10 Jan 2012

Hestia and Chanel...and Mme Lenormand

Forty one years ago today, the couturier and perfumier Coco Chanel died at the age of 88.

I've just finished reading Justine Picardie's biography of Chanel and found it a totally absorbing read.  Well-studded with photographs and reading fluidly, almost like a novel, Picardie's investigation into Chanel and her tangled background has been extensive - exploring everything from the fishing records from the Duke of Westminster's Scottish estate to the diary entries for Cecil Beaton.

And it really is a tangled but sparkly net that Chanel left behind.  Picardie doesn't set out to paint The Real Truth about Coco, because Chanel ruthlessly cut out and unpicked her past as mercilessly as she restitched her suits in the atelier at Rue Cambon.  Instead she lays out the various tales that Coco told, especially about her past, like frocks on the bed, and shows us all the beautiful work - some of it completely fictional - that Chanel created.

Relax! I'm not about to launch into a fashion blog.  Heck no!  Given that I am sitting here dressed in a ripped black polo neck, thermal vest, stylishly 'worn' trousers (with thermal leggings underneath), I am SO not the person to write a fashion-based piece!

That said, I did try on a classic little Chanel suit once.  It did absolutely nothing for me.  I looked like your maiden aunt - the one who works as a librarian and lives alone with 14 cats and photos of her 40 year-old hacking pony next to her bed.

It was deeply unflattering across a fuller bust,  transforming me into a short and stocky little brick.  Albeit a little brick with a Chanel suit.

But I digress ( as usual).....

This biography is a great read and doesn't shy away from some of the less attractive stories about Chanel (namely taking up with a German officer during the war and invoking Nazi-inspired property law to help lever some of her perfume business out of the hands of the Jews who ran it) and many little nuggets of the detail for even the walk-on walk-off characters in Chanel's life will remain with you long after you have slipped the book back onto your shelves.

That's the extent of my review!

What *I* wanted to talk to you about was Chanel's interest in the esoteric.  Did you know that her divination cards sit where she left them, on her dresser at the flat at Rue Cambon?  And that she selected the name for her eponymous fragrance because 5 was her lucky number?

I say 'divination cards' although Picardie does refer to them as Tarot cards.  However, they are not Tarot cards, but Lenormand cards - oh yes, there IS a difference.

And from what I can tell,  her Lenormand cards were the set known as The Red Owl (on account of it having a stylised red owl on the card back).

The Lenormand deck comes in many forms, but all are named after the top-notch French diviner of the Napoleonic period, Madame Marie Lenormand.

The decks were extremely popular in mainland Europe as divination tools.  However it proved less popular in the English-speaking world (it's still quite difficult to find books in English on the Lenormand).  The Red Owl issue is still in production today (by German publishing house Konigsfort)

Coco was certainly aware of the power of symbolism because she had been brought up by nuns at the Aubazine convent.  Indeed, Picardie painstakingly shows us how many aspects of the convent where Chanel spent most of her childhood undoubtedly influenced her style - in both symbolism and austerity.

This particular Lenormand was first published around 1920;   Intriguingly, she created her iconic perfume Chanel No 5 within 12 months of the deck being published.

Now,  of course, there is nothing to say that the numerology of the Lenormand influenced her choice of name; perhaps she was given these cards MANY years after their 1920 publication date.....but it's an interesting fact, nonetheless, don't you think?

Although information about Lenormand is quite sketchy (mine comes from the Lenormand Oracle  book by Sylvie Steinbach) but from what I can glean there are several similarities between the life of Marie Lenormand and the life of Gabrielle Chanel.

Both girls born (I think!) reasonably close to each other (Lenormand - Alencon, Chanel - Saumur)
Both girls were brought up in convents but did have siblings and extended family
Both spent some time in London.
Both worked as experts in their fields with the upper echelons in Parisian society - Lenormand not only worked with Napoleon and Josephine, but also the Revolutionaries Robespierre and Marrat.  Chanel not only dressed the great and good of Parisian society, she dressed the wives of German officers AND Jaqueline Kennedy.
Both women never married.
Both women were childless.
Both had nephews who greatly benefited from their wealthy, famous aunts.
Lenormand is considered France's greatest cartomancer of all time.  And Chanel its greatest designer.

Was the little designer aware of any of the similarities between her own life and that of the card-reader? Probably not - or else JP would have sniffed them out for the book, without a doubt.

But Chanel WAS superstitious and the number five was her lucky number - the perfumier, Beaux, who created the scent recalled: ' I came to present my creations, two series No 1 - 5 and 20 - 24.  She chose a few, one of which was No 5.  "What should it be called?" I asked.  Mademoiselle Chanel replied, 'I'm presenting my dress collection on the 5th of May, the fifth month of the year; let's leave the name No 5." This number would bring her luck.'

She had also been influenced by the Theosophic system, introduced to her by her lover, Boy Capel sometime after they met in 1909.  Picardie wonders whether the numerical value of five 'as a representative of the fifth element, the legendary quinta essentia of the alchemists' could have had some bearing on her attachment to the number?

Too fanciful?  Maybe :-)

And what does Chanel's beloved Lenormand deck have to say about the number five?

This is an image of the card used in Ms Picardie's book.

Translation of the card's text, from the German (taken from 'Coco Chanel' by Justine Picardie)

"Should you see a rooted tree
You will always look upon yourself as being healthy
And should there be many trees
Your goal shall soon be near"

Your goal shall soon be near - how fab would THAT be to receive as a message when you are just about to launch a new fragrance?!

Interestingly, the interpretation given on the site from whence I purloined the image says:

The Tree shows you your own roots 
Keep your good health and the good circumstances in life!
This includes also maintain relationships with old friends.
Don´t be self-destructable!!
The tree of knowledge, or the tree of life - he shows you how and where you are rooted. Where your problems are or where have found your security in life.

Chanel was the consummate Fan Dancing expert as far as hiding her own roots was concerned - show a little here, hide a little there, fluff things up a bit, keep people guessing! Paradoxically, symbols of those hidden roots can be seen in her designs - everything from the interlocking double c of her logo can be traced back to images that she must have been aware of (at least subliminally) at Aubazine.

The tree shows you your own roots: the thing that grows - Chanel's empire - shows her own roots.

Chanel - Boris Lipnitzki (1936)

Coco Chanel  - 19 August 1883 – 10 January 1971


  1. I seem to be leaving comments on various blogs, swearing that I'll put books they recommend on my must-read-list - I think this is the 4th, including one someone at work told me about today. But I DO want to read this one - Elle Deco's style icon is Duke Fulco di Verdura who did some of her jewellery, and I'd started reading up on her background. Disappointly, she was homophobic, but a great lifestory anyhow. ps was that the book you were reading in your glamourous head-torch attire? x

  2. Trashsparkle - no, in bed I was reading some sort of Get your Life Shit Together sort of thing. I just read 'em, I don't actually DO anything in them. Much like diet books lol!

    Ali x

  3. That photo reminds me of the actress Harriet Walter.

  4. First and foremost, Happy New Year Ali, apologies for being such a lousy blogger recently.

    Secondly, great post Ali, your a fabulous writer whatever the subject matter. This was fascinating, I am going to have to read the book again. I suspect she consulted the cards often. There do seem to be many parallels between her life and Lenormands life, although I doubt she would have been aware of the similarities, at least not until she was quite an advanced age.

  5. I keep meaning to buy this book - I went to hear Justine Picardie talk at the V&A, just after it was published and she spoke very eloquently about Chanel.

    Happy New Year!

  6. Mrs TNMA - HAPPY NEW YEAR! I think that the V&A is a wonderful place. I spent almost my entire allotted time in the jewellery gallery where I just shuffled from case to case, wondering if it was all real! JP clearly knows her (French) onions as there is a ton of detail effortlessly draped through the book - not awkwardly crammed in. I recommend it heartily!

    Dash - good to see you - have not been able to get along to everyone's blog what with the crap weather, but hope to get back into swing of it all soon. Thanks for the kind words - it's a great biography, isn't it?

    Viv - honestly, it's Chanel. Smoking a fag. The other picture that I thought about using also has her smoking a fag. It was cool to do so. Now it is much cooler not to smoke. So keep on keeping off them!

    Ali x

  7. I do enjoy reading your posts AliX, I frequently learn something new.
    To be fair, it's not always something I really wished to know, but it does build up that store of general knowledge, essential to being a bloke.

    No. 5, well I never.

    I do buy it sometimes for Mrs TSB, but it's too bloody expensive for me.

    Keep going on the blogs.
    BTW, are you using your new iPad to blog, or on your other computer?

  8. TSB - no not using ipad to blog. Mainly using it to play Angry Birds, if I'm honest! I need to look at some more apps!

    And the next time you are in the Perfume Department feeling intimidated by the immaculate make-up mavens, you will know, deep in the cleft of yourself that your knowledge of Chanel is deeper than theirs ;-)

    Ali x

  9. I saw an interesting film last year called Coco before Chanel, about her humble origins as a seamstress and her rise to fame (which seemed to involve a great deal of flirting with rich men who own horses, but then we've all got to use the talents we have). Then Picardie's book came out and there was a good review of it in the LRB which, as you say, pointed out the special treatment she got from the Nazis and selective way the film presented her life.

    But all the same Coco Chanel, the perfume is great and I have a large bottle of it which I found on a train. I use it myself now, and sod whether it's a "woman's" perfume.

  10. Two things

    1. I need to read this book.

    2. This is absolutely beautiful writing. I love this post. Love it. Fasciniating stuff in ehre that I did not know and am now intrigued to discover more of.

    Thank you

  11. Really interesting, well-written post, Ali, makes me want to read the book.

  12. Pastcaring - thank you! I think you'd enjoy it.

    Siobhan - my copy came from the library otherwise I would have sent it to you!

    Looby - I must have a look for that film - sounds interesting. For some reason I seem to have read two other biographies on Chanel....and don't really know how that happened as I'm not big on fashion :-)

    Ali x

  13. How very interesting. I have been blocked from sending a link to this blog post by Facebook. Wonder what they take offence to in this little posting that outweighs all the animal cruelty photos that people seem to be able to post to my wall?


  14. Facebook is having a moment, I'm sure. Fascinating post. I loved the Kennedy-Lincoln thing you did with Lenormand and Chanel. Book is going on my Kindle wishlist now. :D

  15. Arwen - the esoteric side of things is only a tiny facet of the book - but it is a great book anyway!

  16. I still wear Chanel eau de perfume daily, as does my grandmother; it's out little luxury, one bottle a year purchased with my loyalty points. I have always admired Chanel as a designer, but was in no doubt of her ruthlessness to get where she wanted. Regardless, her clothes were timeless and as much as they don't flatter me either, I would still love to own one of her little black suits.

    All in all a fascinating woman, and I knew a little her superstitious nature already, but am grateful to learn more. That book is going on my wishlist, too.

    Thanks for a wonderfully written and engaging post, Allison.

  17. briliant....and has happily kept me away from more pressing duties.......Coco is endlessly fascinating from the little black dress to the Nazis (so right/so wrong)......bizarrely Justine has popped up several times in my week, I once met her and she was lovely when I asked her to sign my copy of If The Spirit Moves You.....an excellent book for the bereaved but probably after a couple of years.....about the search for contact with her dead sister, Ruth. Wouldn't mind some divination myself, this year has got off to an odd start and don't seem to beable to shake off the fuck-it-all fug am in........!!

  18. YAH - I'll pull a couple of cards for you if you think it will help -mail me - my addy is over on the right underneath 'What's a girl to do.'

    Ancestral Celt - thank you for stopping by! I love Chanel no5 myself. Although the bottle I've got now smells a little more pungent than it probably ought to! Time for a new bottle perhaps :-)

    Ali x

  19. Greetings:

    Picardie says "Tarot", but you are saying, no they were Lenormand. What is your source in contradicting the author.

  20. Izzydunne - A Tarot deck traditionally has 78 cards and is composed of a Major Arcana and a Minor Arcana (the former of 22 cards and the latter of 56).

    Some Tarot decks are even larger than 78 cards, such as the Minchiate.

    Chanel's deck is known as a Lenormand and there are a great many variations available - including a Lenormand Tarot. The Lenormand Tarot is a very recent publication.

    If you check the link where I obtained the scan of the card replicated in Picardie's book, it is definitely the Lenormand Red Owl edition.

    The deck of cards in Mme Chanel's room is depicted in Ms Picardie's book and it is a Lenormand pack of cards which are not the same as Tarot - being only 36 cards in total and not comprising of separate arcanas.

    Both decks are used for divination, but not in the same way. I would thoroughly recommend Ms Steinbach's book if you wished to use the Lenormand.

    I have been the Chairman of the Tarot Association of The British Isles for four and a half years and edited the organisation's Tarot e-zine for about four years in total.

    The piece was meant with no disrespect to Ms Picardie, it was just an interesting observation that I made and thought that it might make an interesting read on the anniversary of Mlle Chanel's death.

    Alison Cross

  21. ...also, there are only 36 cards in the Lenormand, making it too small to be considered a Tarot and entirely different in structure.


  22. Tarot is often used as a blanket term for any cards used for divination, but most people familiar with card divination and tarot would classify Lenormand cards as an Oracle, rather than a Tarot deck.

  23. Izzyydunne - I neglected to put in my blog post that the card image that I use here is identical to the card published in the book. However, in the book it is shown in black and white (very Chanel lol!) I have added an additional line to clarify that :-)

    Ali x

  24. Thank you for this - I'd been wondering about getting this biog, and I definitely will now!

  25. Izzydunne & Hestia.

    In Mlle’s Chanel’s apartment there is a drawer in her salon where the Swiss Red Owl deck is kept. It is thought Mlle Chanel acquired the deck in Lausanne Switzerland, where she lived for a time and is now at rest in the Bois-de-Voux cemetery. Her grave carries lions as Mlle was a proud Leo. In her apartment there are many Lions, a crystal ball, as well as wheat. She also had the doors made of glass to hide them, but also out of an old French superstition.

    The Red and Blue Owl are variants of a set of German divination cards known as le petit de Lenormand, to distinguish them from another French deck known as le grand jeu de Lenormand both named after Mlle. MariƩ Anne Adelaide Lenormand.

    Le petit jeu is derived from a German board-game, made of cards, and was published as a divinatory deck in the mid-19th century, using Lenormand’s name. It is distinct for having 36 cards which are read in combinations – vertical, horizontal, diagonal, and so on - when dealt out. They are quite distinct to other cartomancy systems in that they do not follow playing card, tarot, or salon interpretation.

    Tarot, in contrast, is a specific set of card gaming cards (likely Milanese), that number 78 – comprising of one Fool, 21 trumps, 40 pip cards and 16 court cards. A Florentine variation has 98 cards and is known as the Minchiate tarot.

    Whilst the author could have called either tarot or petit jeu oracle cards and been correct, referring to the Lenormand as tarot is incorrect.

  26. Thank you Andy for posting the additional information on Mme Chanel's divinatory items.


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