Best Biographies

The Best Fashion Biographies

recommended by Justine Picardie

Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life by Justine Picardie

Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life
by Justine Picardie


Justine Picardie, editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar UK and author of Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life, chooses her favourite fashion biographies, and considers whether fashion and art are inextricably linked.

Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life by Justine Picardie

Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life
by Justine Picardie

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What got you into writing about fashion?

I’ve been interested in clothes since childhood. My mother used to make rather beautiful ones for me, my sister and even herself. But she’d also buy clothes from Biba, which I loved. It was the 60s and fashion was rather wild. There was always a kind of magic about what my mother wore. I remember sitting on the floor of a Biba changing room, watching her try on these incredible feather boas and mini-skirts.

Many people dismiss fashion as frivolous. Why do you think it’s important?

I think it’s absurd to call fashion frivolous. It’s like criticising cinema or pop music. Of course, aspects of it are infuriating. But what we choose to wear, or conceal, is so revealing about who we are. There was an era in feminism, partly coinciding with my time at university in the early 80s, when some people believed you couldn’t be a feminist if you liked fashion. That’s such a narrow, reductive view of why what we wear matters.

“I think it’s absurd to dismiss fashion as frivolous. What we choose to wear, or conceal, reveals who we are.”

I wrote the Coco Chanel book because she was an amazing designer and a fascinating, iconic woman. Her career and personal life intersected with key moments of 20th century history: two world wars, the 1929 Wall Street crash, the Great Depression, the expansion of Hollywood, and beyond. To ignore, and not write about, designers like Chanel on grounds of frivolity is as ludicrous as saying ‘let’s not write about Debussy’.

Is it fair to think of fashion as an art form in the same way as, say, a Debussy piano piece or a great film?

That’s a complicated question. I think great fashion designers inhabit the same territory as other significant artists. That’s not quite the same thing as saying fashion is high art. But I think artists and fashion designers sometimes share the same concerns, such as how to express themselves, and the generation they find themselves in, creatively.

Coco Chanel would never have described herself as an artist. But her most enduring pieces, like the little black dress or trousers for women, have a cultural impact not dissimilar to that of a striking French film.

Your first choice is Paul Morand’s The Allure of Chanel. He lived near her in St Moritz, right?

They were both in exile just after World War Two, having had rather too much contact with the Germans during the Paris occupation. Morand had known Chanel since the 20s. He inhabited the same cultural milieu, which included Picasso, Stravinsky, Diaghilev and Cocteau. Morand had a number of conversations with her in St Moritz in the winter of 1946. He made notes but didn’t transcribe them until after her death in 1971.

Did you find it useful when researching your own book?

Yes. She was a great storyteller – not that all the stories that appear in the book are true. There’s a description of her and an aunt, whom she claims brought her up. She was, in fact, raised by nuns in an orphanage. I think these fictions are as interesting as the truth. They show how she wanted to reinvent herself and find a narrative that was bearable to live with.

Did you discover anything else about her?

The great loves of her life were both English. She had intriguing links with the English aristocracy and Winston Churchill. She was one of five children, a fact she covered up, like so much else in her conversations with Morand. His book remains a wonderfully compelling account of her stories.

Your next choice is Dior by Dior.

The Dior autobiography is very sober, which is true of the designer’s own personality. But it’s a fascinating insight into the New Look, one of the most important post-war movements in fashion.

Chanel hated corseting, which she felt constricted women. Her whole aesthetic was against it. When she saw Christian Dior doing just that, with his wasp-waist dresses and sharply tailored suits, she came out of retirement to compete against him. She hated the Dior look but many women adored it. I’m a huge fan and wanted to hear about it from Dior’s point of view. His take on the fashion industry is very interesting, but there’s very little on his private life.

French style is currently very popular here in the United Kingdom. Why do you think it has such an enduring appeal?

I think it’s because the French invented couture. But there has always been that link between French and English designers. McQueen, Galliano, Phoebe Philo and Stella McCartney all headed up French houses. In fact, you can trace the links between Paris and London all the way back to Chanel. They pretend to despise each other but, when it comes to fashion, the two countries have quite a creative relationship.

Your next choice is Shocking Life: The Autobiography of Elsa Schiaparelli, the Italian fashion designer.

Yes. She was Italian but worked in Paris. You can really see a crossover with art in her designs. She worked with some of the great surrealists, including Salvador Dali. Several of her designs, like the lobster hat and the skeleton dress, are particularly artistic. Maybe it’s more fruitful to talk about Schiaparelli as part of the surrealist art movement than fashion.

So was she a true artist?

Like Dali, she had a good business sense and understood the power of marketing. I think the notion that you can draw up a clear distinction between art and fashion, where art is somehow entirely pure and commercial fashion is impure, is ridiculous. Is Damien Hirst a purer artist than Alexander McQueen? Speaking of McQueen, perhaps the conflict you see in his work would be less troubling if he had decided to work in another art form.

His shows seemed to be that way inclined.

Some of them could certainly be categorised as performance art.

Let’s move on to your next choice, The Unexpurgated Beaton, edited by Hugo Vickers.

Beaton was a marvellous writer as well as a great photographer. His diaries provide wonderful insights into designers like Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent. They have the same economy and deftness of touch as his fashion illustrations. He was very good at summing up what people were like at a particular moment.

What are some of your favourite descriptions?

He talks about doing the designs for Coco, the Broadway musical based on Chanel’s life. Katharine Hepburn rather improbably played the title role. Beaton had a horrendous time with Hepburn and Chanel on that and he’s wonderfully descriptive about it.

I also love the way he writes about Chanel in old age: she talked so much that he couldn’t get a word in. But she comes across as compelling and entirely herself. He describes her as absolutely determined and a force of nature.

Let’s finish with the biography of the legendary fashion editor, Diana Vreeland, by Eleanor Dwight.

This book has wonderful photographs and is beautifully produced. Vreeland was a hugely influential fashion columnist and editor, working at Harper’s Bazaar and then American Vogue. She covered the great fashion era from the 30s to the 70s.

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She worked as a consultant for the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art after Vogue fired her in 1971. She put on some incredible exhibitions that really showed fashion as art – that theme again. The pictures in the book from the 1973 Balenciaga exhibition are amazing. The director of the Met at the time thought museums should show things in new ways and push boundaries. He recognised that Diana Vreeland had the same vision. She was very forward-thinking.

February 22, 2011

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Justine Picardie

Justine Picardie

Justine Picardie is the editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar UK and Town & Country UK.  She was features editor of British Vogue and is a former editor of the Observer magazine. She lives in London with her two sons. Her latest book, Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life, is published by HarperCollins.