“The Allure of Chanel”, an unfiltered biography

by Maje Pérez-Ramos

“Loneliness has formed my character, which is bad, hardened my heart, which is proud, and my body, which is resistant”.

“Was I really aware of the revolution I was about to bring in dress? Not at all. One world was ending, another was to be born. I was there; an opportunity was offered to me, I took it. (…) What was needed was simplicity, comfort, clarity: without knowing it, I offered all of those things.”

-Gabrielle Chanel

In this article we explore “The Allure of Chanel” (Hermann Editions, 1976), by Paul Morand. A curious and revealing book in which Gabrielle Chanel tells her own story, perhaps not the real one, but the one she wants to communicate. It is a work far away  from the current universe of the french maison. For any lover of the legendary figure of Gabrielle Chanel, which the eponymous brand has beautifully reworked and sold since her death in 1976, this book will come as a shock. Written in the first person, it shows us the person behind the myth,  her lights and shadows.

“The Allure of Chanel” was the result of a number of interviews the author had with Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel in Switzerland in 1946. It was a low point in her life: World War II was over and in Paris she was accused of collaborating with the Nazis during the occupation. In these conversations she  retaliates against her legend, remembers her lost world and her friends. Sometimes sincere, sometimes malignant, with half-concealed vanity, self-pity and drama, Mademoiselle Chanel reviews her life in a cathartic exercise of which Paul Morand is a mere chronicler.

“That torrential voice, rushing like lava, those phrases that crackled like dry branches, her retorts, a tone more and more peremptory as age softened her, a tone more and more responsive, more and more categorical; for entire nights  I had to listen to unappealable condemnations in that hotel in Saint-Moritz where I found her, during the winter of 1946, inactive, for the first time in disarray, biting her lips. She had voluntarily exiled herself to Egandine, hesitating to return to Rue Cambon, waiting for a stroke of luck. She felt trapped by the past (…), Verdurin of an age that took her by surprise, the time of De Gaulle; bile spilled out of her ever-bright eyes, under the arch of her eyebrows increasingly made up by the pencil, like basalt arches; Chanel, the Auvergne volcano that Paris wrongly believed extinguished”.

Morand, despite being a friend of hers (or perhaps because of it) chooses not to disguise the bitter personality Mademoiselle’s words reveal. It is clear that, like everyone else, Chanel was tormented by what people thought about her. When it suits her, she omits or skims over certain subjects. She denies, for example, two facts about her life that are part of her legend: that she grew up in an orphanage and that she was a singer in a cabaret. Instead, she describes in great detail her childhood in Auvergne with her aunts, who raised her when her mother died and her father emigrated to America, and from there she passes directly to her first romances.

What actually happened or not is irrelevant by now. What is interesting, though, is to compare the Gabrielle Chanel of this book, autobiographical in its aim, with the other Gabrielle, that idealised figure who to this day continues to inspire all the brand’s products, from Haute Couture to jewellery and make-up. Whatever they say today at Chanel, the woman who speaks here is a reader but not particularly cultivated, certainly not a feminist, and she seems to care very little about women’s rights. She was simply a woman of her time, but a tough, talented and independent one. Her much-applauded rebellion against the corset was not so much a feminist crusade as the revenge of the poor auvergne peasant girl, slender and strengthened by work, against the idle and plump ladies who concealed their greediness stuffing themselves inside a corset. With the turn of the century and the change of trends, she made them pay for their privileges: she took away their corsets to make them eat less and lose weight, she dressed them in humble fabrics, in black, without ornaments and, to top it all, she charged them a fortune for it.

Perhaps because of all this, Chanel uses this book with caution and doesn’t bring too much on it: too many mixed feelings, too many politically incorrect sentences. And yet it is more inspiring and authentic than all the brand’s recent advertising campaigns. It is comforting to see that, in order to change the world, you don’t have to be a heroine from a novel or a saint. All women can relate at some point to this Coco Chanel: sometimes good and sometimes not so good, clever and mean at the same time, first young and then old. A woman always fighting her demons and always moving forward. A real woman.

Find out more: The Allure of Chanel (Hermann Editions, 1976)

Image: Robert Doisneau, 1953.

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