Mademoiselle : Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History
by Rhonda K. Garelick

Certain lives are at once so exceptional, and yet so in step with their historical moments, that they illuminate cultural forces far beyond the scope of a single person. Such is the case with Coco Chanel, whose life offers one of the most fascinating tales of the twentieth century throwing into dramatic relief an era of war, fashion, ardent nationalism, and earth-shaking change here brilliantly treated, for the first time, with wide-ranging and incisive historical scrutiny.

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More About Mademoiselle by Rhonda K. Garelick
Certain lives are at once so exceptional, and yet so in step with their historical moments, that they illuminate cultural forces far beyond the scope of a single person. Such is the case with Coco Chanel, whose life offers one of the most fascinating tales of the twentieth century throwing into dramatic relief an era of war, fashion, ardent nationalism, and earth-shaking change here brilliantly treated, for the first time, with wide-ranging and incisive historical scrutiny.
Coco Chanel transformed forever the way women dressed. Her influence remains so pervasive that to this day we can see her afterimage a dozen times while just walking down a single street: in all the little black dresses, flat shoes, costume jewelry, cardigan sweaters, and tortoiseshell eyeglasses on women of every age and background. A bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume is sold every three seconds. Arguably, no other individual has had a deeper impact on the visual aesthetic of the world. But how did a poor orphan become a global icon of both luxury and everyday style? How did she develop such vast, undying influence? And what does our ongoing love of all things Chanel tell us about ourselves? These are the mysteries that Rhonda K. Garelick unravels in Mademoiselle.
Raised in rural poverty and orphaned early, the young Chanel supported herself as best she could. Then, as an uneducated nineteen-year-old cafe singer, she attracted the attention of a wealthy and powerful admirer and parlayed his support into her own hat design business. For the rest of Chanel s life, the professional, personal, and political were interwoven; her lovers included diplomat Boy Capel; composer Igor Stravinsky; Romanov heir Grand Duke Dmitri; Hugh Grosvenor, the Duke of Westminster; poet Pierre Reverdy; a Nazi officer; and several women as well. For all that, she was profoundly alone, her romantic life relentlessly plagued by abandonment and tragedy.
Chanel s ambitions and accomplishments were unparalleled. Her hat shop evolved into a clothing empire. She became a noted theatrical and film costume designer, collaborating with the likes of Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and Luchino Visconti. The genius of Coco Chanel, Garelick shows, lay in the way she absorbed the zeitgeist, reflecting it back to the world in her designs and in what Garelick calls wearable personality the irresistible and contagious style infused with both world history and Chanel s nearly unbelievable life saga. By age forty, Chanel had become a multimillionaire and a household name, and her Chanel Corporation is still the highest-earning privately owned luxury goods manufacturer in the world.
In Mademoiselle, Garelick delivers the most probing, well-researched, and insightful biography to date on this seemingly familiar but endlessly surprising figure a work that is truly both a heady intellectual study and a literary page-turner.
Praise for Mademoiselle

A detailed, wry and nuanced portrait of a complicated woman that leaves the reader in a state of utterly satisfying confusion blissfully mesmerized and confounded by the reality of the human spirit. The Washington Post
Writing an exhaustive biography of Chanel is a challenge comparable to racing a four-horse chariot. . . . This makes the assured confidence with which Garelick tells her story all the more remarkable. The New York Review of Books

Broadly focused and beautifully written. The Wall Street Journal

  • ISBN-13: 9781400069521
  • ISBN-10: 1400069521
  • Publisher: Random House
  • Publish Date: September 2014
  • Page Count: 576
  • Dimensions: 9.55 x 6.42 x 1.51 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.16 pounds

Related Categories

Books > Biography & Autobiography > Women
Books > > Fashion & Accessories
Books > History > Modern - 20th Century

Publishers Weekly Reviews

Publishers Weekly® Reviews

  • Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
  • Review Date: 2014-07-28
  • Reviewer: Staff

Iconic fashion designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883–1971) wanted to both hide her life story and to share it, a contradiction that confounded previous potential biographers. In this well-researched and buoyant biography, fashion writer Garelick’s stated goal is to analyze the “uncanny historical reach of Coco Chanel” and the ways in which Chanel’s constant reinvention provides a model for modern women. From Chanel’s childhood in the Loire Valley—characterized by illness, poverty and abandonment—to her infirm final years, when her closest companion was her butler, Francois Mironnet, Garelick (Rising Star) reveals the dramatic details that Chanel decided to publicly disclose and those facts she hid or embellished. While the book is even-handed in its critical, probing approach to Chanel’s life, its strongest chapter concerns its very core: the designer’s intimate relationship to fascism and fascists, such as writer, diplomat, and Vichy official Paul Morand, the German intelligence officer Hans Gunther von Dincklage, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Garelick deftly situates Chanel in political and cultural history; in addition, the book’s extensive archival sources and new interviews make it a valuable resource for scholars. Photos. Agent: Andrew Wylie, the Wylie Agency. (Sept.)

BookPage Reviews

The frivolous and the familiar

Though it evolves constantly, fashion would grow stagnant without personal flourishes like a favorite pair of lived-in jeans. “The best things in life are free,” Chanel famously said. “The second best are very expensive.”

Fashion can be considered trivial or superficial, and in many ways this is true. But at its best, fashion can incite, even disturb, the imagination. Between the pages of W magazine, with its commitment to pushing boundaries and fostering the art of long-form photography, it thrives. Editor-in-Chief Stefano Tonchi collects 10 of the magazine’s finest productions from the past two decades in W: Stories, allowing an unexpected peek behind these remarkable, avant-garde editorials with outtakes, inspiration boards and brief essays from photographers, designers and more. Steven Meisel’s first shoot with W raised questions of beauty and gender with aggressive, androgynous models sprawling up and down half-lit urban alleys. Actress Tilda Swinton recalls her and photographer Tim Walker’s pilgrimage to Iceland, where they shot alien, forbidding images that at times look like stills from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Photographer Alex Prager describes assembling a lovely and gloomy cast of characters to portray a Hitchcockian day at the races. This is fashion at its most provocative, a necessary book for minds that require a little disturbance.

Tilda Swinton in W magazine, August 2011. From W: Stories, reprinted with permission.

From fantasy we move to reality, and no book better captures the relationship between real women and their clothing than Women in Clothes. The truly stylish—or even those who have given the slightest thought to their style—aren’t taking their every cue from glossy magazine spreads, so editors Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton set out to discover just what women think about when they put themselves together. The result is a truly all-encompassing (but never overwhelming), contemporary “philosophy of style,” a collection of interviews and surveys of more than 600 artists, writers and other women. It’s like a massive conference call with all your friends and everyone else’s friends, too. As Heti writes, “The most compelling women are the ones who are distinctive, who are most like themselves and least like other women.” It’s nice to feel that your idiosyncracies and influences can be considered as important as good tailoring, and you may find yourself polling your friends, looking at other women differently or at least feeling a little better about owning 10 gray sweatshirts.

Or perhaps you have 12 pairs of red shoes or too many wrap dresses—no judgment either way. That being said, you’re likely to have one pair of red flats you love more than any other. Based on Emily Spivak’s blog of the same name, Worn Stories eschews the beautiful side of fashion for the pricelessness and singularity of that one favorite thing. More than 60 cultural figures and celebs, many of whom reside in New York, reveal their personal connections to just one item of clothing, from fashion designer and self-declared “total dork” Cynthia Rowley’s Girl Scout sash to John Hodgman’s Ayn Rand dress. One piece of clothing can tell quite a story, and this book is delightful proof of that.

Time and time again we return to Coco Chanel (1883-1971), the patron saint of classic, feminine style and a cultural force unlike any before or since. Though we recreate her image with our cardigans and taupe flats, biographers who have attempted to capture Chanel are more often than not thwarted by their own subject. Chanel notoriously tried to block anyone from writing her story and repeatedly obfuscated fact with fiction. According to Rhonda K. Garelick, author of Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History, the gaps in Chanel’s story are as essential to her persona as her stylistic revolution. So rather than “pinning down a ghost,” this new bio explores Chanel’s story (as we know it) in relationship to the vast theater of European history. Garelick—who was granted unrestricted access to the Chanel Archives in Paris and to the diaries of Chanel’s lover, Grand Duke Dmitri Romanov—has produced an epic, well-researched balance of historical resonance and breathless admiration.

Fashion on its grandest scale lies within the pages of Vogue and the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute. The Met’s Costume Institute (reopened this year as the Anna Wintour Costume Center) houses more than 35,000 costumes and accessories from the 15th century on, and has been funded since 1948 by the yearly Costume Institute Benefit, an evening of pretty people dressed in pretty things. This book looks back on the exhibitions and galas of the 21st century, beginning with 2001’s “Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years” and ending with the architectural feats of high-glamour ball gowns in 2014’s “Charles James: Beyond Fashion.” Featuring Vogue editorials and essays by Hamish Bowles, this is where art, fashion and history collide, where creativity meets—and manipulates—our culture. It might be frivolous, but it’s far from trivial.


This article was originally published in the November 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

BAM Customer Reviews