Skeptical Reflections on History occasioned by my reading of
Famous Fashion Designers: Coco Chanel (2011), by Dennis Abrams
Having recently viewed three feature-length films about Coco Chanel, all of which emerged around 2009-—Coco before Chanel, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, and Coco Chanel-—I decided that it might be nice to read a book about her, given that the sum total of my knowledge of the topic was exhausted by the information relayed in those films.
Little did I know that there are hundreds of books about Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. Most of them are thick tomes with lengthy bibliographies many of the entries of which are earlier biographies of Chanel, and all of the hefty biographies which I took a look at (but did not read) repeatedly cited texts from previous biographies. The history of Coco Chanel has become a veritable industry with scholars writing new biographies presumably to supersede previous biographies, when in fact the primary source of most of the information revealed in any of the books is also previous books.
That is the nature of historical research, of course, which for that very reason has never appealed to me. I am happy that other people are willing to mine through mountains of earlier historians' books to try to figure out what is true and what is false about what has already been said, but I am far too much of a skeptic to be able dedicate my life to that sort of task. Attempting to discern the false from the true in the interpretations of previous historians about important persons and events strikes me as otiose at best. What are the criteria applied? Are not historians often seduced by interpretations which have been artfully designed?
How can a person write a book today about someone who died more than forty years ago? Well, by studying all of the already existent books and attempting to find a “new” angle. Or by locating previously unknown sources of information, in newly discovered letters or documents, or in archives not already mined. To be honest, I have never really understood how people get grants for historical research in archives. I realize that some of them are looking to answer a specific question, but the notion that there is something in an archive to be found, precisely the information needed to answer one's research question, seems tendentious, at best. It also supposes that previous treatments of the topic were inadequate, and the only grounds I've been able to come up with for believing such a thing, in a general way, as the basis of a profession, seem quite pragmatic to me. Burgeoning historians wish to secure positions, and once in academia, they wish to remain gainfully employed.
Since coming up with a “new” angle is what historians are required to do in order to survive professionally, it naturally behooves them to diminish the value of earlier works on their subject so as to elevate their own. It's a strange sort of paradox really, because students of history must simultaneously pay the proper deference to their mentors (also historians), while coming up with something new to say, which seems to imply that at least some of their mentors were wrong. The most interesting question in all of this to me is: why would one believe a priori that there was a new or better angle to come up with? Are new readings supposed to be better simply because they are new?
In the case of new translations of literary works, the thinking seems to be that as language evolves and cultures change, translations need to be updated. That is why translations of works as old as Plato's Republic continue to appear with each new generation of scholars. There are the so-called canonical translations, but young scholars of both ancient Greek and philosophy sometimes put forth newer translations, presumably regarded by them as necessary, which would seem to imply that the currently available translations are in some way inadequate.
In the case of history, the situation seems far more puzzling to me. Anyone who wishes to write a biography of Plato has commenced from a biography-derived understanding of Plato. To modern people, Plato may as well be a fictional character, since all that we have are dead people's accounts of his life. So what could a new biography of Plato possibly say which has not already been said without simply inventing something new?
Needless to say, the above skepticism clearly demonstrates that I would never have made it through a graduate program in history, had I been foolish enough to matriculate in one. How to adjudicate such a delicate and untenable duality? How to both criticize as wrong while paying deference to earlier historians at the very same time? No, thank you all the same.
To return to the case of Coco Chanel, I confess to having been a bit overwhelmed by all of the scholarship on this topic, and it seemed to me that there are basically two kinds of books on offer. First, there are the loyalists, the true believers in Coco Chanel as a great woman, and then there are the anti-loyalists, concerned to reveal her arrant depravity and to expose her for the scoundrel she really was. It makes sense that biographers should be polarized in this way, because anyone who goes to the effort to write an entire book about a topic tends to care quite a lot about it. Yes, passion seems to drive the so-called dispassionate quest for truth in history as elsewhere.
Having myself no interest in becoming a Chanel scholar, I finally decided to opt for the most recently published book which was also as short as possible, since I figured that I'd be sure to learn at least enough from such a book to determine whether I find Coco Chanel a topic sufficiently interesting to warrant reading a lengthier book about her. The book I ended up checking out, Coco Chanel by Dennis Abrams, was published in 2011 and spans a grand total of 124 pages, including an index and chronology. “Perfect” I thought to myself as I requested the book from the library online.
When the book arrived, I was quite surprised to find that it looked an awful lot like a school textbook. The print was large and there were many sidebars and other clues that this little volume was intended for educational purposes. For one thing, the blurb for the author, Dennis Abrams, indicates that he has also written biographies of Hillary Rodham Clinton, H.G. Wells, Rachael Ray, Xerxes, Albert Pujols, Georgia O'Keefe, and Nicolas Sarkozy!
Apparently Mr. Abrams, “a voracious reader since the age of three,” chews through scholarly biographies of famous people and then spits out short readable synopses of their lives. So this book, from the Famous Fashion Designers series published by Chelsea House, is in effect a Cliff's notes version of all of the big fat biographies which I was not sufficiently motivated to read based only on what I had learned about Chanel in three recent films.
I initially hypothesized that this might be a book for vocational tech students who are learning how to sew or perhaps for introductory students at a college of fashion design, primarily because some of Abrams' jibes at Coco seemed a bit too pointed for younger students. He makes a rather big deal out of the fact that she often lied about her life, particularly her lowly origins, and at one point he insists that she was not a designer because she never designed anything in the sense of drawing or sketching a design on paper.
Eventually, after having read the book, I searched for Chelsea House online and discovered that this book is intended for grades 6-12! As a true testimony to my severe deficit in the Coco Chanel scholarship department, I must confess that I managed to learn quite a lot from this little book. Well, I think that I learned from it—-if what Abrams has written is true. What he suggests is that the films which I viewed were loosely based on history, with all sorts of modifications made to increase the coherence of the films as works in and of themselves.
Facts about Chanel's beginnings in the world of fashion, how she supported herself, and why she never married seem to have been distorted in the films in order to make her seem more independent and admirable than she may have been. According to Abrams, Chanel did not marry Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, but the reason seems to be that she was by then too old to bear him an heir. This is a very different version of the story than the one at least suggested in the films, which impart the distinct impression that Chanel was fiercely independent and refused to marry any man.
Another disparity involves the notion that Chanel was some sort of a feminist. Abrams explains that Chanel paid her workers poorly, and models especially, about whom she is cited as saying, “They're beautiful girls. Let them take lovers.” Again, when her workers went on strike to be paid better wages, as Abrams puts it, “Chanel felt that 'her girls' were getting paid quite enough as it was, and if they weren't, well, there were always men available who could help them.”
So much for the feminist myth. According to this account, Coco Chanel was definitely a liberated woman, but she was not a promoter of other women's liberation. The major contribution she appears to have made was to liberate women from their corsets, which was of course a good thing, but it's a far cry from feminism.
I learned a lot from this little book, as elementary as it is. The writing is not the best, but the text is readable. It certainly managed to pique my interest in this topic to the point where I now feel sufficiently motivated to take a stab at one of the larger tomes. I am especially interested in the story of the Wertheimer brothers who completely controlled the Chanel perfumery business. Coco Chanel apparently left everything to them when it came to perfume, initially because she wanted to focus on fashion. Later she regretted having signed off the rights to Chanel no 5, which was a resplendent success under the Wertheimers' management, but Chanel received only a small portion of the profits as a result of her contract with them. To find out more about that story, I'll need to read a bigger book. And I shall.
I do recommend this slim volume as a primer to people who are completely ignorant about the life of Coco Chanel. It would be a perfect lazy afternoon at the beach read as it offers enough of this woman's extraordinary life to keep even those who generally steer clear of biographies intrigued.