Jacqueline Kennedy was wearing a Chanel suit on the day her husband was assassinated. Marilyn Monroe famously adopted Chanel No. 5 as her scent. Even earlier, Hollywood clamored for Chanel to design its productions. Producer Samuel Goldwyn tried several times (unsuccessfully) to secure her cooperation for a biopic. Finally, Katharine Hepburn brought her to the stage in the musical "Coco."
To say that Coco Chanel (1883-1971) brought fashion into the 20th century is no exaggeration. She had the figure of a gamine and turned the 19th-century world of bustles and corsets into a streamlined outfit that millions of women wore with pleasure and ease. Chanel invented the little black dress and its infinite variations. She became iconic because she designed clothes — and so much else — for herself, and in the process made women wish to be similarly equipped.
One reason for Chanel's success ran counter to what most of her rivals in the fashion industry considered axiomatic: A designer's clothes ought to be unique and zealously protected from knockoff artists. Chanel alone realized that she would command the market and become wealthy by doing the opposite, allowing all kinds of manufacturers to replicate her style. The closer these imitators came to genuine Chanel, the more her own brand prospered, making her a very wealthy woman.
Rhonda Garelick takes her place in a long line of biographers who have told the Chanel story. What is so satisfying about Garelick's book is that she acknowledges her predecessors and works their discoveries into her own narrative, demonstrating how over time biographies accrue in value. At the same time, she provides fresh interviews with Chanel's friends and co-workers. Especially noteworthy is Garelick's lucid explanation of Chanel's involvement with the Nazis in German-occupied Paris. Chanel was no dupe. As someone attracted to power and uniforms and to claims of superiority, she welcomed Nazi hegemony. And her hold — not only on French fashion, but on the modern imagination — was so profound, she never apologized and never suffered the kind of collaborationist opprobrium that dogged other artists such as filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl.
Even though Chanel — born in rural poverty and the product of a broken family — designed clothes for a democratic, mass-produced world, she was at heart a royalist, Garelick reveals. Chanel treated her own employees like serfs and committed them to a totalitarian regime that conceded nothing to the rights of workers. And yet, as Garelick also shows, Chanel's influence on the democratic understanding of style — that it can be the possession of millions — remains an enduring part of her legacy.
Carl Rollyson is the author, most recently, of "American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath."