“If you were born without wings,
do nothing to prevent them from growing “
“I don’t do fashion, I am fashion.” she said ‘With her trademark suits and little black dresses, fashion designer Coco Chanel created timeless designs that are still popular today. After all, to quote Coco, “Fashion fades. Only style remains the same.”
And whatever we might say about her…and today that encompasses a wide world of compliments and equally wide range of condemnations, she certainly had “style’. It was not just what she did, it was how she did it…and, as stunningly at times, what she said about it and herself. “Saint Laurent has excellent taste. The more he copies me, the better taste he displays.”
Coco Chanel wasn’t just ahead of her time. She was ahead of herself. If one looks at the work of contemporary fashion designers as different from one another as Tom Ford, Helmut Lang, Miuccia Prada, Jil Sander and Donatella Versace, one sees that many of their strategies echo what Chanel once did. ‘
“Salome danced. Scheherazade told tales. In the face of powerful, dangerous men, they used their skills differently. But both were beautiful, cunning, unafraid to employ sex for political ends. It’s a well-worn story, an archetype for the ages. But give that mythic siren a bit of documentary detail, ally her with Nazis, make her a spy and a Jew-hater, and the plot becomes startling. It shocks us all over again.”
Malcom Muggeridge/ Sunday Times Weekly Review
COCO CHANEL: I have heard so much about you, Mr. Muggeridge. I believe you have come to liberate us. How very solicitous of you.
MALCOLM MUGGERIDGE: Even so. Could I perhaps elicit some intelligence from you concerning your valiant deeds during these past years? By the way, please understand that I have liberated no-one and nothing.
Coco: Have you been acquainted with the FFI investigation?
Malcolm: If I wished, a copy of their report on you could reach me by tomorrow. But I would much prefer to hear your side of the story. Did the FFI demean themselves towards you with reasonable courtesy?
Coco: It is odd how my feelings have evolved. At first, their conduct incensed me. Now, I feel almost sorry for those ruffians. One should refrain from contempt for the baser specimens of humanity, for whom liberation amounts to shaving the heads of women who have slept with Germans.
Malcolm: Should I take it that you have a low regard for the Resistance?
Coco A major shortcoming of the Resistance is the outnumbering, before long, of the genuine warriors by camera-carrying midgets intent on leaving a record of their purported heroism.
Malcolm: Surely General de Gaulle does not fit this description?
Coco: You’re right. He is too tall to qualify as a midget.
Malcolm: Does he not inspire in you one spark of appreciation?
Coco: I wholeheartedly welcomed his eulogy of French valour, to which he attributed the liberation of Paris. Have you listened to him lately? He will soon be claiming that the Resistance has liberated the world. And why shouldn’t he? A countless following of French half-wits will believe him.
Malcolm: Have politics ever riveted your attention?
Coco: No. Mediocrity doesn’t appeal to me.
And the best antidote to the wave of sound bites and mind bites resulting from the debunking of the icon’s myth, and upon which we shall rely below, can be found
The Secret life of Coco Chanel. a serialisation of Justine Picardie’s new biography of Coco Chanel, Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life’ (HarperCollins, £25)
THE COCO STORY: ONCE UPON A TIME…..
Chanel was born in poorhouse in Saumur, a market town on the river Loire. when her father Henri-Albert (known as Albert) listed as a marchland , or merchant was 28. Her mother figures only as a shadowy invalid in Gabrielle’s memories. Chanel was to claim that her mother died of tuberculosis, which was not necessarily an accurate diagnosis of what killed Jeanne; poverty, pregnancy and pneumonia were as likely to blame. After their mother’s death Albert took the children to Aubazine, and there he abandoned them. Her brothers were left with a peasant family and the three girls were handed over to the nuns who ran an orphanage within the abbey walls.
Unsurprisingly, at the start of her life..and her new career in design, Coco dressed like a young convent girl or a schoolboy One can see how her style evolved out of necessity and defiance time and again over those years and decades to follow. She couldn’t afford the fashionable clothes of the period–so she rejected them and made her own, using, as she did later some common elements, such as the sports jackets and ties that were everyday male attire around the racetrack, where she was climbing her first social ladder
The loose-fitting sweater, which she belted and teamed with a skirt were similar to the clothes she had been making for herself–women’s clothes made out of Everyman materials such as jersey, usually associated with men’s undergarments.
She started with hats and made hats that were stripped of embellishments, of the frills and furbelows that she dismissed as weighing a woman down, and being too cumbersome to let her think straight. They weren’t entirely original – at first, she bought simple straw boaters from the Galeries Lafayette department store, and then trimmed them with ribbon – but they were chic. And she worked with what she had at hand, to suit the agility of her fingers and her mind.
‘Nothing makes a woman look older than obvious expensiveness, ornateness, complication,’ she said to Claude Delay in old age, still wearing the little straw hats of her youth. ‘I still dress as I always did, like a schoolgirl.’
But by then of course she had conjured up an entirely new meaning for those straw hats as part of her legend and everyone else in the world had found themselves dressing out of choice, and costly choice at that, to look like someone else..just like the young Coco who, instead, no choice but had to dress out of necessity. Her boyish “flapper” creations were in stark contrast to the Belle Epoque millinery that was in vogue at the time, and about which she asked, “How can a brain function under those things?” Something that Chanel can never be accused of is not using her brain.
Her story about her hair “Justinc Picardie tells us, “started with a trip to the opera with friends. She was dressing for the evening. ‘I’d never been to the Opera before. I had a white dress made by my own modistes.
“My hair, which came down below my waist, was done up round my head in three braids – all that mass set straight upon that thin body.’ She had so much hair, she said, that it was ‘crushing me to death’; but fate intervened, and gave her freedom. ‘There was a gas burner in the bathroom. I turned on the hot tap to wash my hands again, the water wasn’t hot, so I fiddled with the pilot-light and the whole thing exploded. My white dress was covered in soot, my hair – the less said, the better. I only had to wash my face again – I didn’t use make-up. In those days only the cocottes used make-up and were elegant. The women of the bourgeoisie weren’t groomed – and they wore hats that flopped all over the place, with birds’ nests and butterflies.’
And, so, no doubt, the nuns at the orphanage of her youth would also have raised their eyebrows even further when they heard that brain of hers had pieced together her legend with its own wings sprouting from nothing but bits and pieces of fancies of her own imagination, that transformed her “identity” and who she was, at least to all others, just as she so ably and inventively did in her design work. She could make the entire world see one thing as quite another , time and time again. And merely by changing the way the world viewed things, the world would change as a result. And that seems to have been how she sought to shape herself.
There could be no more clearcut view into the mind of Coco Chanel than the story of the famous ‘double-C” logo, which she designed back in 1925 and is still one of the most famous logos in fashion today. There are, of course, a few theories, but if we take a closer look at those C’s we have to opt for one above all others. Of course, it might stand for her two initials…but that would be far too simple an inspiration.
Her early life, as we have seen, was spent in an orphanage at Aubazine. The explanation that Chanel (the modern company) and biographer Justine Picardie subscribe to is that the answer can be found at the Chapel of Aubazine, the Cistercian monastery and abbey that also housed that orphanage where Chanel spent the latter half of her childhood.
There, we can still today see the double “C”s and they have been there since long before Coco became Coco but, even if those windows were not actually the inspiration, surely she had to be smiling inside from 1925 onwards, as she know that once again the “wings’ had just grown and now and forever the world would see those double “C’s not as a mere window in a French abbey , and she had the last laugh again.
What might have up been a symbol of her early and sorrowful life became through no more than an act of her will, the symbol of the legend and the company she built.
Her past and the sadness of those early experiences were simply morphed by changing how the world viewed them. Just as the elements of the outfits were just the same as they had always been…but now they seemed different and chic and magical. resemblance to the sadness in which those experiences might those facts might have connoted to anyone else but Coco. Were those “wings” that Coco had? Well, if the world saw them as wings, then she was enabled as the “Coco of legend’ to soar as high as she wished.
Her first taste of clothing success came from a dress she fashioned out of an old jersey on a chilly day. In response to the many people who asked about where she got the dress, she offered to make one for them. “My fortune is built on that old jersey that I’d put on because it was cold in Deauville,” she characteristically once said.
This innovative use of jersey fabric was truly her first major triumph. This fabric was traditionally relegated to the manufacture of undergarments. Considered too “ordinary” to be used in couture, it was also disliked by designers because the knit made it difficult to handle compared to woven fabrics. Yet there it was, so ordinary, just waiting to there to be seen differently and then put to another use,.
The war had changed women’s attitudes toward clothing. Proust has one of his characters say that it’s no longer a matter of parading around in a dress made by a great couturier, but rather of obtaining “charming results in the realm of fashion, without ill-considered and unseemly luxury, with the simplest materials, [and creating] prettiness out of mere nothings.”
Jersey fabric Charles-Roux, Edmonde (1981). Chanel and Her World. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
It only remained for Chanel to again transform the ordinary in the world’s eyes to something ‘extraordinary”. And yes she must have done well very well with this bit of alchemy, when she had a machine knit material manufactured for her by the firm Rodier when no one else wanted it.
So, with yet another sleight of hand that became a sleight of ‘mind”, during the 1920s, Coco Chanel became the first designer to create loose women’s jerseys, traditionally used for men’s underwear, creating a relaxed style for women ignoring the stiff corseted look of the time
She was of the opinion that designers had forgotten that women are inside the dresses they create, and thought that fashion should have a more natural shape. Her designs were menswear inspired, suitable for leisure and sport, introducing trousers and suits for women. Chanel was increasingly intrigued by the casual elegance of men’s clothing, especially for wear in the country, and took many ideas from Capel’s wardrobe. She sought to make women as modern and comfortable in their clothing as men were — especially active, outdoor types like Capel.
Her design aesthetic redefined the fashionable woman for the post World War I era. The Chanel trademark was a look of youthful ease, a liberated physicality, and Chanel’s ascendancy was the official deathblow to the corseted female silhouette. The frills, fuss, and constraints endured by earlier generations of women were now passé; under her influence—gone were the “aigrettes, long hair, hobble skirts” – and her unencumbered sportive confidence.
That is exactly what Chanel was offering and, by so doing, she attracted the notice of the American press. Chanel’s early wool jersey traveling suit consisted of a cardigan jacket, and pleated skirt, paired with a low-belted pullover top. This ensemble, worn with low-heeled shoes, became the casual look in expensive women’s wear.
MEETING A NICE “BOY”:
The Coco song back in her cabaret days, won her not only her nickname, Coco , but also brought her first protector, Étienne Balsan, the heir to a large textile fortune. When Balsan suggested she come live in his château of Royallieu, not as his titular mistress but as just one of his many gigolettes, she cheerfully accepted, eager to escape the poverty in which she’d always lived. But she despite her proud wearing of the name, Coco, she was most definitely not going to be anything like the ordinary “kept woman”. “As soon as you set foot on a yacht, she said, “you belong to some man, not to yourself, and you die of boredom.” And that was not about to be “her story”
In 1913, Chanel opened a boutique in Deauxville, financed by Capel, where she introduced deluxe casual clothes suitable for leisure and sport. Those ground breaking fashions from humble fabrics such as jersy and tricot, at the time primarily used for men’s underwear.Here Chanel sold hats, jackets, sweaters, and the marinière, the sailor blouse.
In 1915, Boy and Coco traveled to Biarritz in the south of France for a romantic holiday. The First World War was raging Europe, and Biarritz on the Côte Basque, located near the border of neutral Spain. in proximity to wealthy Spanish clients, had neutral status allowing it to become the playground for the moneyed and those exiled from their native countries by the hostilities, and just about everyone from all sides of the Warfront. In jyly they opened the ‘House of Chanel” was installed not as a storefront, but in a villa opposite the casino. After one year of operation, the business proved to be so lucrative that in 1916 Chanel was able to reimburse Capel his original investment.
Chanel, determined to re-create the success she had enjoyed in Deauville, opened, with Capel’s help again, an establishment in Biarritz, in 1915. Biarritz, situated on the Côte Basque, in proximity to wealthy Spanish clients, had neutral status during World War I, allowing it to become the playground for the moneyed and those exiled from their native countries by the hostilities. The Biarritz shop was installed not as a storefront, but in a villa opposite the casino. By 1916. when Coco was 33 years old, the combined staff of the Chanel stores in Paris, Deauville, and Biarritz exceeded three hundred workers.
After one year of operation, the business proved to be so lucrative that in 1916 Chanel was able to reimburse Capel his original investment. ‘I was my own master, and I depended on myself alone,’ she told a biographer. ‘Boy Capel was well aware that he didn’t control me: “I thought I’d given you a plaything, I gave you freedom,” he once said to me in a melancholy voice.’
Their affair lasted till 1919 . Capel, the only man she seems ever to have loved, married a young Englishwoman from one of the best families in society Even after Capel married an English aristocrat, Lady Diana Wyndham in he did not completely break off with Chanel. But notably, and not as the Washington Post misleadingly wrote, this sudden marriage did not arise till almost ten years into their romance, in 1918. Capel died in a car accident on 21 December 1919, as the story goes, on his way to visit Coco at Christmas time.
Chanel heard the news a few days later, and quickly packed and drove with an old friend, Leon de Laborde, to Cannes. Reportedly she sat up all night and never shed a tear. The next day she did not attend the funeral, but instead went to the scene of the accident. The charred car was still on the read with the wreckage.
As she told the press, ‘I lost everything. He was my brother, my father, my home family” Twenty-five years after the event, Chanel, then residing in Switzerland, confided to her friend, Paul Morand: “His death was a terrible blow to me. In losing Capel, I lost everything. What followed was not a life of happiness, I have to say.”
B y the 1920s, Maison Chanel was established at 31, Rue Cambon in Paris (which remains its headquarters to this day) and become a fashion force to be reckoned with. Chanel became a style icon herself with her striking bob haircut and tan placing her at the cutting edge of modern style. “When I realized that my business had a life, my life, and a face, my face, a voice, my own, and when I realized my work loved me, obeyed me, and responded to me, I gave myself over to it completely and I have had since then no greater love.”
The writer Colette who moved in the same social circles as Chanel, provided a whimsical description of Chanel at work in her atelier, which appeared in “Prisons et Paradis” (1932). “If every human face bears a resemblance to some animal, then Mademoiselle Chanel is a small black bull. That tuft of curly black hair, the attribute of bull-calves, falls over her brow all the way to the eyelids and dances with every maneuver of her head.v4]
“The meanness of life gave me strength, pride; the drive to win and a passion to greatness,’ Coco said, “… and when life brought me lavish elegance and the friendship of a Stravinsky or a Picasso I never felt stupid or inferior. Why? Because I knew it was with such people that one succeeds.”
She never married, having once said “I never wanted to weigh more heavily on a man than a bird. She had almost married one of her lovers, one of the richest men in Europe, the Duke of Westminster;and was rumored to be bound to do so by the press , giving the media of that time one of their ultimate “glam” couples. . When she didn’t, her explanation was, “There have been several Duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Chanel.” However, it might have been that she was cast aside and the Duke married a younger noblewoman in 1930.
This decisive step brought the 44 -yeardesigner worldwide fame and made her finding a symbol of elegance, luxury, and good taste. The first models of the dresses were made of forgotten fluid crepe marocain, knee-length, straight cut with narrow sleeves to the wrists. An incredibly accurate, adjusted and revolutionary cutting length of skirts distinguished them from other ones.
MAKING HER NAME…AND THEN LOSING IT
The scent she was after was one that was one that had to be unique , a fragrance that filled the air like nothing else…and to be unique, of course, it could not be like anything else…just as her black dress was, in its abstract purity not like any other of the countless colors of the rainbow that adorned the women of her time….and it seems now after almost a hundred years, that she succeeded in finding that.
With the help of the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich of Russia who had been exiled from Russia before the 1917 Bolshevik revolution for his role in the assassination of Rasputin and now, in France, who then had become Chanel’s lover in an affair that lasted for about a year., Coco engineered a meeting in the summer of 1920 in the South of France with the a noted Russian perfume designer, Ernest Beaux.
And the rest is truly history. She hired Beaux, the onetime perfumer to the Tsar, in 1920 and challenged him to create a scent that would make its wearer “smell like a woman, and not like a rose.” She told him exactly what she wanted, or to be more accurate, what she didn’t want: “I don’t want hints of roses, of lilies of the valley.” Rather than create a single note scent, as was de rigueur back in the Twenties, Beaux played with a modern mix of vetiver, ylang ylang, orange blossom, sandalwood, essence of neroli, tonka bean, Mai rose and jasmine (Coco’s favourite) notes to create over 80 versions to present back to Coco.She wanted her perfume to smell like “a bouquet of abstract flowers.”
As with her styling of her fashions, she was led by what she did not like to find what she would like. And as she was inclined, she chose abstractness in its simplicity, much like her stylings or her fascination with black, an abstractness that suited her and the was “her” in many ways
And the perfume she invented from nowhere that is now everywhere, was as unique as was she, herself, and the two have since been intertwined. It could not have been coincidence or mere clever business enterprise that prompted her to she to begin on quest for that enduring scent like no other only a few months after the sudden death of Boy Capel, whose motor accident was in December, 1919.
” Apparently there have been unfold millions of women who found just the perfect uses for that truly unique blend….and, as we can see it was truly the direct outgrowth of Coco’s being led by what she did not like to finding what she liked. In this case it was truly quite an elaborate invention. It is hard to estimate what the financial value of that blend has been since then. In more recent years, its eternal lure has been sealed by the fact that it was ironically, an infatuation which was shared by both Jacqueline Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe
Here is the interview video during which Marilyn’s famous unsolicited endorsement was delivered in typical Marilyn fashion
Chanel worked on from one innovation and success to the next. Did anyone say, tweed:” “There is nothing quite as iconic as a classic Chanel tweed piece.: Elle Magazine recently wrote. “If you’ve had the honor of wearing one—a jacket, a dress, a skirt—you know that its texture, its weight, and its very aura are the things magic is made of.,”
Her use of the now legendary fabric was once again, not only inspired by menswear, but by a man—and this time it was her beau, the Duke of Westminster. After borrowing sportswear from him, , Chanel realized the comfortable, supple fabric had a sophisticated quality that would lend itself well to her designs. We really have no indication that she was inspired by any of the Duke’s more outrageous antisemitic notions, any more than Winston Churchill, a close friend of the Duke’s was when he repeatedly warned the Duke away from those attitudes, but we do know she borrowed some of his ‘look’ if not his “outlook ” on Judaism.
Beginning in 1924, after visiting Scotland with him, Chanel enlisted a Scottish factory to produce her iconic tweed fabrics for everything from sportswear to suits and coats Chanel switched factories in the ’30s to northern France and began combining her classic tweeds with wools, silks, cottons, and even cellophane to give them a more high fashion (and lighter weight) style.
FASHIONS SECRETS MAYBE – BUT, A NAZI SECRET AGENT?
(more to come on this topic)
The book, while based on a few known facts, and facts which are truly not flattering to Coco Chanel, unrelentingly seeks to portray her as a homophobe, antisemitic, Nazi collaborator, and, unconvincingly enough – except to generate marketing–as a Nazi spy and secret agent. Like many luminaries, including the singers Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier, the writer Jean Cocteau and the late president Francois Mitterrand, Chanel remained in her native country following its occupation by German forces in the summer of 1940. however, it is not at clear whether it was accurate to simply describe this period of time, as Vaughan has, “Chanel was a consummate opportunist. The Nazis were in power, and Chanel gravitated to power. It was the story of her life.” Her life actually is what makes this story more interesting than the one that Vaughan seeks to paint for the all too eager readers of today.
If one actually looks to what is being claimed in the book, it is nothing near the fanatically politically correct outcry, presumably cutting the iconic Coco “down to the size” of her critics, to a level where social justice warriors types no longer themselves feel inadequate. All this done, though admittedly on the basis of yet more extraordinary aspects of her extraordinary life,on the basis of very little actual connecting of any dots…
However, when we consider the details of the context from which those facts apparently emerged, and also the context of who Coco Chanel was and why she did things the way she did, we have a different picture of her and the times. Of course, she was not up to the role model standard of super heroes or icons…even though her achievements in fashion were on that legendary level.
Vaughan says in, ‘The Sleeping” book,” By 1940, France had fallen, the Wehrmacht was goose-stepping down the Champs Elysees, and Hitler strutted up the steps of the Palais de Chaillot to take command surprisingly easily. The Eiffel Tower flew the swastika. Chanel’s nephew and adopted son, Andre Palasse, was now a young soldier stationed at the Maginot Line; he had been captured along with 300,000 others and shuffled off to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. Within months, Chanel — still svelte and alluring at 57 — took on a new lover: He was Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a senior officer for the Abwehr, known as “Spatz.”
“I don’t know why women want any of the things men have when one of the things that women have is men,” Chanel is quoted as having said, and for her the two almost seemed to be inseparably connected. At each step in her life and legend as it grew, and even in those darkest days during the Nazi occupation, there were always men who were utterly charmed by her and how did help her perhaps attain at least one of the goals in her life.
According to Chanel’s grandniece, “Spatz was sympathetic, attractive, intelligent, well-dressed and congenial.” Perhaps Chanel thought that when she took him on, she was assuming protective coloring, but Spatz would become the last great affair of her life.
At first, as Vaughan rather vaguely further explains, “what Chanel wanted most from Dincklage was Andres freedom and safe passage , but war soon led to a far more complicated labyrinth” .
We must add, however, that as anyone familiar with the fact of life of those times for those living, with their loved ones , under Nazi occupation, the facts of those times are that not only were people’s lives on the line each day…if they did not watch their steps very closely, but then, additionally, their souls were also in danger every day as they had to cope with actualities and possibilities that those who write columns here for social media just do not seem able to grasp.
Some of the sensationalist deductions which are more of the kind that one sees in Facebook gossip where ‘the dots between ‘facts” are connected without any attempt to adequately portray the facts in context” is treated more adequately here:
The New Republic review says, “To be fair to Chanel, her activities as a spy were underwhelming—hardly the stuff of Le Carré, and nowhere near as scandalous as Vaughan would perhaps wish them to be. Yes, she did visit German headquarters in Berlin, and yes, she was acting on behalf of the Nazis, but one of her missions (she only went on two, and the other was in essence a glorified vacation in Spain), was actually a peace-finding one.
Towards the end of the war, a number of powerful Nazis were considering brokering a peace with England behind Hitler’s back (Hitler had declared he would settle for nothing less than “total war,” total success or total failure). Chanel’s friendship with Churchill sparked the idea that she might be able to secure an audience with him for a number of German officials. The plan was doomed from the start, as Chanel never got her audience with Churchill, who was very ill; and according to Vaughan, the Nazis never really expected her to succeed anyway.”
In todays world, today’s media in their media cage, thrash around trying to get out, and take just about any statement out ot context., without understanding its time and era, or understanding the nature of people and conflicts around the actions, and then without understanding the action in the meaning of overall life of the person whose action is being either lauded or criticized. Instead they take the moments of other people’s lives and steadfastly refuse to see them in terms of anything, anything but our own little bit of “triggering”, triggering of?
But, if we get beyond the self triggering of the media, what did Chanel really do as an agent? Well, after having been promised the release from imprisonment in a Nazi war camp of her nephew and adopted son of her older sister who committed suicide when they both were young it seems that she travelled to Madrid in August 1941 with the special dispensation of the Germans, in order to use her contacts to gain political intelligence. Many observers m now sense that this young man, whose life she saved, was not just her nephew in fact quite possibly her own child.
Vaughan readily accepts that Chanel was never a spy. “Espionage - you take photographs, you take documents. Chanel never did that,” he says. “She was a facilitator. She knew everybody in Spain, she knew everybody in England, and she helped out the Nazis.
So then what was really happening we might ask?
Vaughan seems to have felt as though his rich source materials could speak for themselves, but they don’t “ In fact, Vaughn seems content do say nothing more than “She was a facilitator. She knew everybody in Spain, she knew everybody in England, and she helped out the Nazis.”
According to a document cited by Vaughan, though, this visit only saw her exchanging banalities with a British diplomat who reported that: “the Germans cannot understand the French and this is making them hate them to the point that she, Mlle Chanel, is afraid of what will happen.”
AND ANTI-SEMITISM, TOO?
DIOR’s FRILLS INSPIRE A COMEBACK IN THE UNITED STATES:
The success of Christian Dior got on her nerves. “Dior? “I adore you, but you dress women like armchairs”,” was one sarcastic dart she launched. Characteristically acerbic, she also noted and about his New Look, which se criticized as being hyper-feminine, ” Look how ridiculous these women are, wearing clothes by a man who doesn’t know women, never had one, and dreams of being one.”
Then she arranged with to do a ready to wear line back then. On February 5, 1954, she showed her new collection, which was sober and understated, the diametric opposite of Dior. The critical response was a crushing pan: “[These] are phantoms’ dresses…very expensive for so much self-effacement.” But Paris was no longer dictating the law and the New York buyers came running. The ease and simplicity of these classic outfits were what American women wanted. Chanel applauded them for rejecting “idiocies that made it impossible to walk or run.”
Almost unimaginably , Coco, at the age of 71 succeeded in coming back and succeeded, despite her years and the gaps of decades, once again at being an outstanding fashion world icon.
It was then that esigned the now famous Chanel Cardigan Jacket (see on the right warn by Jackie Kennedy, the day of the Kennedy assassination).
There she brought together her love of tweed and the needs of the new era of the 1950’s
“The hardest thing about my work,
she said, “is enabling women to move with ease, to move like they’re not in costume,” . “Not changing attitude, or manner, depending on their dress – it’s very difficult. And the human body is always moving.”
Once again she designed against the prevailing trend “Four real pockets, braid in matching tones or contrasting, buttons stamped with the symbol of the house, and especially, new for the period, no buttons without button holes. Finally, sewn into the silk lining, a delicate chain to ensure that the jacket falls perfectly. A revolution.”
The jacket was intended to ease women from the constraint of the wasp-waisted silhouette of the Fifties. Again “Inspired by menswear, straight and fluid, without interfacing, the ensemble provides absolute freedom of movement.
The older Coco was still the ‘old Coco”and was on top of her game not only as a business lady but also designed for generations younger, while in her
Oddly enough, as yet another twist in this story, it was after the success of this new line by the now old rather older lady, that” Wertheimer, the same one with whom she fought so bitterly for decades, , in spite of Chanel’s age—made an audacious bet.
Of all strange things in a strange saga , The re-establishment of her couture house in 1954 was fully financed by the allegedly anti-semitic Chanel’s old nemesis in the perfume battle, that notorious ‘Jew”, Pierre Wertheimer. This new contractual agreement would also allow Wertheimer to maintain ownership of “Parfums Chanel.”
He bought the maison de couture outright, along with all her properties, for a sum he never revealed and , in addition, as part of an unusual arrangement proposed by Chanel herself, making her again the “kept woman” of wealthy men,Wertheimer would pay for all of Chanel’s expenses from the large to the trivial for as long as she lived.agreed to underwrite all her personal and professional expenses. She no longer had to pay for so much as a postage stamp! He never regretted that decision.
She fought loneliness while working with ever-increasing intensity. The very way she worked—no longer sketching but instead cutting the fabric right on the model, sometimes piercing the skin of the poor girl who was forced to stand there for hours, motionless and with a smile on her face—reflected a savagery that was intrinsic to her nature.
But while she certainly did think for herself and truly ‘out loud” so that the world now knows her name and legend, she did not give the world any idea of who what was behind her statements, either in fashion or in the captivating bits of wisdom her many quotes have passed along.
On of our favorite quotes from Chanel is here proclamation that ” The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.” She certainly did so by her actions and…to conjure up a popular phrase by means of her the first and foundational “fashion statement”.
The almost mathematically wizardly of he statements however was that she told the world everything and at the same time told them nothing. Her statements both in fashions and in her many aphorisms were surely ‘out loud” and were striking, to the point, and unmistably conveying a message. And indeed with more and more incredible achievement and artistic innovation, expressed very much her own rationale and logic. Yet the math of her mind turned each of these elements into its apparent opposite when it was expressed, so, in the end, the world, was told everything but seemed to know nothing from the telling of it.
The rootedness of her fashions in reactions revealed how her life and spirit were impacted by her days as an orphan,the expression was to take the actual elements of style of those days and cast a different light on them, as she did with her use of the double C in the stained glass windows of her orphanage church, or as she did many years later in taking the burgundy of her orphanism for the interior of her radical handbags.
Her style of dress in ordinary fabrics and emphasizing comfort and simplicity rather than opulence and frills of the current ideas of ‘luxury’, was rooted in her own days of poverty and enforced simplicity, yet the very elements of that earlier time now were transformed and the world came to view them as “luxury” itself, even though, as she told them “luxury” was not opulence but comfort.
Her relations with men were truly complicated and very much no doubt by her father who was “missing” and who also was missing by way of his abandonment of her and her sisters. She sought the company of men continually and at the same time adopted their clothes s and style and the comfort and ease of movement that she saw in those styles for her own wear and comfort She sought closeness to men but refused to dress and act the way thei ‘women” of her time in order to capture “their’ men.
She took the style and the comfort and ease of movement that she saw in men’s style for her own wear and comfort And then her dressing in male mode came to be an even greater attraction to her by the men who company and favor she always fought and always found.
Her dressing in male mode came, instead of a distancing and competiyion with men, came to be seen by the world as the ultimate in feminity and became an even greater attraction to her by the men who company and favor she always fought and always found.
But then act of ‘distancing” by being someone, a woman so different from what was expected of the aristocracy of the time, she made it difficult her to be considered as wife for these men of position, who repeated married women of aristocratic standing and not Coco.
Her heartbreak mourning for Capel and the virtual stopping still of her life at 32 was not expressed by crying or even attending his funeral, but nonetheless was expressed in the open in her wearing of black and then transforming that colour into the color of fashion and festivity rather than the uniform of morning. Very much the black uniform of mourning that had been worn by the nuns at her orphanage, in fact.
The loss that seems to have not ever been healed in the course of her life was masked by the perfume she created and that surely became, now 100 years later, an unmistakable strike back at her against mortality and the fleeting nature of her love. Yet, to the world, by so masking the loss by the grandness of its presence the invention of #5 was just taken to be nothing more than another stroke of genius, just another brilliant business innovation, and, during the war. just another further commercial grasping at the expense of the Jewish Wertheim.
She might have ‘thought for herself” very loudly and clearly, we never knew her ‘thoughts about herself”…and our best guess is that what went on inside was very far from obvious and very far from those fashion statements and statements about fashion for which she is known
The daughter of the man whose life she saved from the Germans, Isabelle Feimeyer, who has been devoted to filling in the various gaps of our memory of Chanel, that our “history” has left unfilled, and has written several books on aspects of her life, writes “Chanel was famous for reinventing herself time and again, and covered her tracks by never keeping anything personal that she had written. She would tear up personal papers, documents and letters and toss them into the fire”.
Unsurprisingly in our digital and social media era of today, which just throbs uncontrollably to the beat of political correctness, the social justice theme is far too easy for digital media voices to echo without any further consideration of the what might actually been “going on “, either in the events described or in Coco Chanel’s mind at the time.
“In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different,”: she had famously said.
And she certainly was. It seems that her “boy”, Boy Capel ,might have been as well. Many years later, she told a friend/biographer, There is nothing worse than solitude, she wrote. ‘“ Solitude can help a man realize himself; but it destroys a woman”.
We, have to wonder whether, after all, those “double “C”s in her famous logo that she designed could have also been intended to serve to eternally connect their two names, Chanel and Capel.
Isabelle Feimeyer tells us “Her homes were an extension of her spirit which was influenced by her lover Boy Chapel. The book showcases a processional cross, a Buddha (with flowers replacing broken fingers) and an English/French chapbook Chapel wrote spiritual passages in for Chanel contemplate during meditation. She never showed anyone that small chapbook until a few years before her death.”
There is certainly much more to the story behind the way that Chanel chose to be perceived by the world and by which she shaped herself into a brand, an icon, and a legend. Unfortunately, by her own conjuring act , there is far too much room there for the frantic, self triggering political correct forces of our time to fill in the gaps of our awareness of what and why she did what she did. She was very much a product like her mysterious fragrance, her #5. She pu
“She substituted the use of perfumes with recognizable fragrances with that of a perfume with an indefinable fragrance. There are some eighty ingredients that make up Chanel Number 5, and although it might have the freshness of a garden, nothing can change the fact that the fragrance of this garden is unknown“…Edmonde Charles-Roux
Just as she had put together a fragrance that was unforgettable precisely because it had no trace of any of the eighty elements that went into, her legend was built, though of greater mathematical genius that far exceeded the calculation for which she was given so much credit…or lately, so much blame. That, of course, was precisely how she grew those “wings” that carried her so far
Within that simple gleaming geometrical vessel, Coca, with which that secret formula of hers endured, shaped to reflect Boy Capel’s fondnesses, were hidden, but very active, all aspects of the earlier moments of her life; the young orphed girl from the monastery, the cabaret singer, the poor working girl kept by the fabulously wealthy and the then the aspiring business lady, treated with a formula no less effective than Ernest Beaux magic aldedyde that were used to make that brew of Coco’s sparkle.
“That is how she made history in the world of perfume: No 5 had the surprising character of an abstract creation” ,says Charles-Roux. And the resulting abstract mystery beyond any recognizable aspect of nature was its secret of success. for Coco herself, surely the same had to said to be true.
The wings by means of which she liberated herself from the dire surroundings and poverty of her youth, from the constraints of woman’s role to freedom of expression via her fashion statements, one after the other for decades, from the ceiling that prevented a women from either dressing in the comfort of a man to allow her natural movement and grace, to moving as well or better than any man in the fashion area, rising to the top of the business via her gifts for invention and those statements about life that crystallized her attitudes, were the ever magical product of that same alchemy used by Reaux for her fragrance that went to create the abstraction that was “Coco”, unlike any identifiable human element of nature, ineffabe and mysterious, and,because of ,that captivating to the world. Coco herself was an ‘abstraction’ in the end, and no doubt, for that she suffered a price.
“It’s probably not just by chance that I’m alone. It would be very hard for a man to live with me, unless he’s terribly strong. And if he’s stronger than I, I’m the one who can’t live with him. … I’m neither smart nor stupid, but I don’t think I’m a run-of-the-mill person. I’ve been in business without being a businesswoman, I’ve loved without being a woman made only for love.”
We have to here observe that, according to Chanel, ““A girl should be two things: who and what she wants,” It appears that she might have achieved the second half of that with her iconic status and fame, but fate conspired to not allow her to ever attain the first.
When we look again at her notoriously famous statement, “I don’t do fashion, I am fashion, ” we can see that she was the abstraction so much that the elements of the person might have been too well hidden, even for her herself to sense.
Coco’s life , as best as we can piece it together from the fragments here and now, makes us realize that the context and times and surrounding issues and concerns that leed to certain actions and statements must be considered outside the couch potato naivete and celibacy of the typical digital media “writer” or ‘commentator” who has no idea what it might have been like to walk in the other person’s shoes, or to take the kinds of steps which that person had to decide upon and take in the decidedly “real” and not “virtual” worlds that most commentators inhabit.
Do we believe that she “lost her soul” during those events of the second World War? To us, it seems, that, in all fairness, perhaps she simply did what she had to do in times that none of us today in the comfort of our keyboard driven world can understand and that, we should be aware that, in those times such as the World War II nightmare, our souls, even those of us who are seemingly immortal legends are vulnerable to being chipped or wounded in such a way as to leave us less than perfect.
But she did perhaps opt for the abstraction of the “Coco”, especially after Capel was no longer there, rather than reality of that inner self whose mathematical genius and precision were always at work. That seems to have been the price she paid for those wings.
It’s far too easy, to recline, and chat and click your mouse, when you have not lived scarcely a minute, if that, of real life yourself..
We can’t stop thinking of this extended statement about life and his life by the poet, Borges:
Read more at:
And the book from where this link is excerpted: ‘Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life’ (Harper Collins, £25), by Justine Picardie, published on 16 September, is available from Telegraph Books (0844 871 1515; books.telegraph.co.uk ) at £23 plus £1.25 p&p
On what to read this month from Atlantic:
Chanel, edited by Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale). http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine…
‘This swank book, however, published in conjunction with the current Chanel exhibition at the Met, focuses on the continuities and evolution of the style of the house of Chanel from its inception, before the First World War, to its current permutation under the direction of Karl Lagerfeld (his impenetrable Teutonic blather, which as far as I can tell insults the founder of the house he presides over, is—thank goodness—confined to two pages).
Fashion writing tends toward the gaseous, but Koda’s introduction and the text of the exhibition catalogue he wrote with Bolton nicely explain Chanel’s innovations, clearly define the essential qualities of her designs, and concretely convey the workings of cut and construction.
The photographs—enhanced by Lagerfeld to, I must admit, haunting effect—of the variations on the “little black dress” (all of which marry traditional, elegant materials to precise tailoring, creating the impression of “little more than a breeze,” as Harper’s Bazaar put it in 1923) and of the sumptuously astringent, squarish suits (with their exquisite but functional details and their “soft tailoring” and easily draped fabrics that allow them to drift over rather than cling to the body) testify to a living tradition that has tamed Lagerfeld even in his efforts to subvert it.