Book Review

{Book Review} Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War

I’ve been covering the reception desk at work this week, which means lots of time for reading and another book review!

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Let me preface this review by saying that I really wanted to like this book. I mean, a book where Coco Chanel’s secret Nazi past is finally revealed!? I wanna read that! The problem? Hal Vaughan’s writing style is so dry and he includes lots of background WWII history that is not entirely relevant to Chanel’s particular story. That being said, Vaughan’s research is groundbreaking, as he had access to a number of newly declassified French and German intelligence documents. After reading this book, your view of Chanel will never be the same. Mine certainly is not.

Vaughan begins his narrative with a very brief summary of Chanel’s orphanage childhood, her early love affairs, and start of the House of Chanel before launching into her life in the early 1920s and friendship with Vera Lombardi, an English socialite that was married to an Italian fascist. Lombardi introduced Chanel to a number of English aristocrats, including the Duke of Westminster (an anti-Semite who Chanel would have an extravagant affair with) and  future Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who would play a pivotal role in keeping her from being tried as a traitor to the French in the 1940s (there’s a great photo in the book that shows Chanel and Churchill dressed in hunting garb in the English countryside in 1924).

Chanel’s love affair with The Duke didn’t last (he wanted to get married and have children, but Chanel was not interested in that, nor young enough to bear children). Sometime in the late 1930s, Chanel met Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage (nicknamed “Spatz”), a German spy for the Abwehr (Nazi equivalent of the CIA) and moved into the Hotel Ritz in (the residence for many leading Nazi officials in Paris). Vaughan does not quite explain where or how these two first met, although he states that this was her “last great love affair.” The fact that Dincklage was a Nazi spy and Chanel a Frechwoman in occupied Paris meant that she was now a so-called “horizontal collaborator” (Vaughan describes the horrible treatment horizontal collaborators endured after the war. Viewed as traitors by their fellow French, many were spat upon and had their heads shaved in public).

Chanel used her liaison with Dincklage and his connections to her advantage in 1941 when her nephew, Andre Palasse, a French soldier, was imprisoned in a German POW camp. Dicnklage introduced Chanel to Baron Louis Vaufreland, a former member of the Gestapo and current (1941 current) agent of the Abwehr. Vaufreland agreed to secure the release of Chanel’s nephew on the condition that she agree to become an agent in the Abwehr and help “Germany obtain ‘political’ information in Madrid.” Chanel agreed and in 1941, Vaufreland enrolled her in the Berlin registry as Agent F-7124, codename Westminster (an homage to her English lover of the 1920s). Chanel and Vaufreland traveled to Madrid together, and upon their return to Paris, Andre had been freed.

Vaufreland was also aware of Chanel’s struggle with the Jewish Wertheimer brothers over her perfume business, and agreed to assist her with this by introducing her to an Aryan property lawyer.  Chanel abhorred running the business side of her empire, preferring the design aspects instead, and so in 1924, she signed an agreement with the Wertheimer brothers, turning over her perfume business to them in exchange for part of the profits. Disappointed in her “measly” percentage of the profits, Chanel would use the Aryanization of property laws in the 1930s to petition for sole ownership of her perfume company in 1941. Having anticipated this outcome, the Jewish Wertheimer brothers transferred ownership of Parfums Chanel to a French businessman (and Aryan), Felix Amiot during the war. Needless to say, Chanel was not pleased by this.

The release of her nephew from a POW camp and use of the Aryanization of property laws shows how Chanel collaborated with the Nazis for personal gain, yet in 1943, Chanel was working on a secret mission to try to broker a peace with England through her high-level contacts. Yep, Coco Chanel tried to end WWII. As Vaughan shows, by 1943, it was becoming apparent to many high-level Nazis that a defeat of the Third Reich was inevitable. Operation Valkyrie (the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler by his fellow Nazis and the subject of a Tom Cruise film) had failed, and many high-ranking Nazis feared Hitler’s increasing instability. Aware of Chanel’s connections to the British aristocracy, including Winston Churchill, Chanel was recruited for Operation Moddelhut (“model hat”) after accompanying Dincklage to Germany in 1943 and meeting Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS. Under the guise of sourcing materials for her perfume, Chanel was to travel to Spain once again and get word to the English through one of their diplomats stationed there that a number of high-level Nazi officials wanted to break with Hitler and negotiate a separate peace with England. The mission failed, however, as upon their arrival in Spain, Vera Lombardi (who was accompanying them) was accused of being an English spy. Lombardi responded by outing Chanel as a German spy (although there were no repercussions for this at the time). Despite her betrayal, Chanel sent a letter to Churchill asking him to exonerate their mutual friend of these false charges (Churchill obliged).

With the D-Day landing in June 1944, Paris was liberated from Nazi control and tribunals were set up by the French to convict those that had collaborated with the Germans. Chanel was one of the French to be investigated, although Winston Churchill intervened to prevent her from being prosecuted. A free woman, Chanel fled to neutral Switzerland after the war, and Dincklage tried to join here, although the Swiss blocked his immigration due to his espionage past (Spatz was very active in spying on French ports in the 1930s). Chanel was called again to testify in 1949, this time during Vaufreland’s war crimes trial. Chanel adamantly denied any association with him (despite the fact that there were records linking the two together) and the French decided not to pursue her any further. Chanel would then go on to rebuild her business (the House of Chanel closed its doors in 1939), staging a grand comeback in the 1950s before her death in 1971.

Upon completion of the book, I decided to research a bit about its publication and discovered that Vaughan (who died in 2013) was heavily criticized when this book was published in 2010, especially by the House of Chanel, famous for guarding their 1940s records (Caroline Weber, who wrote the Marie Antoinette book I reviewed, has been trying to write a book about Chanel’s Nazi past, as well). My criticism of his work is not necessarily about his source material, but rather, his dry writing style, which I felt was not the most conducive to telling this story about Chanel’s Nazi years. He presents the facts and primary source documents very dryly (sometimes reproducing them verbatim), with no real analysis of them nor explanation of the greater implications (like the fact that Coco Chanel tried to end WWII!). Though I often felt like I was reading a textbook at times, I have to say that I’ve become a bit disillusioned with Chanel since reading this book. She was a fabulous designer and revolutionized women’s fashion in the 20th century, but as Vaughan clearly shows, she was incredibly anti-Semitic, homophobic, snobbish, and self-centered. She used men to her advantage and was also a morphine addict. She collaborated with Nazis during the war, and then vehemently denied these collaborations upon its conclusion, even going so far as to pay off Gen. Walter Schellenberg (the former chief of SS intelligence), who’s postwar memoir would have implicated her. Yet, when one thinks about Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, these associations don’t come to mind at first. Instead, we think about the little black dress, the saying that a girl should always be “classy & fabulous” and the pearls and costume jewelry Chanel popularized. Chanel’s life is definitely a study in the importance of image control and just goes to show that history is, indeed, written by the winners.

 

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Book Review

{Book Review} Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution

** Note: I’ve decided to start a new blog series of Book Reviews  where I review non-fiction works that relate to fashion history. Have a suggestion of a book I should read and review? E-mail me at annaintechnicolor@hotmail.com or leave a comment below. Thanks!

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Marie Antoinette is a subject of endless fascination for me (I’ve read both the Antonia Fraser biography about her, and own the 2006 Sofia Coppola movie it inspired), which is why I was pleasantly surprised to discover Caroline Weber’s fabulous work, Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution through this YouTube video. Published in 2006, Weber’s fascinating book is exhaustively researched and surprisingly the first to focus solely on Marie Antoinette’s clothing choices and the role they played in her arranged marriage at 14, life at Versailles, and death at the guillotine in 1793.

From the moment Maria Theresa – Marie Antoinette’s mother and the Empress of the Hapsburg empire – set out to arrange the marriage between her youngest daughter and Louis Auguste (the future Louis XVI), the Queen-to-be’s fashion and personal style were pivotal considerations. Indeed, one of the emissaries involved in the deal commented on the state of Marie Antoinette’s teeth, to which Maria Theresa responded by having her daughter undergo 3 months of dental work (which was not pleasant thing to have done in the non-anesthetized 18th century!). After leaving Vienna for France, Marie Antoinette was literally stripped down naked and re-dressed in all French-made clothing during the hand-over ceremony (famously depicted in the 2006 film), which Weber very effectively shows cemented for the Dauphine the incredible importance of appearance at Versailles and what was expected of her in her new role.

Forced into an utterly foreign world at the age of 14 where every move she made was watched (including her morning toilette, which was a court ritual), Marie Antoinette quickly learned that her clothing choice was one way to instill a sense of autonomy and semblance of political power (Weber later illustrates how this backfired during the Revolution, as Marie Antoinette’s personal style convinced the French that she was the one pulling Louis XVI’s puppet strings and effectively ruling France, when, in fact, she had no real political power at all). For example, in the early 1770s, Marie Antoinette for a brief time refused to wear the grand corps, an especially rigid pair of stays (corset) that was decorated with diamonds and reserved for members of the French nobility. This so shocked the people at Versailles that an annulment of the marriage (and thus an end to the the Franco-Austrian alliance) was considered. Eventually, with proding from Maria Therese (she sent many stern letters to her daughter), Marie Antoinette agreed to wear the corset, although this episode was never forgotten by courtiers. In addtion, Marie Antoinette also took up equestrian hobbies and donned male riding gear, (much to her mother’s chagrin) both to assert her independence, as well as provide a much needed respite from the exhausting social engagements of the French court.

Her initial refusal of the grand corps, cross-dressing, non-consummated marriage, and status as a foreigner meant Marie Antoinette came to be despised at the French court, despite an initial very warm welcome. That being said, Weber argues that despite the hatred many of the French people felt for Marie Antoinette (they often called her Le Autrichienne and thought she was a Hapsburg spy), they still had an overwhelming desire to mimic her fashion choices. This was seen first with the pouf hairstyle of the 1770s and then the gaulle (later known as the chemise a la reine) in the 1780s, which fashionable women all over France and even abroad instantly sought to copy. Fortunately, dressing like a member of the nobility was made infinitely easier during Marie Antoinette’s reign, as she decided not to impose the previously held restriction that dressmakers employed by members of the royalty were not allowed to take on other customers. This effectively meant that actresses and prostitutes could – gasp! – dress like they were a duchess or queen, thus blurring the rigid class lines between nobility and commoner (not surprisingly, Marie Antoinette got a lot of flak from courtiers at Versailles for this, despite the fact that they were also going to Rose Bertin to purchase goods and quickly adopted the “simplistic” and non-regal chemise a la reine as everyday dress). Unfortunately, this would come back to bite her in the arse during the infamous Diamond Necklace Affair, as the prostitute hired to impersonate Marie Antoinette was dressed in a chemise a le reine (Cardinal Rohan stated during his testimony that he believed the prostitute he met with to discuss the necklace was Marie Antoinette because of this clothing choice).

Perhaps not surprisingly, the chemise a la reine and other simplified modes of dress that Marie Antoinette popularized in the 1780s would eventually come to be the standard outfit for the French Revolution. Indeed, one of the things I found most interesting was the French people’s hypocrisy towards Marie Antoinette’s clothing choices that they themselves later adopted. They criticized her during the 1780s for her dissemination of the chemise a la reine, as it was made using imported cotton fabric, thus significantly hurting the domestic silk industry (based in Lyon) which relied heavily on orders from the nobility for silks to fashion into court dresses. Yet, during the Revolution, one was considered unpatriotic if they didn’t wear a simplistic dress made from imported cotton! Interestingly enough, it wasn’t until Marie Antoinette and her family were imprisoned in the Tuileries at the start of the Revolution that she reintroduced her silk gowns into everyday use, as a way to show the French people that despite their insistence that there was no longer a monarchy and commoner and royal were equals, the fact that they couldn’t purchase high-end silk gowns meant that they actually were not, and should not pretend to be.

Weber also effectively illustrates how much of the hatred Marie Antoinette endured from the French people after 1775 was as a direct result of the sexually-challenged Louis XVI not taking a mistress. During previous reigns, royal mistresses bore the brunt of the wrath of the French public, as they were the ones lavished with excesses of clothing and jewellery (in fact, the necklace at the heart of the Diamond Necklace Affair was actually commissioned by Louis XV for his mistress, Madame du Barry). Louis XVI during his reign gladly allocated these resources to Marie Antoinette, who employed a so-called “Ministry of Fashion” (essentially her hair stylist Monsieur Leonard and dressmaker Rose Bertin), which was heavily criticized during the 1780s when there was so much political and economical turmoil in France.

While I immensely enjoyed this book, there were a few things I didn’t particularly like. Weber has some very interesting notes about her sources, but these are listed as end notes rather than footnotes, so I had to keep flipping to the back of the book to read those (if you’re less of a nerd than I, this probably won’t bother you). In addition, Weber spends a majority of the latter half of the book delving into some of the grittier details of the French Revolution (which makes sense as she is, after all, a French studies professor at Barnard). Some of these details I felt weren’t necessary to the telling of Marie Antoinette’s story of personal style, although they were interesting.

Despite these few reservations, I cannot recommend this book enough! While a knowledge of French and 18th century fashion terms is helpful when reading this book, it certainly is not necessary, and there are some fabulous images (in color!) included that help to illustrate Weber’s points. This book is definitely not a biography of the ill-fated Queen, but nor does it purport to be. Instead, Weber shows through amazingly detailed and meticulous research that Marie Antoinette was the true definition of a fashion icon and, unfortunately, ended up paying the ultimate price for this status.