The name Chanel brings immediately to mind the signature scent of No. 5 and the understated but sophisticated glamour of a simple black dress and pearls. But to label Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel (1883-1971) solely as a fashion designer is to overlook her social and cultural significance. Chanel was an iconoclastic entrepreneur, who rebelled against and manipulated gender expectations of her time. With her menswear-inspired designs, her loose jersey sweaters and her svelte, unadorned gowns, she changed the female silhouettes and became known as a champion of women’s freedom. From 1913, when she first opened a hat shop in the holiday resort of Deauville, until her death in 1971, Chanel sold more than just fashion – she sold a myth that became as attractive to many women as her coveted outfits, accessories and perfumes. Linda Simon here teases apart the myth that Chanel and her adoring public collaborated to create, and explores its contradictions – Chanel was a self-proclaimed recluse who emerged as one of the most spectacular personalities of her time; she was a brilliant businesswoman who signed away 90 per cent of her company; a genius who claimed she was nothing more than an artisan. Simon examines the world both reflected and shaped by Chanel, setting her life and work within the context of events in France and America from before the First World War to the profound social changes of the 1960s. Simon’s lively book is a clear-eyed perspective on a woman whose influence and legend transcend the world of fashion. (Backcover text)
Linda Simon is Professor Emerita of English at Skidmore College, New York. She is the author of Genuine Reality: A Life of William James (1998), Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety from the Telegraph to the X-Ray (2004) and The Greatest Shows on Earth: A History of the Circus (Reaktion, 2014).