Beyond the little black dress: ‘Gabrielle Chanel – Fashion Manifesto’

The NGV showcases the controversial designer’s undeniable brilliance

An enormous mythology has grown around Gabrielle Chanel. It has never been in dispute that she was a creative genius, highly skilled at her craft, and possessed a canny business sense. But as fame has turned into celebrity and, most recently, into “branding”, the emphases in her story have twisted: from discretion to a hunt for truth and then back to hagiography, this time for the purpose of marketing. When Edmonde Charles-Roux’s deeply researched biography of Chanel came out in 1974, we were shocked to discover that she had collaborated with the Nazis who occupied Paris during World War Two, as though nobody knew she had moved in a far-right crowd or why she had exiled herself to live in Switzerland during the late ’40s and early ’50s. More shocking details came out in later biographies.

And now again, like memories of the Holocaust, which recent polling shows are beginning to fade in America and elsewhere, the realities of Chanel’s life story are disappearing once more behind the allure of high-priced mass-market cosmetics and perfumes, “aspirational” shoes and handbags, and the glamour of seasonal runway shows designed by others but still, as is the fashion industry’s wont, marketed under her name 50 years after her death.

The exhibition, Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto at the National Gallery of Victoria, presents clothing she herself designed between her start in 1910 and the final season that was on her drawing board when she died in January 1971.

It has become accepted to attribute the abolition of the corset, the use of knitted jerseys and tweeds for women, the raising of hemlines, the use of costume jewellery and the very concept of the “little black dress” to Chanel alone. But, as in all arts and crafts, innovation does not spring fully formed from the creator’s brow. As World War One approached, women were replacing the men joining the armed forces in industrial jobs, and all kinds of matériel were requisitioned for the war effort. Demand for comfortable work clothes for women rose, and couturiers had to tone down the yardage of fabric used, the unseemly decoration and the general expense of their luxury creations. As a result, and in the context of the subsequent worldwide mourning for the millions of military and civilian deaths, fashion dictated sober and streamlined dress.

Chanel began her career as a milliner in Paris in 1910, then opened shops in the resort towns of Deauville in 1913 and Biarritz in 1915. She tapped into young women’s growing political and social independence, and the increasing desire of the idle rich to participate in sport and swim at those seaside resorts, by mimicking men’s sports clothes and working men’s gear. She appropriated the straw boater and the seaman’s striped “matelot”. And, as industrialisation had forced working-class men and women into factories and brown skin was no longer a sign of toiling in the fields, tanning became an upper-class signal. Chanel lifted women’s newly easy-to-wear, slimline and sleeveless swimsuits almost to the knee. (But remember, speaking of women’s increasing independence, that while New Zealand women won suffrage in 1893 and South Australians in 1894, it would take French women until 1944 to get the vote at a national level.)

Born to a working couple in Saumur, western France, in 1883, Chanel was one of six children. Her mother died when she was 11 and her itinerant salesman father packed his daughters off to be raised by nuns in a convent in Aubazine, 320 kilometres away. There, at least, she learnt to sew. Edmonde Charles-Roux – whose biography was the most rounded before later writers began excavating her World War Two years – further attributed her later sense of style in part to those convent years. “Between the ages of twelve and eighteen she lived in a world of long white corridors and white-washed walls,” wrote reviewer Francine Gray in The New York Review of Books at the time of the book’s English translation, “staring at the starched white wimples on the nuns’ black gowns, helping them to stack away tall piles of white ruff-wings, wearing the black, belted smocks and box-pleated skirts of orphans’ uniforms … the very germs of Chanel’s poor little girl look, of her exquisite ‘Less is More’ asceticism.”

When she was 19, Chanel was sent out into the world and found work as a seamstress in Moulins, in the Auvergne region. She earned extra money singing in a cabaret frequented by military men from the local squadron. It was there that she earned her nickname, Coco, after a song she used to sing – a nickname that has turned into one of those aspects of celebrity branding today. Among those young soldiers was Étienne Balsan, the son of a wealthy industrialist, with whom she began an affair. He installed her in his chateau with several other women. Not at all a pliant young thing, she despised the sense of herself as just another “cocotte” in Balsan’s life and began to set herself apart by dressing in his clothes, enjoying the masculine simplicity and the comfort of them. Her “little boy” look, a kind of underplayed transvestitism, came from then.

It was in Balsan’s company that she met Arthur “Boy” Capel, who was not just another rich young playboy and with whom she fell in love. He was serious, understood money and recognised Chanel’s talent, and it was he who financed her boutiques. They lived together for a while, but Chanel’s hopes were dashed when he reverted to type and married an Englishwoman from a good family. A year later he was dead in a car accident and she was devastated. She has been quoted as saying that 1919 was “the year I woke up famous and the year I lost everything”.

She had many lovers after that, including aristocrats and luminaries of the art world: among them Tsar Nicholas II’s cousin Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, the composer Igor Stravinsky, the illustrator and designer Paul Iribe, and the Duke of Westminster Hugh Grosvenor, Britain’s richest man. Despite the Russian aristocracy’s tendency to follow French dress and etiquette, Pavlovich’s Russophilia showed up in Chanel’s shapes and trims in the brief time she was with him. Similarly, she spent a lot of time at Grosvenor’s Scottish properties, and the understated off-duty uniform of Britain’s huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ set also influenced her couture. Grosvenor also went on to marry a woman from his own class. As for Iribe, he died of a heart attack on the tennis court at her chateau. Tellingly, they were all men of the right.

Chanel was apparently less affected by the artists whose circles she moved in, unlike her rival Elsa Schiaparelli, whose designs clearly showed their influence, especially that of the surrealists. Chanel was steely in her self-assurance, and in the knowledge that her eye and her taste were paramount.

Chanel eventually became the richest woman in France. Part of this financial success came from her most famous product: her first perfume, Chanel No. 5, designed by the famous perfumer Ernest Beaux, which she launched in 1921.

Despite her anti-Semitism, Chanel closed the contract with the brothers Pierre and Paul Wertheimer, who owned Les Parfumeries Bourjois, the biggest cosmetics company in France. The deal between the high priestess of style and the brilliant businessmen was highly profitable for all of them. The Wertheimers, who manufactured and distributed the perfume, received 70 per cent of the profits. Chanel earned 10 per cent, which, given the scent’s popularity, made her one of the wealthiest women in the world. That didn’t stop her launching various court cases against them over the years. Her attempted coup came in 1940, when she was living comfortably at the Ritz with her lover, the Nazi officer Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage. She decided to make use of the German occupation’s business laws, under which Aryans could take over companies owned by Jews, to acquire all rights to the perfume.

The Wertheimers, however, were ahead of her. They had already fled France for New York, but not before signing their massive business interests over to an Aryan friend, Félix Amiot. The company was insulated from Chanel’s avarice. After the war, Amiot dutifully handed the company back. Chanel had closed her business the day the Germans entered Paris and, unbelievably – though not from a business point of view, given how much money Chanel No. 5 generated – the Wertheimers volunteered to underwrite Chanel to re-open her atelier when she returned from Switzerland in 1953. The perfume needed a high-fashion clothing line to keep it current and, after all that had happened, Chanel showed a new collection, backed by the Wertheimers, at the beginning of 1954. With its clothing, accessories, makeup and perfume, Chanel is the one French high-fashion company that still hasn’t been swallowed by behemoths of the industry such as LVMH.

In 1947, she went up against Christian Dior’s new ascendancy. After the war, he had launched the “New Look” in his debut collection. It was a rebellion against all the austerities of the war years, with its padded hips and full A-line hips and lower hemlines. It was also a new femininity for a renewing society. As men were busy kicking women out of the jobs they’d had to fill while the men were at war, fashion such as Dior’s was re-prioritising middle-class femininity to motherhood, homemaking and girlish extravagance.

With her famed mocking sarcasm, Chanel remarked, “Dior doesn’t dress women, he upholsters them!” American women, whose postwar lifestyle continued to embrace Chanel’s sleeker styling, didn’t think much of Dior’s flamboyance either. The American market for Chanel’s clothing boomed and also encouraged her to embrace ready-to-wear.

Charles-Roux’s biography had noted that two things were always understated in hagiographies of Chanel’s very French chic: the influence of the convent and the importance of the pragmatic American market to her financial success. And so she continued, bringing back the easy suits and the higher hemlines and the comfortable fabrics, keeping them at the top of the fashion rankings until she died at 87. Then, inevitably, the label faltered and it would take a different kind of genius in Karl Lagerfeld to revive it.

The exhibits in Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto span her working life, from 1916 to her last spring-summer collection. A marvellous parade of her most colourful skirt suits march down the centre of one space and there are roomfuls of exquisite evening wear housed in glass cases. The shifts in design, and through the most radical political and social shifts in society, are evident. But so is her allegiance to masculinity, simplicity, comfort, the often over-the-top faux jewellery and, above all, the way she signals class by imparting an almost impossibly ethereal elegance to the essential sobriety.

The exhibition is badly marred by the ubiquity of glass cases, often backed by more glass giving on to exhibits behind those being viewed, interspersed by many mirrors, and the way they all reflect and magnify the lighting. It sometimes takes some dodging around to view all of a mannequin.

With a little effort, however, Chanel’s world opens up: the easy, layered winter daywear in neutral colours, the later bright suits decorated with braiding and gold chains, the light summer dresses. There are simply stunning evening dresses in black or the occasional burst of colour, the luxuriant red velvet evening coat, the cases of costume jewellery, including the pearls she loved and the crosses and elaborate necklaces, and elegant bottles of perfume and packaging of the earliest Chanel-branded cosmetics.

It is a dazzlingly beautiful collection, but we mustn’t allow the mythology that surrounds it to blind us to the realities of its creator.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

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