My greatest challenge in reviewing this biography has been the dilemma of either to talk about Masden’s art of writing, research, and content presentation or about Chanel who is the main subject of the book.
Well, I’ll try to reflect on both- especially with the freedom that this is not an academic sort of a book review but rather a reflection of the book. I guess the title of this reflection already hints that it will focus more on the subject than the author. All in all, the genius of Chanel could not be appreciated if the author, Masden, did not manage to capture every thread of the life of one of the most complex woman and influential figure in the 20th century – Coco Chanel. I thus appreciate the ability of Masden to bring out Chanel so vividly into the readers brain through eyes that are kept busy focusing with fingers ready to flip into the next page.
So, what can I say about Chanel? Uuugh…she was a tapestry woven in different threads that traditions might have never allowed people to guess that they could end up presenting an outstanding arras. She was everything black, white, red, etc. An orphan. A mistress (many times)- “Home Wrecker” or Michepuko?(Reader, note this phrase because the #DiariesOfKyeku will later on reveal more on this topic- a male dominance labeling). A “feminist”. “Uneducated”. Entrepreneur. Swift. Brave. A hard-worker. Independent. Harsh. Merciful. Loyal. An Aunt. A godmother. A sister. Arrogant. Politician (tried to strike peace deal between Churchill and Hitler…can you imagine that? See Operations Modellhut- Chanel’s peace proposal). Etc….all those are threads that made this super rich millionaire woman who influenced fashion for the whole century and up to tomorrow.
Based on their own interests, different people will learn different things/lessons from Chanel’s life as presented by Masden. Business people have deep lesson. Lawyers about contract law. Fashion students can gain unprecedented insights. Women and Feminists also can develop a theory. IR Scholars can also learn about interests in war times and the role of personal relationships. Historians can learn about both WW1 and WW2 etc etc Personally, I learnt so much that I’m failing to coherently put them forth. However, one word is “Brevity”.
Chanel was independent and she believed in herself despite her bitter background. She, rationally, left her difficult background and focused on the bright future. She believed in doing it herself and not being dependent to any one, especially men. If anything, she knew men could be really “monsieur”- or is it monsters?”oooups! NO…I didn’t say that… Well, she dated people of influence and she could have comfortably sat back and enjoyed life, yet she kept working very hard and was never content. She did not want to depend on a man’s money. She made her own and sat /dine with Kings and leaders of the world. Her life reminds me of a verse in Bible from Proverbs 22:29. Her ideas of fashion were very independent and unique. I love her sentence that “fashion is not art is a trade that needs discipline”. She worked to the very last day of her life. She was a revolutionary.
Since I do not want to do injustice to this genius woman, I‘ll cite some of the famous quotes by her or what Masden wrote about her that made me reflect with life changing lessons: (but I argue women to read this biography to get key lessons on how we should act):
On the invention of the little black dress Chanel commented: “I’m going to put the whole world in mourning for him” (i.e. for Boy Capel, the man that she truly fell in love with and who empowered her to start her own businesses- Capel was killed in an accident and Chanel was hurt by his death for year) p. 117
On short skirts, Chanel commented “Women drive cars nowadays, and this you cannot do with crinoline skirts”
On fashion writers: “They should begin by going to school and learning how you cut a piece of fabric” – Chanel
“I’m against fashion that doesn’t last…I cannot accept that you throw your clothes away just because it’s spring. I love clothes, because, like books, I can feel them, touch them. Women want to change; they’re wrong. I’m for happiness, and happiness consists of not changing”. Chanel
“If a fashion wasn’t taken up and worn by everybody, it was not a fashion, but an eccentricity, a fancy dress” – Chanel
“A woman should mix fake and real. To ask a woman to wear real jewelry only is like asking her to cover herself with real flowers instead of flowery silk prints. She’d look faded in a few hours” – Chanel
“I love fakes because I find such jewelry provocative, and I find it disgraceful to walk around with millions around your neck just because you’re rich. The point of jewelry isn’t to make a woman look rich but to adorn her; not the same thing” – Chanel
(A NOTE: Unlike other designers and/or many contemporary innovators, Chanel never mind being copied…she thought counterfeits were a sign of success)…LOL!
“I have given a lot of orders in my life and not taken any yet” – Chanel, in her letter to Vera Lombardi, p 257
On men and…well, feminism…….the #DiariesOfKyeku favorites from Chanel
“Proud and arrogant, Chanel couldn’t stand being less than the one and only woman in Westminster’s life…When the duke (i.e. Bendor, Duke of Westminster) offered her the necklace, which was worth a fortune, Coco, in a gesture of superb defiance, let the pearls slide from her had into the ocean” – Lifer: Masden, p. 155
“If there was one thing that money and fame had given her it was freedom from being dependent on any man” – Masden, p. 155
“God knows I wanted love… But the moment I had to choose between the man I loved and my dresses, I chose the dresses. Work has always been a kind of drug for me, even if I sometimes wonder what Chanel would have been without the men in my life.” Chanel
“Men don’t understand that. They tell a woman ‘I’ll marry you. You can stop worrying, you won’t have to work anymore’ What they mean is ‘You won’t have to do anything except be there for me” – Chanel
“At forty, women used to exchange youth for elegance, poise, and mysterious allure, an evolution that left them undamaged. Now they measure themselves against the very young with defenses that can only be described as ridiculous” – Chanel
“You can be gorgeous at twenty, charming at forty, and irresistible for the rest of your life” – Chanel
“Women can give everything with a smile and with a tear take it all back” – Chanel
“The two men I loved never understood. They were rich, and never realized that a woman, even a rich woman, wants to do things. I would never be able to abandon the House of Chanel. It was my child. I made it, out of nothing. When it comes to men, I’ve never wanted to weigh more than a feather on their shoulder.” Chanel
“The men are pathetic. Women no longer know what it is to be loved. They are more interested in the crease in the boys’ pants than in the boys or in themselves. I wouldn’t have any of the boys polish my shoes” – Chanel
“Soon, society will want women to do everything because they are stronger than men” – Chanel
“Haute couture is finished because it’s in the hands of men who don’t like women and can only think of ridiculing women” – Chanel
“Jump out of the window if you’re the object of a man’s passion. Don’t dream about grand passions. That’s not love. Love is warmth, tenderness, and affection. There are so many ways of loving, of being loved”. Chanel
“Whatever her age- young, old, mother, mistress, whatever you want, a woman who is not loved is a woman lost” – Chanel
Of course, I do not agree with some of her lifestyles choice or sentiments but she was real and I admire her. She rocked. Her ideas and style still rock. Not agreeing with her in some things does not reduce my admiration of her. Having differences is the beauty of life…our differences make life beautiful and colorful. Our weaknesses are our strongest points. Chanel had many weaknesses, and this is what tells us that everyone will make it.
Thanks Masden for such a wonderful book although the fonts were small with no space, I kept flipping pages on a crowded metro. Apart from learning about Coco, I learnt a big deal of European history and French art plus major artists who were also Coco’s friends as well as a number of her competitors whose label I still see in high streets….