How a dream of ‘something better’ changed the world of fashion

Review: Vivien Horler

The Chanel Sisters, by Judithe Little (H Review)

This historical novel about Coco Chanel and her younger sister Antoinette is dedicated in part to Antoinette “so she won’t be forgotten”.

American author Judithe Little was inspired by a biography of Coco Chanel. She expected to read Coco – real name Gabrielle – came from a privileged, glamorous  background. But to Little’s surprised, she read that Coco and Antoinette were born into a family of peasants and had been abandoned as children in a convent orphanage in rural France, where they spent years as charity cases.

“To me, this part of Coco’s biography made her eventual success all the more stunning,” she writes in a historical note at the end of the novel.

Since Coco always indicated she came from a wealthy family, Little decided she could not be the honest narrator of the novel, and so she turned to the supportive and hard-working Antoinette. “Only a sister who had stayed loyally by her side could know, for example, that Coco’s lies about her childhood were also a way to escape the pain of their abandonment.”

The novel sticks to the known facts about the sisters, and builds on them. Some of the characters – and lovers – are invented, but many are real.

The girls’ mother died of TB when they were very young, and their father left them and their older sister at the orphanage where they were reared by strict nuns. They dreamed their father would one day come back for them, and Coco always believed she had been born for “something better”.

Their father didn’t come, but when they were in their early teens their father’s sister, Adrienne – only a few years older than they – persuaded her parents to invite them to stay for holiday weekends. The relationship between the sisters and cousin changed all their lives.

Adrienne was something of a subversive force, introducing the sisters to romantic novels and fashion magazines – not the usual reading fare for convent girls who were meant to confine themselves to Lives of the Saints. She also took them on walks in the parks where for the first time they glimpsed the upper classes sashaying about in plumes and lace.

After the orphanage, they joined Adrienne at another convent-run school, where the pupils were divided into fee-paying girls and the charity cases. Coco and Antoinette resented their subservient status, and the fact that while they all wore the same uniform, the fee-payers’ fabrics were better, the outfits well-cut.

And so Little has Coco taking her uniform apart and restitching it so that it at least fits her properly.

After school the sisters worked as seamstresses for a tailoring company, where they met dashing soldiers and began to be seen at pavement cafes and bars. Later they moved to Vichy, where Antoinette worked for a company making hats. Coco is dissatisfied with her life, always wanting “something better”, and meets a group of bon vivants with whom she moves in.

In 1910 the sisters moved to Paris, and with the financial help of Coco’s lover, and opened a hat shop called Chanel Modes  – and the rest is history.

In her historical note Little says that while Coco would never admit she was reared in an orphanage, her time with the nuns of Aubazine defined her. “Her jewelry designs mimicked the celestial patterns of stars and moons in the stone floors [of the convent]. Her aesthetic was derived from the austere beauty of the structure itself, her color scheme from the black and white habits of the nuns, her use of wooly, textured fabrics from the rough-hewn uniforms, her preference for simplicity and a clean scent from the fastidiousness the nuns taught her. Aubazine never left her no matter how hard she tried to pretend it hadn’t happened.”

I’ve never been particularly interested in high fashion or Coco Chanel, but this story, in the voice of Antoinette, is readable and delightfully engaging, and opened my eyes to how two determined young women could change their lives.


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