THE legend of Coco Chanel has inspired countless books and magazine articles. The scurrilous rumours of Chanel's private life, her humble beginnings and the rise of the House of Chanel are well-documented. But Chanel: The couturiere at work (by Amy De La Haye and Shelley Tobin, V&A pounds 16.95) takes a rigorous view. The book is dedicated to the innovations of the designer and her extraordinary influence in womenswear.

The authors detail the progression of Chanel's career as she relieved women from the constraints of fashion at the turn of the century. Her designs were neat, trim and entirely lacking in fussy details. Taking her initial inspiration from riding clothes, she shocked the aristocracy by refusing to ride side-saddle, by wearing men's jodhpurs and a shirt instead of heavy dresses.

Chanel later remarked: 'Dressing women is not a man's job. They dress them badly because they scorn them.' Chanel always started a design by looking at the female body rather than forcing women to conform to her vision.

Instead of sketching on paper, Chanel worked with textures, looking carefully at the way the fabric fell when on the model. In return for this perfection, Chanel's house models were required to stand still for hours as she deftly worked the material into the right shape, often sticking pins into tired and recalcitrant mannequins.

De La Haye and Tobin's book includes many photographs of Chanel's most famous designs accompanied by detailed descriptions, noting the influence, cut and particular accessories that Chanel would have chosen for the outfit.

Studio portraits of Chanel in her own designs are complemented by rare illustrations of her work from the fashion magazines of the day and private glimpses of Chanel repinning and rearranging models backstage.

A delightful homage to an extraordinary couturiere.

(Photograph omitted)

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