Meeting an author on her own home turf can be an interesting experience, especially when she’s presenting the first reading of her recently published novel. It’s not only an opportunity to see the individual at ease in her own environment, but if one is lucky enough, it also becomes an occasion to observe the players who helped shape and influence her most recent work.
As any individual acquainted with the inner workings of the publishing business will tell you, no author is an island unto themselves. Whether working from a beachside villa in French Polynesia or a tiny study on the fortieth floor of a London high-rise, writers are inevitably influenced by a multitude of everyday encounters, research, and chance events that somehow feed their imagination and steer their tales into a variety of directions.
So on a warm September evening I made my way to Woman & Children First. In the age of Barnes & Nobles, it is the last of that rare breed, the independent bookstore. Surrounded by a Persian bakery, trendy furniture stores, bars and small shops selling a variety of odd nick knacks, this corner bookstore has been a mainstay of Chicago’s Swedish neighborhood of Andersonville, witnessing its transformation from immigrant enclave into one of the City’s trendier neighborhoods.
For over two decades this institution has also been known for celebrating and nurturing a succession of feminist authors. The kind of place where the shelves groan heavy with the weight of tomes by Joan Didion, Sylvia Plath, Nadine Gordimar and Simone de Beauvoir. Its past lecture series have included the likes of Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, and Hilary Rodham Clinton. While authors Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf are set to present their latest oeuvres in the coming weeks.
The Collection is one of the first historical novels to bring to life some of the most notable couturiers at the Turn of the Century who helped redefine the way woman dress.
Clockwise: The author Gioia Diliberto. As a child growing up in the suburbs of Bethesda, Maryland she spent most of her days writing short stories. She sites The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert as two of the novels that have influenced her the most; A picture of Gabriel "Coco" Chanel taken during the early 1920’s, around the same period the novel is set; A cocktail dress by the couturier in black lace from the same period demonstrates Chanel’s obsession with creating a modern silhouette.
The novel also includes a number of Chanel’s contemporaries, hinting at the rivalries and competitiveness between the couturiers to have their designs featured in fashion editorials or to acquire the greatest number of clients. Madeleine Vionnet, (bottom, right) known as the "Queen of the bias cut," is featured briefly in the book, as well as her atelier. She began many of her designs by draping on a wooden mannequin; An evening gown by the couturier in crepe entirely embroidered with rows of fringe from 1938; Such a piece would have employed the work of a couture workshop that is virtually extinct today, the Crépinières, who specialized in braid and fringe work.
A picture of the couturier Jean Patou (bottom, center) from the 1920’s. Although Chanel is often credited with creating the modern woman’s wardrobe in the 1920’s, Patou is recognized for creating sportswear, including the first tennis outfit, and simple lines for a liberated woman. Despite this he was also a notorious womanizer, some of which is hinted at in the novel; An evening gown by the designer from 1931.
Although Poiret (pictured left with a model in 1930) is only mentioned fleetingly in the novel, his spirit lives on in "Fabrice," one of the novel’s characters as well as Chanel’s main rival. The subject of a recent retrospective at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Poiret and Chanel’s vision of the modern woman were at complete odds with each other. While she saw woman in movement, taking part in the modern world, Poiret by contrast often envisioned his woman as kept objects, heavily adorned in embroidery, exotic feathers, and skirts so narrow at the ankle they impeded woman from taking full strides. Although he ruled over Paris fashion until the beginning of the First World War, he inevitably became a victim of his own success, unable to keep up with the changing times brought on by the onset of war.
But on this particular visit I’ve come to hear Gioia Diliberto, the Chicago based author of the critically acclaimed book I Am Madam X, speak about her latest work The Collection. It serves to remember that I Am Madam X was a breakthrough novel at the time it was first published. Long before the appearance of books (and subsequent films) such as the "Girl with the Pearl Earring," Diliberto was one of the first authors to create a work of historical fiction based on a famous painting. In this case the well known portrait of the same name by John Singer Sargent, which created a scandal and almost destroyed his career when it was first unveiled in 1884 at a Paris exhibition. Diliberto’s book explored the richly imagined world of Virginie Gautreau, a notorious American beauty from New Orleans who was a fixture of Paris’ demi monde and the model for Sargent's scandalous portrait. Dripping with Diliberto’s meticulous research on the period, the book was also a masterful exploration of Belle Époque society.
That same attention to historical detail can also be found in her latest offering The Collection. A novel also based in Paris but this time in the period between the Wars. Set at the cusp of the 1920’s, the book explores the world of Coco Chanel as well as a rare behind the scenes glimpse into her couture atelier through the eyes of the novel’s heroine, a seamstress by the name of Isabelle Varlet, who manages to secure a position at the Couturier’s workshops.
Diliberto has always been fascinated by Coco Chanel and her life, and for years toyed with the idea of writing a work of fiction around the designer. But it wasn’t until her aunt sent her a scrap book of sewing samples belonging to her grandmother that she knew her story had to be told threw the eyes of a seamstress. Then there is Angeline, another pivotal character within the novel. Yet Angeline is not a person, but a very challenging dress that Isabelle struggles to complete on the eve of a collection, not only to please Mademoiselle, but because the garment has come to symbolize her struggle over adversity.
Even more intriguing is the fact that Angeline actually existed and was presented by Chanel in 1919. But to find any trace of it involved an exhaustive amount of research on the author’s part. Assuming the zeal of an archeologist unearthing precious treasure, Diliberto, a former journalist and Manhattan transplant, carefully sifted through stacks of Vogues and Harper’s Bazaars dating from 1919. What she found was a murky ink print of the dress that didn’t give much in terms of detail, but a description was included in the form of a paragraph. With the help of her friend Billy Atwell, a designer and former instructor in the fashion department of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the author went through a crash coarse in couture sewing technique, jokingly admitting that she was a "disaster" at it and that all her lines turned out "crooked". But with the written description and his extensive knowledge of construction, Atwell was able to recreate an approximate copy of the dress out of muslin, the inexpensive material traditionally used in couture to produce "blueprints" of the designs before they are cut from expensive fabrics. Dilliberto’s research also involved observing the designers Michael Vollbracht and Maria Pinto at work in their ateliers, to better understand the process of creating a garment.
Through her book Ms. Diliberto was able to encapsulate a society in transition, capturing a moment in time when woman were experiencing a physical transformation (discarding the corset, shortening their skirts, and cutting their hair into short bobs) that was ultimately a reflection of a greater movement towards woman’s emancipation.
Although most associate Chanel’s signature with the tweed suit, camellia, quilted bag, and ropes of pearls, (which did not appear until her return to the couture arena in 1953) Diliberto’s novel exposes the reader to a different Chanel. Early on in her career she sought to liberate woman by creating modern streamlined shapes that reflected the new mood of the 20’s. The luxury she proposed was that of ease in dressing after the long reign of the corset, a process that required lengthy periods of time, and assistance, for woman to get dressed each day.
From right: The famous portrait of Coco Chanel taken by Horst in 1937. Three designs by the couturiers from the 1920’s which are very similar in style to those mentioned in Diliberto’s novel; A wool day dress from 1924, An embroidered evening dress 1924, Pink silk crepe chiffon evening dress 1925.
As a work of historical fiction it’s hard to ignore the fact that Diliberto’s current offering also appears to be both relevant and timely. Anyone with a firm interest in fashion will have probably seen Signé Chanel, Loïc Prigent's all engrossing documentary following the work of the Chanel ateliers in the weeks leading up to the Fall 2005 couture collections. In 2008, a new film entitled Coco Avant Chanel (Coco Before Chanel) will be released. Starring Audrey Tatou as the couturier, it will explore Chanel’s life before she became famous. Add to this a renewed interest in haute couture, which seems to be experiencing a resurgence in clients, as well as a blockbuster exhibit on the same subject currently being held at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and one begins to grasp the significance of The Collection as not only a work of fiction but also an opportunity to understand what makes haute couture so special.
Upon entering Woman and Children First I find Diliberto at the back of the store preparing for her reading. Far from looking like a modern day Gloria Steinem in utilitarian jeans and sensible shoes, she’s impeccably turned out in a dark suit (not a Chanel but by a local designer) and slick shiny pumps that cast a glint from the florescent lighting above. She not only gives off the impression of a woman who loves fashion, but points to the fact that feminism and strong woman writers in general can take on many forms.
At this particular moment Diliberto is experiencing some technical difficulties as she fidgets with her laptop, which stubbornly refuses to start up the slide show she’s put together for her lecture. Her teenage son Joe is enlisted to help with the unyielding computer, as a couple of friends and acquaintances gather around her offering help and bits of advice on how to fix it. Diliberto seems unfazed by this minor hiccup, joking with friends and greeting people as they come in. In fact one is so taken by how approachable she is and the warmth with which she greets strangers, that for a moment one forgets they are in the presence of a best selling author.
Looking around at the audience present in the room one can find many of the individuals Ms. Diliberto thanked or mentioned at the end of her book. There was Teresa Varlet, from whom the author acquired her heroine’s family name. An elegant and cosmopolitan woman who is a close family friend of Diliberto and her husband Richard Babcock (the editor of Chicago Magazine), she sat in the back row conversing with the author’s son Joe in fluent Italian (when only a few minutes ago he sounded like any other mid-western teenager). While in the front row sat Timothy Long, the curator of costumes at the Chicago History Museum, who aided Diliberto in her research by giving her access to the museum’s rare collection of early Chanels. (There will be a more in depth piece on Mr. Long to follow in the near future).
Seated next to me was a young woman who teaches an introductory fashion coarse at the School of the Art Institute and helps manage its costume collection. We chatted about her internship at Alexander McQueen’s in London during her student day’s, a conversation that leapt from the painstaking hours she spent assembling the dress for the finale of his fall 2004 collection, to the innovative presentation the designer showed the season before, recreating a circular ballroom, based on a 1969 Sydney Pollack movie, where the models danced till exhaustion.
In 2005 Loïc Prigent produced a documentary called Signé Chanel, that followed the famous house’s designer Karl Lagerfeld as well as the petite mains of the Chanel couture ateliers, as they went about creating the Fall 2005 collection. The documentary is one of the few to provide an in depth look into the inner workings of a couture house and painstaking hours needed to produce such rare garments. Although also based on the Chanel ateliers, Diliberto’s novel captures a completely different atmosphere at the turn of the century, where mademoiselle presided over her seamstresses with an iron hand.
Clockwise: The façade of 31 rue Cambon, which has been the seat of the Chanel empire since 1918. Through her meticulous research Diliberto offers a rare glimpse of the House in 1919; A picture of Chanel in the 1920’s getting into her car. The vehicle is featured in the novel and was a source of pride for her as she had purchased it with her own money; A picture of Chanel pinning a sleeve onto one of her models in the 1960’s, she worked up until her death in 1971. Diliberto gives us a glimpse of the couturier in her later years towards the end of the novel; Inside the Chanel atelier today; Signé Chanel made a household name out of Madame Martine and Madame Laurence, the premiers of the couture ateliers.
During this time Diliberto managed to resurrect her slide show, the lights dimmed, and the presentation began. Soon it became apparent why the slides were so important to this author, who is just as passionate about the meticulous research and cultural immersion she went through to create The Collection, as she is about the novels characters and the plot she spins around them. In many ways it’s the story of Chanel’s vision at its purist and most unadulterated, before the advent of the iconic camellia, quilted bag, chain belt, and a certain perfume. It was a time when Chanel was focused on creating a modern and unencumbered wardrobe, liberating woman from "fashion for the subservient and the helpless." Her deceptively simple dresses took hours to create by the skilled petite mains of her ateliers, yet they could be worn or removed by simply lifting them over ones head and shoulders without the need of cumbersome corsetry.
Through the book’s main character we learn about the inner workings of not only Chanel’s early atelier, but also that of her contemporaries at the time, such a Vionnet, Jean Patou, and Paul Poiret. This is not the first time Chanel or her contemporaries have been written about, as countless biographies can attest to. But Diliberto’s genius lies in taking that biographical information and weaving it into a fictional narrative that brings these individuals to life.
Like her previous novel, I am Madame X, which touched on the lives of Sargent and more precisely Virginie Gautreau, Diliberto seems fascinated by the American in Paris; those waves of expatriates, from Josephine Backer to Thomas Jefferson, who crossed the Atlantic in search of new lives and excitement on the continent. The Collection also seems to carry on that tradition with the inclusion of several key characters. There is Daniel Blank, a Franco-American writer who becomes Isabelle Varlet’s love interest. As well as Amanda Nichols, a wealthy American art dealer who is a frequent client at the Chanel Salon. More intriguing perhaps is a character by the name of Susanna Lawson, a British aristocrat working in Mademoiselle’s atelier, who bares a vague resemblance to Amanda Harlech (Karl Lagerfeld’s right hand at Chanel).
The slideshow complete, the lights flicker back on and Diliberto scans the room for questions from those in attendance. A woman in the back inquires if she owns a Chanel piece of her own, to which Mrs. Diliberto’s eyes light up with a smile. "Yes, a 1954 Chanel couture skirt with pockets. It’s a huge tulle skirt, printed with camellias and a row of gold buttons trailing down the back," she says with a hint of delight in her eyes, as if speaking of a prized possession. "I discovered it at a vintage store while in Washington D.C. and knew right then and there that it may be my one chance at owning a Chanel. I kept it for two years, vowing not to wear it until I finished the book." That moment finally came a few day’s prior to her lecture, when she hosted an intimate party for her friends at the Victorian row house she shares with her husband and teenage son, to celebrate the launch of her latest novel. But now that she’s worn it she admits that the voluminous confection’s only down side is that it takes up an extraordinary amount of closet space. But like her heroin Isabelle Varlet and her attachment to Angeline, one has the impression that Diliberto is not quite ready to part with her hard-earned Chanel skirt just yet.
Gioia Diliberto’s new novel is also unique in the way she exposes the reader to the mysteries of Haute Couture. Through her extensive research, as well as observing various designers at work in their ateliers, she was not only able to bring the garments to life, but also the meticulous way in which the they were constructed. The quest for perfection, the toile prototypes created out of muslin, the basting of seams, the waxing of thread, and all the tiny superstitions that the seamstresses hold onto. Through the novel we also learn that the Atelier Tailleur (the workshops responsible for tailoring, creating suits and working with stiffer fabrics) and the Atelier Flou (the workshops responsible for working with softer fabrics, creating dresses and evening gowns) form the backbone of a couture house, and play a prominent role within the novel. Pictured above are looks from Chanel’s Spring 2004 collection (top row) and Fall 2007 collection (bottom row).
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