Book Review: The Gospel according to Coco Chanel
Prior to the advent of Coco Chanel, women wore floor-length gowns that practically screamed opulence and over-the-top decadence. Women’s bodies were draped in fabrics ranging from chiffon to velvet taffeta, and padded with cloth, girdles, and corsets that all but suffocated their wearers to death. With the arrival of Coco Chanel, however, all of this changed. Chanel’s clothes liberated the female body, allowing women to wear clothes that were chic; flawlessly tailored, yet deceptively simple.
Over the course of her lifetime, Chanel inspired a wealth of trends, ranging from faux pearl necklaces to tweed jackets to jersey sweaters. She singlehandedly changed the face of women’s fashion, all while courting some of the most illustrious men in history. Her fearlessness, inner strength, and confidence, however, are what has made her legacy one of the most fascinating stories in the world. Karen Karbo highlights this point repeatedly in her book, The Gospel According to Coco Chanel.
Karen Karbo’s writing radiates energy, wit, and humor, and readers would be hard-pressed to find even one section in the book that does not reflect her personal enthusiasm for the legend that is Chanel. The structure of the novel is quite simple. Karbo divides her book into chapters that each tell a story from Chanel’s life, while offering advice to readers on what they can take away from each account.
For instance, in chapter 7 of the book, Karbo retells the story of Chanel’s rivalry with Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli. Schiaparelli, the inventor of such creations as the Lobster Dress (a white silk evening gown featuring a large red hand-painted lobster) and the Shoe Hat (literally an upside down women’s shoe with the heel pointing upward), essentially stole all of Chanel’s customers at the height of her influence. According to Karbo, Chanel never once publicly recognized the rivalry. Instead, the French designer quietly closed down the House of Chanel, lying in wait for Schiaparelli’s ridiculous designs to go out of style before she made her comeback.
The lesson to be learned from Chanel’s actions? Karbo cites one of Chanel’s most well known quotes in an effort to make her point. She writes, “All the best Chanel maxims are slightly opaque, koan-like. Perhaps her most famous one is ‘Elegance is refusal,’ which can mean any number of things, from refusing melted butter on your popcorn to refusing to pay too much attention – or any attention – to your rival.”
Karbo’s book gives readers the chance to learn not only from Chanel’s triumphs but from her mistakes as well. Among the many affairs that Chanel had, one of her more unfortunate relationships was allegedly with Nazi officer Hans Gunther von Dincklage. During the Nazi occupation in France, Chanel was rumored to have come to an understanding with the Germans, a scandal that would soil both her career and reputation as a designer. Following the liberation of France, Chanel was arrested and brought to trial, though she was released shortly afterwards when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill intervened on her behalf. Even after she was let go, Chanel knew her life was still in danger, so she fled for years to Switzerland and returned to France in 1953, at the time when Christian Dior debuted what he called “The New Look.”
Even though Karbo does not say this explicitly, I believe the lesson to be learned from Chanel’s departure for Switzerland is knowing what to do when one is beaten. Chanel may not have publicly admitted her mistake, but her actions spoke for themselves. As in the case of Elsa Schiaparelli, Chanel knew that timing is everything and that her patience would be rewarded. In Switzerland, Chanel amused herself with fashion magazines and lived knowing that her legacy survived on a single perfume bottle: No. 5.
Interwoven into the text of Chanel’s life and success is Karbo’s own journey: to buy a genuine piece of Chanel couture. Her endeavors take her from eBay to Paris, France, where she comes to the rather illuminating conclusion that she does not have to buy Chanel in order to wear Chanel. Karbo then sets off to create her own Chanel jacket, an attempt that certainly bears witness to her love of Chanel’s self-made success and fearlessness.
Yet another point that Karbo makes in her book is worth remembering, or at the very least considering. This lesson, however controversial, is one that she backs up with evidence from Chanel’s life; no one, not even Coco Chanel, can have it all. Chanel might have experienced love in her life, but she never married or had children. Chanel knew what she wanted most from life, and she knew how to make it her priority. She chose to turn down countless marriage proposals from rich and famous men who offered her a world of wealth and comfort, and in doing so, she refused to trade her passion and independence for a domestic life she knew she could not lead. When asked why she had rejected the Duke of Westminster’s proposal, Chanel simply replied, “There have been several Duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Chanel.”