Posted by Kelsey Nichols
"Defiant people." That is what Linda Simon, associate chair and professor of the English department, reveals as her favorite subject. Her most recent book, "Coco Chanel," is a biography on the world famous fashion icon, a woman who was nothing if not defiant.
Since Simon's first book, "The Biography of Alice B. Toklas," was published in 1977, she has written about individuals celebrated more for their intellectual abilities than their fashion sense. William James and Gertrude Stein are some of her previous subjects. But the inspiration to research Chanel came suddenly and powerfully.
"One morning I just woke up and thought, whoa!, Coco Chanel would be so much fun to write about!" she said. Simon found this emblematic celebrity to have much more than just a knack for picking out the right handbag.
Born in 1883, this eventual fashion goddess was raised in a world far removed from the glamor she projected. Chanel was born an illegitimate child and experienced extreme poverty. Her father also abandoned her family when she was quite young.
Simon says that her father's abandonment led Chanel to become a lonely woman who was constantly afraid of losing everything. This was especially the case with regards to love, and Chanel used her petite and flat chested frame as a model for her clothes in order to foster some control over her life. This choice led to an epidemic of extreme dieting among women.
According to Simon, Chanel was a "bundle of contradictions" who tried to mask the loneliness she felt in her personal life by saying and doing radical things in public. However, even though Chanel may not have had the most upstanding moral character, Simon still finds intensely admirable qualities within this woman. She greatly respects Chanel's ambition and her tenaciousness.
"She really wanted something in life. She believed in her own talent and she worked very, very hard for what she got."
From Simon's initial revelation about Chanel until the publishing of the book in September 2011, the process of creating this examination of the fashionista's life took a little more than two years. Fortunately, the project was far from tedious. Simon began her research in the summer of 2009, and in the fall of the same year, she was given permission to tour and research within the Chanel Archives in Paris, France.
Simon described the experience as something that is not akin with reality. In the archives, one comes across diamond cuffs fine as lace, and the gown that Robin Wright wore to the Cannes Film Festival hangs on the door. Drape after drape of beautiful fabric rests in a way that Simon said was enormously glamorous, a compliment that Chanel would have surely reveled in. After returning from her time in France, Simon took a sabbatical to concentrate on her research and to finishing the book.
Simon admits that her complex subject has created an equally complex message for the biography. "Coco Chanel was not a nice person. I would like people to think about why they admire the people they admire and what that says about us and our needs," Simon said.
Simon's current project is a cultural history of the circus and will be her second work for Reaktion Books, a publishing house based in London.