Garelick’s Coco Chanel book draws publisher

Mar 25th, 2010 | By | Category: Campus News, Issue, March 25, 2010

Rhonda Garelick, professor of English with a special joint appointment in the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts, has sold her book, “Antigone in Vogue: Coco Chanel and the Myths of Fashion,” to Random House. The book, which situates fashion designer Chanel within the context of European politics, is to be published by 2012.

Garelick, a scholar of theater, dance, fashion and cultural politics, will capture the story of Chanel’s life and her impact on 20th-century culture.

“The book is what I call a cultural biography of Coco Chanel,” Garelick said. “It looks at her life as a kind of prism through which to understand a large swath of European history, particularly the 1920s through the 1940s, the period between the two World Wars. It looks at Chanel as a hugely powerful influence not only on women’s lives during those years, but on the rest of us for a century and still going on. I think she forever changed how we perceive women not only visually, but also socially.”


Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971) was a pioneering French fashion designer. Replacing the corset with comfort and casual elegance, her fashion themes included simple suits and dresses, women’s trousers, costume jewelry, perfume and textiles.

Though she claimed a birth date of 1893 and a birthplace of Auvergene, she was actually born in 1883 in Saumur, a peasant village. Her mother died of tuberculosis in 1895 when Chanel was 12, and her father abandoned the family a short time later. Chanel spent six years in the orphanage of the Catholic monastery of Aubazine, where she learned the trade of a seamstress.

She adopted the name Coco during a brief career as a singer. First a mistress of a wealthy military officer and then of an English industrialist, Chanel drew on the resources of these patrons in setting up a millinery shop in Paris in 1910. Her hats were worn by celebrated French actresses, which helped to establish her reputation.

“The Chanel corporation remains one of the highest grossing corporations in the world,” Garelick said. “And her name remains essential to their fame. The reason she was so successful was not only that she was good at fashion design – and in fact, there were other designers who were even better – but she had a life that was very public and she integrated the persona she created into her line of fashions.”

Coco Chanel
Coco Chanel

Though born with nothing, she became an independent, self-made woman, and people wanted to be like her.

“The clothes she wore were like costumes that went along with the lifestyle she was creating and selling,” Garelick said. “That kind of celebrity emulation was only just beginning at the end of World War I in Europe. Now, of course, it’s a normal part of American pop culture, emulating celebrities. But she was among the first to capitalize on this process.”

One of Garelick’s previous books, “Electric Salome: Loie Fuller’s Performance of Modernism” (Princeton University Press) was on modern dancer Loie Fuller, who reinvented stage design and costuming. She knew Chanel had costumed a number of modern ballets, so her original idea for this book was to focus on Chanel’s influence on theatre, dance and drama.

“When I realized how important her fashion career and her political and social career were in performance, I realized it was a bigger book, and there was a great deal of interest in it,” Garelick said. “The more I read about her life, the more I thought she was kind of maverick. There was no woman I can think of who had more influence on other women in the 20th century.”

Garelick said few people know that Chanel was also a costumer for stage and screen. In the 1920s and 30s, she costumed a number of Greek revival dramas, including “Antigone,” hence the book’s title.

Garelick said Chanel understood our need to “slip into something more comfortable.” She said, “That’s theatre. She understood the theatrical part of human nature, especially in women.”

Garelick has been researching the book for four years and received a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship for the original book proposal in 2006. She also received special access to Chanel’s private documents, kept in an archive at the House of Chanel in Paris.

“It took me two and a half years and a lot of intervening on different people’s parts to let me get in there,” she said. “It’s a treasure trove of photographs, magazines, articles and drawings. They have generously allowed me to go back twice, and I’m going back a third time shortly.”

Because of the interest in her book, Garelick was accepted as a client by The Wylie Agency, a literary agent in New York and London.

“It’s the only way you can have access to commercial trade houses, and that’s what allowed the book to be bought at auction,” Garelick said. She is thrilled that Random House purchased the North American rights to “Antigone in Vogue.”

“The biggest dream of my professional life was to write a book that would represent my intellectual interests, but also be of interest to a larger public,” she said. “I’ve written two books that were published by Princeton University Press, and that has been wonderful, but those are primarily read by scholars. The fact that I was able to go to Random House and have had so much interest in the project tells me that I’m going to have a bigger conversation this time.”

— By Kathe Andersen, Fine and Performing Arts

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