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Coco or the Little Black Dress

A delightful and feminist romp through the well-known tale of Coco Chanel’s iconoclastic rise to fashion prominence is the subject of Annemarie van Haeringen new children’s book.

By Gabrielle Kennedy /asdf 10-10-2013

A new exhibition at the Gemeente Museum Den Haag - The Chanel Legend - tells the story of Coco Chanel and her celebrated fashion house. 

The exhibition includes a range of top items, including original Chanel designs from the 1920s and ’30s, women’s suits from the 1960s and creations once worn by star clients like Marlene Dietrich, Romy Schneider and Her Majesty Queen Paola of Belgium.

To coincide with the exhibition top Dutch children’s author and illustrator Annemarie van Haeringen has written a new charming tale suitable for all ages – “Coco or the Little Black Dress.”

The book tells the captivating tale of the decidedly dull childhood of a small girl (Coco Chanel) whose innate charm and talents are at odds with the strict bareness of her surrounds. She feels abandoned and lonely.

Van Haeringen’s illustrations cleverly show how Chanel never really abandons the aesthetic she was exposed to as a child.  Black  - the colour of the nun’s habits and the surrounding ponds in winter – remains her palette of choice.  The formless shift frocks and narrow shoulders are not at all dissimilar to the garb worn by her no-nonsense carers at the orphanage.

This makes good sense considering it was the nuns who taught her how to “sew like an angel”.  When Chanel eventually gets lodgings in the house of an aristocrat the ladies-of-luxury are not depicted as the ones with a superior grasp on beauty.  Rather, their hats are depicted as burdensome and their gowns as vulgar and unnecessarily frivolous.

“How can you think when you have a dead pigeon on your head?” Chanel says.

On a roll the young designer borrows jodhpurs from a stable boy to study construction and starts to make functional although always elegant attire.

But it was her cheap straw hats that she decorated herself that lead to Chanel’s first opportunity – a bunch of orders from local ladies who wanted to wear them to the horse races.

“No more fruit baskets” was the will of the women with enough cash to spare.

Chanel opened her first shop and was soon adding to her hat orders with loose fitting comfortable dresses in jersey knit that had pockets and allowed women to ride bikes.  They were subtle, and sat like a second skin.

Soon wealthy ladies are leaping across the pages tossing away their restrictive corsets. The feminist agenda of this tale is both understated and intelligent.  Chanel bucks convention and her audience soon tires of traditional and limiting looks that no longer reflect their lifestyles.

Chanel’s only aesthetic obstacle was that her customers initially wanted her dresses in every colour but black.  

“But black is everything,” Coco says to them.  “In black you see the woman who wears the dress.”

Their minds changed and soon every fashionable woman owned a little black dress.

And Coco was no longer a nobody.

Many children growing up in the Netherlands are familiar with Annemarie van Haeringen’s other books – “The Princess with the Long Hair”, “Malmok”, “Bear for Butterfly” and the series about “Little Donkey”. Her boldly coloured illustrations transport the reader into a world of enchantment. Van Haeringen has won the Dutch Golden Brush award (the most important Dutch prize for children’s book illustrators) on several occasions and was awarded the Silver Pencil for “Het begin van de Zee”.

"The Chanel Legend" runs until 2nd February 2014

("Coco or the Little Black Dress" is currently only available in Dutch.)

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