War Hero and…Fashion Writer? The Life and Work of Edmonde Charles-Roux

From 1954 to 1966, Edmonde Charles-Roux was the holder of a fashionista’s dream. It was her mind that shaped one of the top publications in the fashion industry as the editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris. A Charles-Roux issue intertwined eye-catching photography and high-end fashions with text on art, culture, and society. She approached the fashion industry as an “…evolving social history, and as France’s major export and source of identity.” Charles-Roux explained, “For me, fashion has never been frivolous.”

But as the saying goes, “One day you’re in, and one day, you’re out.” In 1966, Charles-Roux was abruptly dismissed as the head of Vogue Paris. She told the press that the firing was due to a disagreement over the magazine’s direction. When inquired on why Charles-Roux was no longer employed by the publication, Vogue Paris’ editorial board stated that she resigned. Charles-Roux believed that she held the publication to a higher standard than what others wanted to put out. “We have always wanted more cultural coverage,” stated the president of Vogue Paris Henry A. Bertrand. “But, of course, this coverage must conform to a fashion magazine.”

A secret source told The New York Times that Charles-Roux was too old-fashioned to lead the magazine; she often wore conservative, Chanel suits with a signature pearl necklace and slicked-back chignon to work and public events. Another theory proposed it was the former editor-in-chief’s last cover that caused her firing. If it went to plan, the June 1966 issue would have been covered by model-of-the-moment Donyale Luna. Tall, thin, and with a beautiful face, the American-born model was the living embodiment of the Swinging ’60s. She was also one of the most prominent Black models to work in the high fashion industry. For a fashion-forward publication like Vogue Paris, Luna was a perfect choice.

The cover was shot by the equally cool French photographer William Klein, who was a favorite of Charles-Roux. But when the issue was sat on news kiosks, a White model captured by photographer Marc Hispard appeared on the cover. The abrupt change was said to be due to the editorial board’s worry of advertisers revoking their accounts in response to a Black cover model.

As she was adjusting to her new life as an unemployed editor, Charles-Roux was unknowingly on the cusp of the biggest moment of her writing career. The same year of her firing, she was awarded France’s most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt. The prize was not for any of her magazine work. Instead, it was to acknowledge her newly released novel, Oublier Palermo (1966). According to the New York Times, the book was the first novelized story with an American setting to win the award.

Charles-Roux crafted the story after attending a workshop held by novelist Maurice Druon. She wrote during her free time and sourced inspiration from her day job. Her former employer addressed the novel, backhandedly explaining, “We are very proud of Edmonde and we have always admired the way she writes. She should be grateful to Vogue. She might never have written the book if she had stayed.”

Charles-Roux included another mention of the fashion industry in her second book Elle, Adrienne (1973). When the time came for her to draft her third text, the author decided that a nonfiction story was her next move. She continued to be inspired by fashion and took on the life of then-living designer and icon Coco Chanel. Despite Charles-Roux’s experience in the French fashion and literary world, and her penchant for the designer’s suits, Chanel was not interested in anyone interpreting her life. 

Images via 1, 2, 3

When Chanel refused to speak to the author, Charles-Roux sustained. “Chanel’s famous nostrils flared. She blew smoke,” she later informed The Times. “She would not supply information or photographs. I knew I would have to do it on my own. She would never talk to me again.”

This may have been a blessing because, as Charles-Roux explained in the biography, the fashion designer often told romanticized tales of her early life to deter from the actualities of her past. When Chanel and Her World was released in 1976, readers dived their noses into the book to discover the true story of one of the world’s most successful and mysterious fashion designers. Chanel’s response was, as expected, silence.

Although the book was successful, writing about a famed, powerful, and living person is a significant risk for a nonfiction writer. This would have been especially perilous for someone like Charles-Roux, who had already experienced a public controversy. But the mores and goings-on of the elite were far from a foreign concept for her. She came from privilege, born in 1920 Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, to a wealthy and influential family of businessmen and politicians.

Young Edmonde did not stay long in France; herself, brother, sister, and mother followed their father/husband Francois around the world. He served as an ambassador of France, which required the family to live in Cairo, Istanbul, London, Prague, St. Petersburg, and Rome.

WWII brought Charles-Roux and her family back to France. There, the teenager experienced the most dangerous careers she would ever take on as a war nurse and ambulance driver. She assisted the French Resistance and was wounded twice during battles. Her bravery would later be awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor.

Once the war ended, and her wounds were healed, Charles-Roux found a job through a Marseille shipowner who was investing in a new publication called Elle. Starting in 1946, she wrote content for a female audience and supplemented her portfolio with freelance work at France-Soir and Vogue Paris. Like the reader, she was experiencing a new France that was healing from the trauma of war, and she was a part of the first generation of French women to gain the right to vote. Her writing and editing reflected this new era for her country’s women and was the reason why she was hired in 1948 by Vogue Paris.

In her later years, Charles-Roux continued her writing. She wrote novels and nonfiction, including two biographical volumes on Swiss explorer Isabelle Eberhardt. In 1983, Charles-Roux became a second-seat member of the Academie Goncourt and president in 2002.

Despite experiencing a diverse and successful writing career, it was not her sole focus. Charles-Roux lent her time to photography and in her marriage to politician Gaston Defferre, who spent thirty-three years as the mayor of Marseille. Her life as the mayor’s wife and former fashion editor sometimes crossed. When a law was passed in 1982 that prevented French politician wives from receiving free clothing from designers, Charles-Roux praised the mandate. “One doesn’t need free clothes to do the work we do. The tradition of free clothes is not normal, and it is good to put the whole thing straight from the beginning.”

Although she often said, “The artist must be dangerously alone,” Charles-Roux had an active social life that was collected from the many jobs and roles she took on. She hobnobbed with the French literary scene, rallied with socialists, and attended glittering parties held by the fashion industry. When Charles-Roux passed away in 2016, all of those corners of French society came together to remember the writer.

Those wanting to learn more about Edmonde Charles-Roux’s life should check out Jean-Noel Liaut’s biography, Elle Edmonde.

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