designer as a self-made social climber with new research into primary sources and the historical milieu. The author focuses particularly on the lives of lovers and friends, drawing out connections between the designer's private life and the aesthetic she created. Above all, Garelick unpacks Chanel's genius at selling her own transformative myth to women everywhere. VERDICT With more rigor and less hyperbole than its predecessors, this exhaustively researched yet highly readable biography secures a prominent place among countless books on Chanel. [See Prepub Alert, 4/21/14.]--Lindsay King, Yale Univ. Libs, New Haven, CT

    Copyright 2014 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Library Journal

    Starred review from September 1, 2014

    Biographies of Coco Chanel (1883-1971) abound, reflecting the embellishments and inconsistencies of the designer's own tales. Beyond those are novels, children's books, films, and the 1970 musical Coco starring Katharine Hepburn. Recent exhibitions revere Chanel and her creations (the little black dress, Chanel No. 5) as sacred objects. In this monumental biography, Garelick, who writes widely on fashion, gender, and performance, anchors Chanel's remarkable story within larger cultural, social, and political forces, including gender norms, French nationalism, and the rise of Nazism. She supports and questions existing narratives of the designer as a self-made social climber with new research into primary sources and the historical milieu. The author focuses particularly on the lives of lovers and friends, drawing out connections between the designer's private life and the aesthetic she created. Above all, Garelick unpacks Chanel's genius at selling her own transformative myth to women everywhere. VERDICT With more rigor and less hyperbole than its predecessors, this exhaustively researched yet highly readable biography secures a prominent place among countless books on Chanel. [See Prepub Alert, 4/21/14.]--Lindsay King, Yale Univ. Libs, New Haven, CT

    Copyright 2014 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • The Washington Post "A detailed, wry and nuanced portrait of a complicated woman that leaves the reader in a state of utterly satisfying confusion--blissfully mesmerized and confounded by the reality of the human spirit."
  • The New York Review of Books "Writing an exhaustive biography of Chanel is a challenge comparable to racing a four-horse chariot. . . . This makes the assured confidence with which [Rhonda K.] Garelick tells her story all the more remarkable."
  • Library Journal (starred review) "This monumental biography . . . anchors Chanel's remarkable story within larger cultural, social, and political forces."
  • The Wall Street Journal "Broadly focused and beautifully written."
  • Yale Alumni Magazine "Garelick can convincingly, and engagingly, illuminate a succession of parallels between fashion and politics."--The New York Times Book Review "A true coup de grâce . . . a vital entry in the extensive library of Chanel scholarship."
  • Andrew Solomon, author of the National Book Award--winning The Noonday Demon "This is the definitive biography of Chanel. It is also the life of one of the most successful world conquerors who has ever imposed her will on a vast subject population. It is gripping, astute, and elegantly written. And if it leaves you leery of ever wearing a Chanel jacket, or carrying a Chanel bag, you will understand where the desire for it came from."--Judith Thurman, author of the National Book Award--winning Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller "In this magisterial, affecting portrait, Rhonda K. Garelick traces Chanel's history as a woman and as a designer and in doing so illuminates the troubling contradictions of twentieth-century Europe. Her book is a masterwork of original research and psychological nuance, remarkable in combining insight into her subject with insight into modernity entire. It's a Jamesian portrait of the curious mix of sadness and sadism that loneliness can hatch. It is also a deeply moving exploration of a damaged, unhappy genius striving vainly for an elusive wholeness, and, by sheer force of will and vision, remaking the world's notion of elegance in her own image."
  • Peter Brooks, author of Reading for the Plot and Henry James Goes to Paris "A stylish book about style, based on meticulous research and a deep understanding of French culture. Rhonda Garelick tells this extraordinary story with just the right blend of sympathy and judgment, in an utterly readable account."
  • Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana and A World on Fire "Garelick expertly illuminates the forces that created one of the world's most iconic brands. Mademoiselle is a fascinating account of the grit as well as the glamour behind the rise of Coco Chanel."
  • Publishers Weekly "Garelick explores the world of Coco Chanel in intimate--and intricate--detail, revealing the life and times of the woman she astutely describes as 'understanding how the right labels can govern desire.' This is a must-have book for followers of fashion and social history devotees alike."--Lindy Woodhead, author of War Paint and Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge "Definitive . . . Cultural biographer Garelick . . . offers a fine psychological portrait of the poor orphaned girl [who] succeeded smashingly on her own terms."--Kirkus Reviews "Delivers a probing, well-researched and insightful biography of this familiar but endlessly surprising figure."
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Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History
Rhonda K. Garelick
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