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Coco Chanel is much more than a mere fashion icon, as Rhonda K. Garelick shows in this riveting biography.

Book Review: ‘Mademoiselle’ by Rhonda K. Garelick

Celebrity culture pervades our day to day lives. We have an unhealthy relationships with the people that influence our lives, placing them on pedestal and deifying them. When it comes to someone like Coco Chanel, whose influence, even a little over 40 years after her passing, infuses to many lives around the world, that deification, built on one aspect of her personality, manages to limit her in an almost patronizing way. For Mademoiselle, as she was known, is often reduced to being nothing more than a fashion icon. Of course this is already quite an accolade, but fact is that no one should be defined solely by the fruits of one aspect of their endeavours.

Written in a very engaging voice that makes for an easy, engrossing read, Rhonda K. Garelick takes us on a journey to revisit Coco’s life, shedding light not just on the sources of her inspiration, but also on the true scope of her reach. For Coco’s ability to create fashion for the moment was informed by a deep understanding of her social reality, itself kept up to date through a network of acquaintance, business partners, friends, and lovers, who confided in her.

Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History takes us on a bit of historical tour. Born in 1883 as Gabrielle Chanel, she is of course the fashion designer who founded the Chanel brand, and the only one to be listed on Time magazine’s list of the one hundred most influential people of the twentieth century. She was known for her determination and ambition, which fueled her energy and brought her from a childhood of abject poverty to more money than she could even want. Her actions during World War II mixed her name with controversy, but she was able to spring back from it easily because of her American and British fans who welcomed her back after a 15 year hiatus from the fashion industry, where she was credited in part for freeing women from the constraints of the corset, in part by popularizing the acceptance of the sportive, casual chic look. Her influence went beyond couture clothing, also touching on jewelry, handbags, and perfume, the most famous one, Chanel No. 5, becoming an icon in itself.

Another interesting facet of her life is how Coco Chanel’s personal choices with regards to her look were so different from what was at the time social acceptable. Most notable was her going against the pale-skinned, long-haired, and full-bodied look preferred at the time by displaying her boyish figure, cutting her hair short, and enjoying tanned skin.

Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History differs from others on a few levels. First is the way it is written. Author Rhonda Garelick has an engaging voice, one that makes the book flow by quickly despite its thickness. Because Coco Chanel often lied about her past, Garelick pulls together known facts, stories by Chanel, and available information from various records, to write a multi-dimensional portrait of her subject. She makes sure, however, to remind readers during the course of the story which piece of information is reliable, and which isn’t. It made me feel at times that I was being invited to a round table discussion titled: “Fact or Fiction: Coco Chanel’s Life and Times.”

Garelick also makes an effort to not reduce her subject, be it to a money hungry destitute girl looking for a way out of her difficult circumstances, to an evil matriarch protecting her kingdom, or even to a fashion icon. When it comes to Coco’s younger years, she paints a complex picture of family history, character, environment, and circumstance which could have contributed to making Coco the way she was, without any sort of judgment. She relates these difficult years to Mademoiselle’s decisions, character, and actions of later years, again without making any form of judgement. And she underlines how Coco’s keen intelligence and understanding of social circumstances in Europe and America translated into designing fashion that had an uncanny way of resonating with the public, contributing to her rise as a fashion icon.

There are, imbedded in Mademoiselle’s story, and brought forward by this memoir, a couple of lessons I felt important in light of the fashion industry’s current direction of creating “fast fashion.” The first is that fashion shouldn’t be about following trends, but making them, and making them based on need and reality. The second is that fashion should be embracing who we are, rather than hiding it. Mademoiselle’s iconic looks are related, either directly or not, to some of the experiences she had during her younger years. And a third lesson is that no one person should be labelled as any one thing. As Rhonda Garelick illustrates, Coco Chanel is much more than a mere fashion icon; in fact, she became a fashion icon because of all the other aspects of her personality.

Available at the end of the month, Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History offers a probing, well-researched, engaging, and insightful biography on this seemingly familiar but still mysterious figure.

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