Review: "The Chanel Sisters," | Reviewed by Pat Sainz
I like reading books that lead me to Google searches about a topic or to other books about the same subject. Such was the case with the fictional biography, “The Chanel Sisters,” by Judithe Little. The story is about the life of Coco Chanel and her sisters Antoinette and Julia-Berthe between the years 1897 and 1921. The focus is on Antoinette, the younger sister of Coco (whose real name was Gabrielle). Julia-Berthe is one year older than Coco.
Not a lot is known about the less famous sisters, but the author imagines the lives of Antoinette and Julia-Berthe based on facts found through records or Coco’s own reminisces. It is likely that Antoinette was an important business partner of Coco Chanel and remained by her side through the initial openings of her stores. Antoinette was an impeccable seamstress and made the hats that gave Coco her reluctant start in the fashion business.
Julia-Berthe seemed to have learning disabilities and spent her adult life helping her grandparents with their dry goods business. She had a son out-of-wedlock, Andre, whom Antoiette and Coco adopted from an orphanage when he was 8-years-old.
Andre was the sole inheritor of Coco Chanel’s assets upon her death in 1971. Rumors persist that Andre was really Coco’s child. Coco Chanel never married but was involved with high-powered, wealthy men her whole life. Her paramour provided the seed money for the purchase of her first store, conveniently located across from the Paris Ritz-Carlton
The Chanel sisters were young when their father abandoned them upon their mother’s death. They were raised by nuns in a convent in France. There they learned to sew, to keep a routine and to strive to become “Something Better” which was a theme throughout their lives. At the convent Coco Chanel also learned to appreciate the beauty and power in wearing black and the importance of wearing functional clothes.
Upon leaving the convent, Coco and Antoinette began their independent lives as hat makers. Coco’s simple yet fashionable hats became the rage when actresses began wearing them in plays and when Coco was featured in a magazine wearing one of her own hats.
Coco Chanel never wanted to be in fashion; she wanted to be a singer or a dancer. Not having the talent for a career in those arts, she was forced for financial reasons to join her younger sister in the hat-making business. Antoinette was not only an expert seamstress, she was also a natural salesperson. She deferred to her sister in all things and accepted Coco’s need to be part of high society.
During World War I, the Chanel sisters realized that the days of women wearing frills and flounces were over. They began making more austere but unique clothing that attracted wealthy buyers. The Chanel brand began its journey, one that continues today with slight changes in style and fabric to meet the times.
Records show that Antoinette married a Canadian aviator. She quickly discovered that her husband had deceived her about his wealth and community standing. She escaped and ended up in Argentina where she had followed the still- married love of her life. She had spent years as his mistress in France before her doomed marriage..
Antoinette died in 1921 in her early 30s of disputed reasons; illness or a drug overdose. Her sister Coco reportedly was a drug addict her entire life so some think Antoinette may have been, too.
Never too interested in fashion, I now find myself wanting to purchase one of those coffee-table books of Chanel creations. I will now notice the development of the Chanel lines through the historical perspective of fashion as it is adapted to meet the needs of society.