Colette: The Grit & Grandeur of Paris

Colette: The Grit & Grandeur of Paris

Sarah Coffey
Oct 12, 2010

This year marks the 100th anniversary of The Vagabond, Colette's classic novel that describes the simultaneous decadence and grittiness of Paris in 1910. The book is set against the backdrop of the music-hall dressing room, the vaudeville stage, and — probably most interesting to Apartment Therapy readers — the bohemian Parisian flat.

Henri de Tolouse Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge, 1892/1895

Like many of Colette's books, The Vagabond is about a woman — Renée Néré — who has chosen an unconventional path. As the book begins, she's divorced, making a living at the music-hall, and renting an apartment in a building that "compassionately shelters quite a colony of 'ladies on their own'." This passage offers a glimpse into the way the author used interior décor to allude to a character's outsider status:

    "The problem is, since I have been living alone, that I have had to live, then divorce, then to go on living. To do all that demands incredible activity and persistence. And to get where? Is there, for me, no other haven than this commonplace room done up in gimcrack Louis XVI?"

A celebrated novelist in her lifetime, Colette wrote about the material world — including fashion, nightlife, food, and interior design — in a way that was substantial enough to earn her a lasting place in the literary canon but commercially appealing enough to inspire a branded mini-empire.

Michelle Pfeiffer in the 2009 film adaptation of Cheri

Her first novels — a series of semi-autobiographical books about a heroine named Claudine — inspired "Claudine" cigarettes and face powders at the beginning of the 1900s. Even today, her legacy is tied to commercial success. Her name now belongs to a contemporary cutting-edge Parisian boutique, located just blocks away from her former apartment at the Palais Royal, and just last year, Michelle Pfeiffer starred in the 10th film adaptation of one of her novels, the 1920 book Chéri.