Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Hosebeast of Haute Couture

The Collection by Gioia Diliberto
Different Like Coco by Elizabeth Matthews

Between these two recent books on the life of Coco Chanel, one an illustrated biography for small children and one a work of fiction, for historical accuracy, I'd put my money on the novel.

Understandably, biographies intended for a juvenile audience will need to omit some of their subjects' more scandalous moments, but it verges on irresponsible to whitewash the life of a Nazi-sympathizing, child labor law-breaking monster, no matter how pretty her clothes were. Other criticisms have been leveled at Different Like Coco, and Gwen's recent post covers them pretty well. In any case, as a female role model for small children, Coco Chanel probably ranks somewhere slightly above Leona Helmsly and the Bratz.

But enough of that unpleasantness, because Diliberto's The Collection is a perfectly delightful book that I highly recommend to everyone.

Set in 1919, the novel follows the naive Isabelle Varlet to Paris where she gets a job in Chanel's burgeoning Paris atelier, and quickly promotes to second in charge of a workroom. Isabelle is a talented seamstress and Paris agrees with her; however, her pilgrimage to the city is motivated more by the death of her fiance, a shy provincial baker, than by ambition.

Along with the other seamstresses, Isabelle works ten hour days, six days a week to get Chanel's fall collection ready. But along with those duties, she's also subjected to impossible clients, backstabbing co-workers, and the mercurial tempers of Mademoiselle. While the plot is a little bit thin, Diliberto is a master at well-placed historical detail, and the flurried activity of the Paris fashion world is captivating enough to carry the story.

And Diliberto's portrayal of Mademoiselle is extremely well-done, both shrill and shrewd. Much is also made of Chanel's shortcomings as a designer. Unable to draw or sew very well, she often appears as a brilliant hack. But credit where it's due, the character of Chanel also has terrific confidence in her vision and an unparalleled eye. She casts off designs and dismisses her competitors with the shrugged off comment, "Nobody wants to look like that anymore."

The Collection succeeds because Diliberto creates such a compelling uber-bitch. She's awful in all ways, but at the same time, Isabelle would rather work on her clothes than anyone else's, and it's easy to see why.

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