The Collection, A Novel by Gioia Diliberto
From the dust jacket
“A fascinating look behind the public salons of haute couture into the workrooms of the imperious Coco Chanel herself, revealing the hierarchies, jealousies, fierce ambitions, and treacheries of an industry that trades on elegance. Seamstress Isabelle Varlet has our sympathy from the first stunning line to the bittersweet ending, and Gioia Diliberto pulls us along on a thread knotted with surprises. A thoroughly enjoyable read.” blurb by Susan Vreeland
I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation from Scribner to receive an advance copy of this book with the request that after I read it, I’d write a review on my blog.
This book will appeal to those who sew, who’re interested in couture, and to those who consider themselves fashionistas. If you’re reading this blog, that probably applies to you.
I have to say that I really enjoyed reading this book, for the peek it gives inside the couture ateliers in the heyday of Chanel and Patou, who were apparently bitter rivals. At the same time, it brought up all sorts of questions in my mind, about how accurate a portrayal this book is. The picture Ms Diliberto painted of Madame Chanel is really less than flattering. So I kept going back to the title page:
From the title page: “This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the authors imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead is entirely coincidental” It wasn’t until I finished reading the book, and read the authors note at the end that I gained an understanding of where the fictional characters ended and where the real-life portrayals began. I’d suggest that before beginning reading, you turn to page 269 and read the authors note. It’ll eliminate some of the confusion.
On character development and plot development I’d not give this book great marks. The characters, even Isabelle Varlet, the seamstress around whose life the story revolves, are flat and one dimensional. The idea of Isabelle leaving the country and immediately, easily being hired into the Chanel atelier as a seamstress stretches ones ability to suspend disbelief. I have a hard time agreeing with Susan Vreeland that from the first we are able to identify with the protagonist. Because of that, I don’t see that this book will have broad appeal.
However, the descriptions of the creation of the couture collections, from the sketches to the making of the toiles, to the eventual descriptions of the construction, makes it a must-read in my opinion for anyone interested in haute couture.
She really covers the details; the division of labor in the workrooms, the working conditions, and the process. “At Chanel the workrooms were by no means palatial, and Mademoiselle did little for her employees’ comfort—we sat on hard benches, there was no comfortable dining room or cloak room, the ventilation was bad. But the spirit of artistry compensated for the lack of amenities. The work was organized around time-honored traditions, and most of it was done by hand. How else could you control the fabric and shape a garment? Sewing machines were used sometimes for seams and to assemble the heavier garments. But the machines could never replace human hands.”
She also paints a portrait of Gabrielle (
I’m interested to find out more. Was Coco Chanel really such a monster? What were the rivalries like in that era? The author kindly gives us a bibliography at the end of the book.
On the whole, I’d recommend it to any reader of this blog – knowing that you’re interested in the creation of fashion.