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  • Rags to Riches: Four Biographies from the World of High Fashion
  • Kristine Somerville (bio)
Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life by Lisa Chaney. Penguin Books, 2011, 448 pp., $18 (paper).
Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography by Meryle Secrest. Alfred A. Knopf, 2014, 377 pp., $35 (hardcover).
Charles James: Portrait of an Unreasonable Man by Michèle Gerber Klein. Rizzoli Ex Libris, 2018, 254 pp., $37.50 (hardcover).
Alexander McQueen: Blood beneath the Skin by Andrew Wilson. Scribner, 2015, 367 pp., $18 (paper).

One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.

—Oscar Wilde

As a child, the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli thought she was ugly. In her memoir she wrote that she had “enormous eyes and looked half starved.” It didn’t help that she was often compared unfavorably to her beautiful mother and older sister. During a moment of inspiration, she decided to turn her face into a “heavenly garden.” She planted seeds in her ears, nose, and throat, but as she waited for flowers to sprout and adorn her face, she discovered that she couldn’t breathe. It took two doctors over seven hours to remove the seeds. The vision of young girls with faces obscured in flowers stuck with her as an image of self-transformation, and [End Page 186] years later, in her Paris salon windows, her mannequins often sported bouquets of flowers for heads. Alexander McQueen, as a young man from East London, felt equally self-conscious about his appearance. Inspired by Schiaparelli, he sometimes covered his runway models’ faces in blossoms and butterflies, creating a whimsical obfuscation.

The lives of the four fashion designers whose biographies are reviewed here are united by their tenacity, intelligence, and imagination, as well as their quests to reinvent themselves through fashion. Their stories are dark fairy tales, as each worked to metamorphose from a poor, unattractive outsider into a stylish, attractive fashion insider, only to discover later an underside in their extraordinary rags-to-riches life courses.


Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life
Lisa Chaney. Penguin Books, 2011, 448 pp., $18 (paper)

Lisa Chaney’s Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life uses newly discovered letters, archival material, and interviews with family and friends of Chanel’s lovers and fellow artists to revise the portrait of a narcissistic world-class couturier into a compassionate, humanized version of one of the greatest pioneers of modern womanhood. After a brief depiction of her rural peasant lineage in preindustrial France, Chaney begins Gabrielle Jeanne Chanel’s story with her birth in a charity hospital in 1883. Her parents, Jeanne and Albert, were impoverished seminomadic traders who sold haberdashery and domestic tools. Her father, a drinker and womanizer, was forced by the court to marry her mother and acknowledge paternity. Yet his wandering spirit was undeterred; he often left his wife and children in run-down accommodations. When Jeanne was struck down with asthma and bronchitis, she died unattended by a doctor in a garret at age thirty-one. “All too soon, I realized that life was a serious matter,” Chanel recalled.

Along with her two sisters, eleven-year-old Gabrielle was sent to a convent orphanage in Aubazine, where she was trained for six years in religion and domestic work. Rather than marry a village peasant, she moved to Moulins, where she first took a job as a seamstress and then became a performer in small-scale music halls. [End Page 187] While she didn’t have much of a voice, she was coquettish and witty. Her elfin beauty attracted a following of rich young officers who nicknamed her Coco for two songs in her repertoire: the verse of a revue called Ko Ko Ri Ko and the song “Who’s Seen Coco at the Trocadero?” After minor successes in Moulins, she moved to Vichy, one of the most fashionable spa towns in France. To Coco, the wealthy people who paraded the boulevard represented worldliness and sophistication. According to Chaney, she longed to conquer “the citadel of extravagance.” Chaney sees this moment as a turning point for Coco, who felt that “there exist in the world things that I should be that I am not.” Living in Vichy clarified that...


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pp. 186-197
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