Skip to main content

The Chanel Sisters


The Chanel Sisters

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel changed the way women dress. At a time when women were constrained by corsets and bedecked in lace and ruffles, she envisioned a simpler style. Her clothes were elegant and unfussy and ushered in a new era of fashion. But how did the daughter of a wayward peddler manage to become the most influential designer of the 20th century? In THE CHANEL SISTERS, Judithe Little traces Gabrielle’s journey from convent orphanage to Parisian high society, telling her story through the eyes of her younger sister, Antoinette.

The real Coco Chanel was an unreliable narrator of her own history. She was cagey about her past, inventing a childhood of comfort and ease to obscure her undistinguished origins. Rather than let the dissembling Coco tell her own story, Little has given that role to Antoinette, who observes her elder sister’s unflagging efforts to transform herself into “something better,” while at the same time searching for her own way to rise in the world. The choice of narrator makes sense if you accept, as Little argues in a note at the book’s end, that Gabrielle “never would have willingly shared that part of her life.”

"Not much is known about the real Antoinette, so Little cleverly merges fact and fiction, giving the youngest Chanel sister a dashing Argentinian lover and fleshing out the details of her short-lived marriage to a Canadian soldier."

But it also holds the novel’s star at a distance. We watch as she attempts a doomed career as a singer, embraces life as the kept woman of a rich man, and eventually begins designing hats and clothing. But she remains fundamentally opaque, her creative process and her motivations something of a mystery. Little also keeps her focus on Gabrielle’s early years, thus sidestepping some of the more complicated aspects of the influential designer’s story, most notably her association with the Nazi regime during World War II.

What Little makes clear is that the Chanel sisters’ interest in fashion --- and a life of beauty and comfort --- is forged early on in their difficult lives. After Gabrielle, Antoinette and their older sister, Julia-Berthe, are dumped at a convent orphanage by their indifferent father, the nuns raise them for an appropriately modest future. They’re trained as seamstresses and told they’ll be lucky to marry a plowman. But when their Aunt Adrienne (older than Gabrielle by just a year) slips them high-fashion magazines and tawdry melodramas about “convent girls who marry counts and peasant girls who become queens of Parisian society,” their horizons broaden.

She also takes them to gawk at the wealthy ladies promenading in the park, where Gabrielle’s clear sense of aesthetics is already on display. While Antoinette and Adrienne are entranced by the élégantes, Gabrielle dismisses the finely dressed women as “giant cream puffs” and “life-sized dust balls.” She even deems a church’s stained-glass windows gauche, though the more restrained interlocking designs in the window of the convent’s chapel later inspire the iconic logo of her fashion house.

Later, the sisters move to a pensionnat, or boarding school, where Gabrielle first tries her hand as a designer. The Chanel sisters are nécessiteuses --- charity cases --- kept apart from the well-off payantes. Clothing emphasizes the distinction. The Chanels and other poorer girls dress in cheap wool and ill-fitting hand-me-downs, while the rich students wear “new and crisp uniforms” and little capes of cashmere. But Gabrielle sees the dowdy uniforms as a challenge. “If we can’t have the expensive fabrics of the payantes,” Gabrielle says, “we’ll have the best fit,” just before she alters their skirts and shirtwaists.

These early sections are among the most vivid in the book. However, the girls can’t stay cloistered forever. Soon, life takes the Chanel women to Moulins, Vichy and finally Paris during the final years of the Belle Époque. There, Gabrielle, with the financial support of her lover, Arthur “Boy” Capel, opens a millinery shop. “[J]ust something to keep me busy until I decide what I’m going to do,” she tells her sister. Antoinette --- fresh from a stint at a hat shop in Vichy --- joins her sibling, drawing on her natural talents as a saleswoman to help make the venture a resounding success.

Gabrielle’s hats and, later, revolutionary clothes made her famous. But Little falters when faced with the challenge of bringing those creations to life on the page. Her descriptions of Chanel’s designs are merely workmanlike. Gabrielle wears a “picture hat with [a] white plume,” “uncomplicated dresses…loose fitting sweaters.” When war breaks out, the Chanels churn out “straight, plain skirts, unadorned ivory silk blouses with a sailor collar, cinched at the waist.” Yet she doesn’t exactly capture what made these simple clothes so revolutionary.

More successful is the exploration of Antoinette’s romantic life. Not much is known about the real Antoinette, so Little cleverly merges fact and fiction, giving the youngest Chanel sister a dashing Argentinian lover and fleshing out the details of her short-lived marriage to a Canadian soldier. As the novel progresses, Gabrielle recedes and Antoinette takes center stage, as Little builds up to her tragic final days in Buenos Aires. Antoinette’s efforts to rise above her humble origins are no less interesting than those of her more famous sister, though her story does not end on the same note of triumph.

While those looking for insight into the inner life of Coco Chanel may come away from THE CHANEL SISTERS disappointed, Antoinette’s story of trying to find love and her place in the world resonates.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on January 8, 2021

The Chanel Sisters
by Judithe Little