The Collection: A Novel

The Collection: A Novel

by Gioia Diliberto

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Isabelle Varlet, charming and naïve, comes from a long line of seamstresses in a small town in France. A series of unfortunate events and her prodigious sartorial talent carry her to Paris, which in the wake of World War I is electric with new life. When Isabelle takes a job in the atelier of Coco Chanel, the rising star of haute couture, she finds herself in the heart of a glamorous and ruthless world filled with arrogant designers, handsome men, beautiful women, and fashion thieves who prowl Paris hoping to steal designs before they hit the runway.

In Chanel's workshop, Isabelle thrives on the time-honored techniques of couture -- the pains-taking hand stitches, the perfect fall of fabric -- and the sleek, pared-down lines of "Mademoiselle's" revolutionary style. As Isabelle brings an exquisite dress to life for the fall collection -- from its embryonic origins in humble muslin to its finished form in the finest silk -- she navigates the tempestuous moods of Chanel, the cutthroat antics of her fellow workers, and her own search for love.

Just as she did in her critically acclaimed novel I Am Madame X, Gioia Diliberto brings a rich historical moment to life through her vivid and compelling storytelling. Her penetrating research and imagination are gracefully woven together in this poignant story filled with larger-than-life characters embroiled in scandalous tales, passionate love affairs, and extraordinary careers. The Collection is an exuberantly entertaining read.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416546245
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 09/11/2007
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 337 KB

About the Author

Gioia Diliberto has written biographies of Jane Addams, Hadley Hemingway, and Brenda Frazier, as well as the critically acclaimed novels I Am Madame X and The Collection. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family.


Chicago, Illinois

Date of Birth:

June 7, 1950

Place of Birth:

Washington, D.C.


B.A., DePauw University, 1972; M.A., University of Maryland, 1974

Read an Excerpt

The Collection
A Novel

By Gioia Diliberto
Copyright © 2008 Gioia Diliberto
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780743280662


Instead of dying, I learned to sew.

I was nine, ill with my first bout of consumption, and the nuns at Saint Foy, the convent school in Agen, where I'd lived for a year, had sent me home with a high fever and a horrific cough, not expecting me to return. For two months I lay in bed while my grandmother cared for me. Despite her ministrations, I grew steadily thinner and weaker, until one day she placed on my quilt a stack of white silk squares and a pincushion spiked with a threaded needle. "Here, dear, let me show you," she said, lifting my limp body from the pillows. Holding me upright, she supported the needle in my fingers and guided it through the silk. Over the next weeks, as she taught me how to baste and overcast, how to turn hems and cut bias strips for binding, and how to patch holes, my fever and cough subsided, and my strength returned. I sewed my initials, IV, in the bottom right-hand corner of each square, and my grandmother tacked them to the walls -- monuments of my survival. Determination was in the stitches and also hope. I still feel the bloom of possibility when I put needle and thread to silk.

Another grandmother would have given a sick girl a new doll or a kitten. But I come from a longline of seamstresses for whom stitching is the same as breathing. My namesake, the first Isabelle Varlet, worked at the court of Louis XVI, and, according to family lore, was imprisoned with Marie Antoinette in the Tuileries. I have a gold locket, dulled with age, that belonged to this Isabelle. Inside is an oil miniature of a lovely young girl whose fine straight hair is the same reddish-gold color as mine.

In those years before the first great war, my grandmother and I lived in a two-story cottage on a hill overlooking the road to Timbaut, a little medieval village a mile outside Agen. Our house had an attic and a wine cellar, shuttered windows, a giant oak in front and a vegetable garden in back. Chickens scratched in the yard, where a little goat tethered to the fence gave us milk each morning. Beyond, lay undulating fields of sunflowers and purple heather starred with marguerites. I lacked only parents.

My father, who made hats at a factory in Agen, suffered a heart attack several months before I was born, the event that cost my mother her life. Neither of my parents had siblings. My grandmother, though, had three sisters with whom she once owned a dressmaking shop. They were old ladies by the time I came along, and I never saw them in anything but heavy black dresses. Every day at four, the aunts came to our house for tea, drenched in black, their faces covered by black veils trailing the floor, and carrying little round hat boxes. When they stepped inside, they removed their veils and pinned black caps to their white hair. I asked them once why they dressed like death, and one of them answered, "So everyone will know we are widows!" It was their proudest accomplishment.

After my recovery, my grandmother, in consultation with the aunts, decided to tutor me at home rather than return me to Saint Foy. Over the course of the next eight years, I suffered repeated relapses and was confined for long periods to bed. My grandmother and the aunts worried and hovered over me; my every cough and sniffle sparked grave concern. Because they feared they could lose me at any time, they indulged my smallest whim, and I grew up convinced that life would give me what I asked of it.

My favorite pastime was drawing fashion sketches, inspired by illustrations in the Parisian magazines my grandmother collected. I occupied hours copying clothes from the glossy pages into my sketchbook and then inventing outfits to wear while playing dress-up. For fabric, I used scraps of serge, wool, bombazine, and cotton twill, remnants from my grandmother's shop that I kept in a large box on top of my wardrobe. Most of the pieces were musty and stained, but the box held a few treasures: a square of lush black velvet, some pink organdy, a triangle of beaded white satin, and a baguette-sized strip of mink. I often spread these gems across my bed to examine them, imagining that some day, when I was older and lived in Paris, I would incorporate them into a grown-up gown.

In the August of my tenth year, my grandmother would not let me outside due to a typhoid epidemic that had swept through our region with a wave of severe heat. I couldn't swim in the lake or go to the village to join the other children for games under the thatched roof of the old stone marché. I couldn't even go to church. One morning, I pulled out my fabric remnants and began piecing them together, carefully stitching them into a child-sized dress.

Beyond my window, the fields burned, and the sky was white and empty. Cows herded themselves under trees and dogs hid below porches. The whole world seemed to stop moving, and every day was like every other. All I had for company were my grandmother, the aunts, and Jacques Beloit, whose parents owned the patisserie in Agen and who lived up the road. Jacques was a year younger than me, a small, serious boy who often arrived at teatime with treats from his parents' shop.

On the day I squandered my fabric treasures, my grandmother and the aunts went to a funeral for one of their elderly cousins. At four o'clock I heard the door open and close and voices in the front of the house. One of them was Jacques' squeaky soprano. I thought I heard him say something about lemon tarts, a favorite of mine, so I slipped into my gown.

It had a long skirt of gray cotton that I'd taken from an old dress of my grandmother's. I used the black velvet for a bodice and the pink organdy for puffy sleeves. The triangle of white satin fit nicely into the neckline, and the strip of mink made a perfect collar.

I twirled into the parlor. Jacques was sitting on an armchair near the fireplace, munching a lemon tart and swinging his skinny white legs with the scabby knees that looked like burnt toast. He was still too young for long pants, but his wetted-down black hair, severely parted on the right, and his thick spectacles gave him the air of a little man.

I ignored him and glided over to the sofa where the aunts were perched like three blackbirds. The twins, Aunts Hélène and Marie, wore ordinary mourning, but Aunt Virginie, the eldest and wealthiest sister, sat between them in her flashiest black satin gown with the broad weepers' cuffs. Jet chandeliers hung from her ears to her collarbones; ropes of jet glittered around her neck. "It is 1868, and I am lady-in-waiting to Empress Eugénie," I announced in a grand tone.

The aunts were busy arguing, and they didn't notice me. Aunt Hélène rattled her teacup and glared at Aunt Virginie. "You needn't have piled on the mourning," she said. "Cousin Caterine was a silly little nobody."

"You just want an excuse to wear your jet earrings and necklaces," added Aunt Marie.

Aunt Virginie sat erect and unsmiling and looked down her nose at her sisters. "I can wear my jet jewelry whenever I want," she said. "I am always in high mourning for my Henri."

Henri, her husband, had been dead for decades. A prosperous doctor, he built the spacious stone house where she lived now with Aunts Hélène and Marie. Their husbands, mere barbers, also had been dead for years.

"You shouldn't drag them out for Caterine then," hissed Aunt Hélène. "It makes us look bad."

"It's not my fault your husbands couldn't afford to buy good jewelry," said Aunt Virginie.

I pirouetted dramatically. "I'm going to a ball tonight, and this is what I'll wear."

They ignored me still. "My carriage will be here soon. If you want to see my dress, you have to look now!"

Finally, the aunts laid down their teacups and considered me. No one said anything for the longest time. Then Aunt Virginie spoke. "Isabelle, ma chère, you must have been having a nightmare when you thought that up. It is not at all becoming."

"Not at all becoming," echoed Jacques. "Why don't you wear your burgundy velvet? You look pretty in that."

"What do you know about dresses?" I said, glaring at him. Then, turning my gaze to the aunts, "I copied this gown from Les Élégances Parisiennes. I can show you the picture."

"I don't care where you copied it from," said Aunt Virginie. "It's a mess."

Just then my grandmother entered the parlor carrying a fresh pot of tea. She was a small, fine-boned woman with kind hazel eyes and a pink, finely lined face. Her cottony hair was arranged in a neat chignon, and she wore a blue flowered apron over her unadorned black dress. Her husband had been a carpenter, and he couldn't afford fancy jewelry either. "I think it's lovely, Isabelle," she said. "You have a real flair with your needle."

Aunt Virginie shot her an exasperated look. "Don't lie to the child, Berthe. Do you want her to learn about elegance or not?"

"She has plenty of time to learn about elegance. She's not in Paris yet," said my grandmother.

"I've been to Paris!" cried Jacques.

I whipped around. "I don't care!"

Jacques swallowed the last bite of his lemon tart and pushed his glasses in place with a small sticky hand. "Maybe you can come with us the next time."

"Maybe you can go home," I said coldly.

"Isabelle! That's no way to talk," said my grandmother. "I want you to apologize to Jacques."

He looked at me with a hurt expression and waited. But I couldn't apologize.

I fled to my bedroom on the second floor. It was furnished simply with blue cotton curtains, a desk, a chair, a small bookcase, and a wood bureau painted white. Over the iron bed, a Victorian artist's idea of Jesus, handsome and blue-eyed with flowing brown hair, gazed heavenward, and, above it, a plaster crucifix. I said my prayers here every night, watched by my grandmother.

I took my best doll from the bureau and sat with her on the bed. She was made by Jumeau, the most prestigious doll company in France, so I called her Mademoiselle Jumeau. She had large blue eyes and slightly parted pink lips painted on a porcelain face. Her abundant blond hair was arranged in a towering pouf. Mademoiselle Jumeau had arrived on Christmas morning the previous year dressed like a princess in a décolleté white gown with an échelle of perky bows on the bodice and a billowing satin skirt. Gold high-heeled slippers glittered on her dainty feet, a purple ostrich plume frothed from her wide brimmed hat, and she carried a little beaded purse. But what delighted me most was her full set of undergarments: camisole, corset, chemise, pantaloons, tulle petticoats, stockings, and garters, all trimmed with pink ribbons and white lace.

I'd sat on the floor by the Christmas tree, dazed with happiness, absorbing the beauty of the doll, feeling it seep into my marrow, giving me strength. Whenever I was ill or sad, it made me feel better to hold Mademoiselle Jumeau and conjure up her charmed life of parties, opera performances, grand houses, and carriage rides in the Bois de Boulogne.

Now, I took off my play gown and changed into an old brown cotton dress. Then I sat on my bed with Mademoiselle Jumeau. I was in the middle of fantasizing about riding with her in a gold-and-glass landau on the way to a ball, when there was a soft knock on the door. I opened it, and there stood Jacques.

"Let's play something," he said.

I left Jacques in the doorway and flopped on my bed. "I thought you were going home."

"Your grandmother said I could stay." Jacques stepped into the room. "What do you want to do?"

"I don't know," I said. "Make a new dress for Mademoiselle Jumeau, I guess. Do you want to help?"

"Sewing is for girls." Jacques took a volume of fairy tales from my bookcase and sat on the hooked rug in front of my bed with crossed legs.

"Then you can just sit there and look stupid, you stupid boy."

"You're stupid," said Jacques.

I took the unbecoming play dress out of my wardrobe and began undoing the seams with a pair of scissors that had belonged to my father. My grandmother said that each time the scissors clicked my father smiled down at me from heaven, and as I worked, I felt bolstered by this unseen love. When I'd finished, I stripped Mademoiselle Jumeau to her camisole and pantaloons. Then I fitted the piece of beaded white satin around her waist, pinning it into a skirt. Next, I cut a piece of the black velvet to make a bodice, keeping the rest for a cape, which I trimmed in mink.

An hour went by. When I'd completed the gown and had it on Mademoiselle Jumeau, I showed it to Jacques. "Isn't she pretty?"

He studied her for a moment, then looked at me with a wondering expression. "She looks just like you," he said.

Two weeks later, the heat broke. A driving rain pounded the village, and the days turned gray and cool, killing the germs that hid in the trees, or so my grandmother said. It was safe now for me to go outside, and my first excursion was to Sunday mass. "I'm so happy to see you, Isabelle. It's been a while," said the gentle old priest, as he greeted me after the service.

I'd brought Mademoiselle Jumeau and held her up for the priest to admire. "We've been cooped up for weeks, and we're very happy to be out," I said.

I followed my grandmother and the aunts down the stone steps of the church and across the village square to a small shaded park. My relatives settled on benches to gossip with their friends, and I wandered to the old thatched-roof marché where two teams of children, separated by a white chalk line, were about to start a game of prisoners' base.

My eyes were drawn to the handsome boy standing in the square at the marché's far end. All sinewy legs and arms, summer freckles in a riot on his face, he looked to be about twelve and had wavy auburn hair and pale, even features. He stood absolutely still as a whistle pierced the air, followed by shouts and the scrape of leather shoes on stone. It took only a few minutes for one of his teammates to scramble through the crowd to him. Then, with a swiftness that startled me, he ran to his team with fists shot triumphantly in the air.

Suddenly, on the sidelines a beautiful little girl appeared in a white organdy frock with a blue moiré sash tied around her waist. A smaller ribbon the same color was tied in her curly dark hair. The boy called to her, inviting her into the game. She hesitated a moment, then darted in, taking her place beside him. The sun bounced around them as they ran, filling their hair with light and bleaching out the boy's freckles. I felt a stab of jealousy and hung back.

"Why don't you play with them?" said a voice behind me.

I turned around to face a tall, slender man with a black mustache and thick gray hair. "My dress is ugly," I said, pointing my chin toward the beautiful girl. "It is not as pretty as her dress."

The man laughed. "That is, indeed, a very pretty dress," he said finally. "But it is a city dress. It is not for the country. She is wicked to show off by wearing it here and making you feel badly."

I thought I wouldn't mind being wicked if I could have such a dress.

The following Sunday, I convinced my grandmother to let me wear my best dress -- a burgundy velvet with a crocheted white collar. After mass, I went to the marché to look for the handsome boy and was pleased to see him. A game of prisoners' base was under way, and I prayed to God that the boy would notice me, just see me. A minute later, he ran up to me. "My team is short one," he said. "Do you want to play?"

Carefully, I stood Mademoiselle Jumeau against a stone post and followed the boy into the game. I got only halfway across our court, when a child from the other team tagged me. "Don't worry, you'll do better next time," called the boy from the far end of the marché.

That afternoon at tea, Jacques announced, "Isabelle is in love."

"I am not!" I cried.

"Love is for grown-ups," said my grandmother, as she stirred a cube of sugar into her tea.

"She's in love with the tall boy with freckles," said Jacques. He held his pain au chocolat with both hands and took a large bite.

"That's Daniel Blank. Madame Duval's nephew. He lives in Paris and is staying with her for the summer," said Aunt Virginie. Then, turning to me, "I don't blame you, Isabelle. He's a very handsome boy."

At the mention of the boy's name, my face turned scarlet. "I'm not in love with anybody."

But I lived for Sundays. During our games, when I thought Daniel wasn't looking, I stole glances at him, my heart swelling at the sight of his narrow, fine-boned face. I loved the lock of auburn hair that flopped across his forehead and how he pushed it aside with the back of his hand. He was a head taller than the tallest of the village children and their natural leader. He dominated our games with his quick, graceful footwork, but Jacques and the other boys didn't seem to resent him. He never made them feel inferior. In addition to being the handsomest boy in the world, he also was the kindest.

I decided to sew him a shirt. I found two yards of blue calico in a trunk in the attic and made a pattern based on an old shirt of my grandfather's. I fit it on Jacques, though allowing for Daniel's larger proportions. I told Jacques that Daniel, admiring the dress I'd made for Mademoiselle Jumeau, had asked me to make it, but that it was a secret. No one was supposed to know, especially my grandmother and the aunts. "You never made me a shirt," said Jacques. His eyes were big and moist behind his glasses.

"You're only nine," I said.

"I'd still like a new shirt."

"When you're older."

I worked on Daniel's shirt for a week, and when I finished, I spent another week worrying about how to give it to him. I decided the only way was for Jacques to wear it to church and afterward take it off and present it to Daniel in the marché.

"What am I supposed to tell him?" asked Jacques.

"You don't have to tell him anything," I said. "I'll write a note and pin it to the sleeve."

I agonized over the note for hours. Finally, I wrote simply, "Please accept this gift from the needle of Isabelle Varlet."

I gave the shirt to Jacques on Saturday. He told his mother that I had made it for him (even though it was several sizes too big) and that he had promised me he'd wear it to church, that it would break my heart if he didn't.

On Sunday I awoke with a foggy head and scratchy throat, but I said nothing. If my grandmother thought I was coming down with something, she never would have let me out of the house.

In church, I was relieved to see the blue calico peeking from Jacques' brown serge jacket, and after the service, he ducked behind a tree to remove Daniel's shirt. Children ran about the marché, shouting and squealing. Fall was in the air, and leaves blew across the ground with pebbles and wads of debris. My eyes darted around for Daniel, but he was nowhere in sight. "He's not here!" I moaned, flopping onto the cold stone.

Jacques dropped down next to me. "What do we do now?" he asked.

"Wait. Maybe he'll show up."

"He's probably gone back to Paris."

I was contemplating this dreadful thought, when I felt a presence behind us. Madame Beloit, Jacques' mother. "Why did you take off your shirt? You'll catch your death," she scolded.

I started to cough, first quietly, then with great convulsive hacks. "Look, Isabelle is sick already," Madame Beloit said. "You foolish, foolish children."

Madame Beloit ran off to fetch my grandmother and the aunts, who put me to bed as soon as we reached home. I slept for a long time, and it was only when I awoke and reached for Mademoiselle Jumeau that I realized I'd left her behind in the marché.

Jacques went back for her the next day, but all he found was Mademoiselle Jumeau's battered wood body. She looked like the victim of a toy guillotine. In addition to her beautiful porcelain head, her dress and shoes were missing, and mud smeared her undergarments. "I looked everywhere for the head," said Jacques. "A dog probably chewed it off."

Immediately, my grandmother sent away to Paris for a new Jumeau doll. I didn't forget about the first one, though, and when I was feeling better, we had a funeral for her. I sewed a simple shroud for the body and used the blue silk-lined box she'd come in as a coffin. Jacques dug a hole under the oak in the front yard, and the aunts arrived for the ceremony huddled in mourning coats against the fall chill. Aunt Virginie had draped fox pieces over her shoulders and also donned her best jewelry. My grandmother read from the Bible, and we all sang "Heart of Jesus, Meek and Mild," as Jacques laid the coffin in the ground and shoveled dirt over it.

The late afternoon had arrived, throwing long gray shadows across the yard. Aunt Hélène had scowled at Aunt Virginie's furs and jet jewelry throughout the service, and as we walked back to the house, she said, "It is one thing to pile on the mourning for cousin Caterine, and quite another to do it for a doll."

After that summer, Jacques started boarding school in Bordeaux. For a while I saw him when he came home on holidays, but as the years passed, he visited me less and less. During the rest of my time in Timbaut, I never saw Daniel again, though I got to know his aunt, a tall, efficient dressmaker named Marie-France Duval. When I was seventeen my grandmother sent me to Agen to become her apprentice, and it is because of her I have a story to tell.

Copyright © 2007 by Gioia Diliberto


Excerpted from The Collection by Gioia Diliberto Copyright © 2008 by Gioia Diliberto. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions
1. "I wasn't prepared to enter a world that operated on a hierarchy as rigid as the Catholic Church. If Mademoiselle was the pope, the vendeuses were the cardinals; the premières and secondes, the bishops; the mains, the priests; the arpètes, the acolytes" (page 27). Discuss the importance of hierarchy, both to the House of Chanel and to the plot of the novel.
2. Do you think Isabelle belonged in the world of haute couture or do you think she was too provincial for such a cutthroat industry? What similarities did her life have to that of Chanel?
3. "What had started out as a symbol of grief was evolving into the postwar standard of elegance" (page 38). What else does black symbolize in The Collection? Where are there great splashes of color in this novel?
4. Why do you think "seamstresses are obsessed with marriage" (page 68)? How did Isabelle reflect or reject this stereotype? Did the characters of Jacques and Daniel help to influence or limit Isabelle's independence?
5. What single item of her mother's did Isabelle possess? How was it significant to Isabelle's craft and success?
6. "Often, when I sewed, I would slip into a meditative state, almost as if I'd become one with the fabric and thread. At these times, I felt a kind of release that was almost like happiness" (page 131). Is sewing an escape for Isabelle? Or is it a trap that keeps her within a certain class level?
7. "You can have too much of anything, even happiness" (page 134). What does Mademoiselle have too much of in this book? Do you think this novel is a fair representation of Chanel? Why or why not?
8. "I forced myself to think not of what was happening, but instead of Angeline" (page 231). What did Angeline represent to Isabelle?
9. Discuss the themes of The Collection — female strength and independence, simplicity creating sophistication, ugliness draped in beauty.
10. "I had taken a bold step tonight and more bold steps would be needed if I was to move away from darkness" (page 256). What bold steps did Isabelle take in this novel? What other bold steps did you want her to take? Were you satisfied with the outcomes in her personal and professional lives?
Reader Tips
So, sew!Join a sewing circle or take a sewing class.
Surf coutureView the Metropolitan Museum of Art's 2005 Chanel exhibit online at
Locate AngelineFind the missing picture from the 1919 Vogue article on page 267: "Great success has attended the absolutely simple model of burgundy crepe de chine sketched at the left on page 56."
Quote Quiz: Which character in the book said,
"Elegance means something is as perfect on the wrong side as on the right." (Answer on page 31.)
"It is not healthy to be only with women, to have no life outside of work..." (Answer on page 70.)
"Everyone's a survivor of something." (Answer on page 94.)
"Style is French, just like painting is French." (Answer on page 161.)
"When the fashion history books are written, Mademoiselle will be a footnote. She doesn't even know how to sew." (Answer on page 168.)
"It's the Americans who are desperate for French couture." (Answer on page 216.)
"It might cost a guy three hundred francs to feed himself and his lady, but she's gotta put out a fortune just to get dressed." (Answer on page 221.)
"It's only a dress; it's not your life." (Answer on page 247.)
To learn more about the book, visit the author at

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