Coco Chanel: A New Book & Film Offer Timely Lessons for Women

No writer has a better understanding of what it means to be Chanel and what it means to be a woman who admires Chanel than Karen Karbo, author of the short and addictive.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Coco Chanel couldn't be making a star turn in media at a better time.

Start with Anne Fontaine's film Coco Before Chanel, coming to American theaters this fall after dazzling audiences in Europe. It's the right film about Chanel: the early years. And though the facts are as murky about pre-Chanel Chanel as about the fashion icon, the theme -- a woman born without advantages, making her way in the world -- is more universal. (To see why Academy Awards are being discussed, watch the trailer.)

But the better reason for women -- and the men who love them -- to pay attention to Chanel is because she was a cheerleader for self-sufficiency, in good times and bad. So skip over the fashion. Consider only the politics. I mean: ours.

Is this a great time to be a woman in America? I'm not so sure. More American women may now be going to college than men, but when they graduate, they're still looking at salaries as much as 30% lower than men get for the same work. The anti-choice movement, always noisy, has upped the volume -- and the violence. And it seems that a sizable number of American men won't be happy until all women are homebound mothers, wearing the equivalent of the burqa.

No writer has a better understanding of what it means to be Chanel and what it means to be a woman who admires Chanel than Karen Karbo, author of the short (240 pages) and addictive The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World's Most Elegant Woman. Karbo is the granddaughter of Emilia Karbowski, known as "Luma of California" for the clothes she designed for the wives of movie moguls in the 1950s. Which is to say: Karen Karbo is real and unashamed of it: "I am the average consumer." She looks for Chanel jackets on eBay. And she writes as if she's having a conversation with a close friend over double-shot lattes.

Who is Chanel to Karbo?

Chain-smoker. Workaholic, though she could stay in bed all morning with a newspaper. Leo, with a Pisces moon. Born nobody. Fell in love once, but not again. Her bigger love: money. "Money was more than her security blanket. It was her ongoing victory lap." And restrained: "Even though Chanel insisted on having the best of everything, she didn't insist on having everything."

Are you hearing "Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves" in the background? You should be.

Karbo delivers a mini-biography, with perceptive and amusing commentary:

She looked like the girl at school who conned you into breaking the rules with her, then let you take all the blame.

Her childhood was the Belle Epoque version of a country-and-western song. The only thing she lacked was a dead dog and a wasting disease.

She compulsively lied about her past, and then lied about having lied, and then disavowed the lie about the lie.

Along the way, great trivia abounds. Yes, French women wore hats adorned with feathers -- but did you know that, in 1911, in France, 300 million birds were killed to provide those feathers?

And, because Karbo really is your new best friend, she even labels the punch line: "Cut to the chase, don't waste time doing stuff that seems essential to your life and business, just because other people do it."

Just so. The fashion is merely fascinating, a means to an end. The life lessons? For a woman trying to find a safe haven in America, this book delivers more wisdom -- and wit -- per page than Dr. Phil will dispense in a lifetime.

[cross-posted from]