The Allure of Chanel

It has been six years, and yet I am still not fully recovered from reading the ending of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. I perhaps related a bit too strongly to his tale of Philip Carey, orphaned at a young age and set loose upon the world to make his mark. He wanders through London and Paris, trying to be practical by establishing a medical career, only to be distracted by the glimmering possibility of an artistic life and by an obsession for a woman who sets out to destroy him. He shakes it all off, he recovers his form, he starts to make headway on a life of passion — then he gives it all up to marry a kind, simple woman.

Maugham lost his nerve, despite spending the rest of his career crashing similarly ill-fit lovers into one another and watching the sparks turn into conflagration. He may have started out in Of Human Bondage writing with crushing accuracy about being raised by people who view you as a charity case, about the indignity of falling for someone unworthy of you, about the disappointment of seeing the reality of the world of artists you’ve dreamed about, but he couldn’t end the tale with the same unblinking apprehension. He had to imagine for Philip the steadiness promised by the family he had never had. Writers are drawn to orphans as characters, from Oliver Twist to Harry Potter, because, as Stefan Zweig once wrote, “Only those with no more ties can afford to cast consideration to the winds.” But liberation can often feel like chaos, and fitting a life like that into a novel-ready storyline can make a mess. Maugham’s own life as an orphan was full of adventure and travel and wild success, a rich, complicated life that was also full of despair and shame. As powerful and sharp of a writer as he was, he was afraid to depict the exhilarating and terrifying places you can go when you’ve no more ties. He followed Philip Carey only so far, then shunted him into a happy ending.

Maugham’s contemporary Coco Chanel, born only nine years after the novelist, lived the life he couldn’t write. Her childhood — she lost her mother at a young age and was soon after abandoned by her father — reads like Jane Eyre, the book that tells too much truth about the prospects of love for someone who grew up unexposed to such a thing: you don’t get the happy match of a Jane Austen novel, one that saves the day for all involved, you get the dude with a crazy lady locked up in the attic. Impetuous, motherless Jane, locked into a haunted room already painfully self-aware at the age of ten, takes full responsibility for being an outcast from the family that begrudgingly takes her in, calling herself “a heterogeneous thing, opposed to them in temperament, in capacity, in propensities; a useless thing, incapable of surviving their interest or adding to their pleasure; a noxious thing, cherishing the germs of indignation at their treatment.” Chanel, placed in the custody of abusive aunts and then later an orphanage, recalls to Paul Morand, “I was naughty, bad-tempered, thieving… a real Lucifer.” She was perhaps beaten — she alludes to the possibility — but calls them her “adorable aunts” and waves it off. “It is kisses, hugs, teachers and vitamins that kill children and prepare them for being weak or unhappy.”

Right now, Coco Chanel is having a moment. Amid the monthly festival of eating disorders that is Vogue magazine and the Devil Wears Prada and Karl Lagerfeld releasing $75 temporary tattoos in his reign at the House of Chanel, here comes the resurgence of practical, elegant Coco Chanel herself. Despite her having passed away almost forty years ago, a constellation of books and films have formed. The Shirley MacLaine made-for-television movie is perhaps better not spoken of. There is Audrey Tautou in Coco Before Chanel, a film so slavishly devoted to its subject we’re not allowed to see Chanel in despair, or a moment of weakness or grief. Her response to the death of the love of her life, Boy Capel, is reduced to a few seconds, followed by her instantaneous transformation into a world-renowned designer. No work required, apparently. In Chanel and Her World: Friends, Fashion and Fame, Edmonde Charles-Roux glides over some of the trickier parts of Chanel’s story, such as her living with a German soldier during the occupation of Paris, or the (very young) age at which she moved in with her lover. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s Chanel herself — stubborn, proud, caustic Chanel –who tells her barbed tale with the most honesty, to poet and novelist Paul Morand, in the volume recently reissued by Pushkin Press as The Allure of Chanel.

Raised in the French countryside, only to land in Vichy where she literally sang for her supper, she escaped poverty by moving in with her wealthy lover Etienne Balsan. A happy ending of sorts, even if it was only a start. The rich man might not marry her due to her unfortunate beginnings, but she had a comfortable life like the other irregulières — the poor women who shacked up with barons — in her social circle. It was as good as she could have expected. But the idleness irked her, and she thought the women in Balsan’s world ridiculous, their fashions moreso: the trains that trailed their dresses, raking up mud at the horse track; the boots that required devices to remove them worn even at the beach; the giant hats that caused headaches and neck pain — Chanel’s peasant, hard-scrabble upbringing had not prepared her to put up with such things. She rode horses (and not side-saddle), she swam, she played, and she laid in the sun. When she could not find clothes that suited her purposes, she rifled through her lover’s closet and wore his. She wanted to work. She tells Morand she could have worked at anything, it just happened that her style, her industry, and her modern sensibilities offered her a life in millinery, which grew over the years into a fashion empire.

It was freedom she was after, whether that be freedom to walk without being hindered by her clothing or freedom from the grind of poverty without being dependent on a man. She liberated women’s bodies, bodies that had been “whaleboned, corseted, sheathed and hatted,” as Charles-Roux puts it. She equated elegant with simple and used comfortable fabrics and natural shapes. Always irascible, she accused the couturiers of being “leaders of decadence, they are the microbes of this gorgeous epidemic, the instigators of truly slanderous hats, the lauders of unwearable dresses, the long-winded and deceitful critics of stiletto heels…” It would be easy to make it sound as if she did this in the cause of womankind, but in truth she was bored and irritated by women, calling very few of them her friends. She saw them willfully participating in their own subjugation, wearing the “meringues” on top of their heads and strapping themselves into corsets just as they tied themselves to men who abused or neglected them.

The Allure of Chanel opens with Chanel revealing that she is “alone” — alone from marriage, from children, from any obligation that would keep her from her beloved work. In an unguarded moment at the end of her life, she tells Charles-Roux that she “had only modest aspirations, wanting true love, to be chosen, preferred, and that the choice be for always.” Had she found herself in the quiet domestic scene, it might have seemed a little flat compared to the life she actually lived — one with wealth and fame, lovers including the Duke of Westminster and Igor Stravinsky, friends like Picasso, Dali, and Diaghilev. Such trade offs are easier in fiction, perhaps: Harry Potter saves the world and then settles down with his high school sweetheart; Jane marries Rochester, who has ditched the crazy lady but is blind in one eye now and missing a hand. But I still want to reread Of Human Bondage and find Philip has left Sally, taken a boat to Bora Bora, and set up a medical clinic that might change the world. There are compensations for a difficult life, after all. Or there can be, if you have the courage to follow it through.

Jessa Cripin is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of