Karen Karbo attempts to demonstrate in her book The Gospel According To Coco Chanel how Coco Chanel’s life is a template for you and me to learn “life lessons from the world’s most elegant woman.”
We usually associate the word gospel with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But there is another more generic definition of gospel: It is something, such as an idea or principle, accepted as unquestionably true. Both definitions suggest that you have embraced a truth so big that it impacts everythng you think, say and do.
Karen Karbo focuses more on life lessons than clarify exactly what Chanel’s principle is that guides most of her life. However, from all the stories she includes of Chanel’s life, her main principle is demonstrated and that is you must be a survivor no matter what the cost may be. As a survivor, she couldn’t care what others thought of her. Therefore, if she needed to become a mistress to get ahead, so be it. If she needed to lie, then prevaricate as much as necessary. If she wanted to live with a Nazi during the French occupation, let the public reaction be damned.
As a survivor, she left France for almost ten years when she was spared going to jail for having a Nazi lover. Then she returned to Paris and had a fashion show on February 5. 1954. It failed miserably. Undaunted, she continued and of course made a terrific comeback until her death in 1970 at 87 years old. In other words, her survivor mentality made her strong and gave her terrific tenacity and determination. And there is no question that each one of us must have some survivor mentality or we would never be able to overcome our tough circumstances. However, in order to be superior to the rest of the animal world, don’t we also need to include morality and integrity in our life changing gospel?
As Karen Karbo nears the end of her book, I wondered if she too began to realize that Chanel’s life principle was inadequate since it seemed rather shallow how she concluded that Chanel’s important gospel was her truths for fashion:
“Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street; fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.”
“But Coco said fashion fades, only style remains, and I am style.”
“When I speak of elegance I am speaking of luxury. Luxury must remain invisible, but it must be felt. Luxury is simple; it is the opposite of complication.”
“Some people think luxury is the opposite of poverty. It is not. It is the opposite of vulgarity. Luxury is the opposite of status. It is the ability to make a living by being oneself. It is the freedom to refuse to live by habit. Luxury is liberty. Luxury is elegance.”
As much as many of her statements about fashion may still be true, do they convey a gospel that can sustain a person when she gets older? I don’t thnk so when we read about Chanel’s increasing anger as she got old. As Karbo writes, “She was snarlier than ever. She disparaged everyone. . .. She said all of her old friends were witless and diabolical and merely out to use her. She was lonely. Her comment in her interview for The New Yorker reveals rather clearly why she lost her joy: She could no longer look younger and therefore feel more joyous.
“Fashion is always of the time in which you live. It is not something standing alone. But the grand problem, the most important problem, is to rejuvenate women. To make women look young. Then their outlook on life changes. They feel more joyous.” . .. I am not young, but I feel young. The day I feel old, I will go to bed and stay there. J’aime la vie! I feel that to live is a wonderful thing.
Life was no longer a wonderful thng when she could no longer hide the wrinkles, could no longer take away the pain of her arthritis, could no longer sustain her when so many of her peers were dying. It takes a much deeper and more profound gospel to be able to say that “to live is a wonderful thing” when all those things are affecting the joy in your day. And her underlying principle to survive could no longer sustain her as she got older since she knew that that instinct could not prevent her death!
And yet, right to the end, she stubbornly held onto the belief that being fashionable was not just an important component but the only component to bring joy and fulfillment. Therefore, very much alone “she ascended into her small room, which was in the hotel that was the Ritz, . .. she laid down upon the bed in her suit, in her blouse and pearls, and removed her two-tone pumps, and placed them beside her bed, and then understanding that her hour had come, called out and said, “This is what it is like to die,” thereby dying as elegantly as she had lived.”
Last night I was watching a movie where one of the characters said, “You have to find something bigger than yourself” in order to live a full life. Some may say that she found something bigger than herself by pursuing fashion, but I think we need to find something bigger than ourselves that also carries us through old age and death.