Mademoiselle Coco

The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud. (Coco Chanel)

Fashion is architecture: it is a matter of proportions. (Coco Chanel)

Fashion fades, only style remains the same. (Coco Chanel)

One is not born a woman, one becomes one. Simone de Beauvoir was right. And Coco Chanel showed us how it’s done. With style.

Simone de Beauvoir was the first feminist to offer a sustained critique of fashion and femininity, commenting on the “woman of elegance” that “What she treasures is herself adorned, and not the objects that adorn her” (Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex,  1949, p.545).

Film theorist Kaja Silverman later posits, as a statement of fact, “that clothing is a necessary condition of subjectivity – that in articulating the body, it simultaneously articulates the psyche” (Kaja Silverman, “Fragments of a Fashionable Discourse,” in On Fashion, 1986, p.191)

Based on the 2002 novel Coco & Igor by Chris Greenhalgh, the latest biopic traces the affair between Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky in Paris in 1920, the year that Chanel No. 5 was created. Greenhalgh also wrote the screenplay for the film. Chanel and its current chief designer Karl Lagerfeld lent their support to the production; they granted access to the company’s archives and to Coco Chanel’s apartment at 31, rue Cambon, Paris.

Paris, 1913: Coco Chanel attends the first, scandalous performance of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The rhythmic dissonance of the score and the shocking choreography of the piece cause a riot. But Coco is impressed when Igor storms out of the theatre. Seven years later, Coco and Igor meet again. Although her business has flourished, Coco is mourning her lover, Arthur “Boy” Capel. Igor has been forced to flee to France following the Russian Revolution. An immediate sympathy and attraction is established between the ‘couturiere’ and the composer. Coco invites Igor to live in her villa outside Paris, along with his wife and children. The summer months that follow see Coco and Igor begin a secret affair. Their work benefits from their growing intimacy; Igor begins to compose in a new, more liberated style while Coco creates Chanel No. 5 with her perfumer, Ernest Beaux. However, the almost unbearable tension in the villa cannot be contained forever.

And behind it all will come a man

Who won’t become my husband, yet together

We shall deserve such things

That the twentieth century shall stand agape.

(from Dedicatory Poems, Anna Akhmatova)

While the piano sounds in one room, the snip of scissors undoes the stitching of a dress in the other. While a pencil dangles sideways from Igor’s lips, Coco toils away down the corridor with pins between her teeth. While Igor presses the pedals of the piano, Coco works the treadle of her sewing machine. Both mutter to themselves inaudibly as they go on. (Chris Greenhalgh , Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky , 2002, p.62)

Believing in her own blessed destiny, she has closed her mind to that part of her life and reinvented herself, conceived herself anew. She has used men, and been used by them. She has learned how to operate in business and succeed. Everything she’s achieved, she has worked hard for – and no one works harder, she is sure of that. And here she is; she’s made it happen. Her shop is thriving. There’s a trail of men all besotted with her. And among her clients she can count some of the richest women in France. Not bad, she reflects, for an orphan girl. (Chris Greenhalgh , Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky , 2002, p.17)

No man is worth two women,” Coco says in the film (but not in the book), after starting an affair with the married Stravinsky. In the film she refused to become his mistress, forcing him to choose between her and his wife, Catherine, plunging him into near madness.

Coco:  “The trouble is, you want to subjugate my life to your work. Well, I just won’t do it. I’m not Catherine. I have my own work. I’m ambitious, too.” (Chris Greenhalgh , Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky , 2002, p.299)

A vision of bridal whiteness knits itself in front of Coco, white like a scream. The power she feels she has established evaporates in an instant. Thirty-seven, unmarried, and with no children to her name, she realizes she must appear a failure. She fights an impulse to justify, to explain. Then, in reaction, she feels a sudden hardness. The truth is that, since Boy, men have been dispensable to her. Looking at Catherine now, she recognizes the softness of her loyalty, the weakness of a wife. (Chris Greenhalgh , Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky , 2002, p.87)

He looks up “coco” in his dictionary. He discovers it is argot for snow, cocaine, and coconut milk and means “eggy” in babyspeak – definitions which cluster associatively around the color white. It also means licorice powder: black. He likes the monochrome simplicity of the word. White, the spin of all colors, and the no-color of black, with a whole spectrum of feelings implied in between. (Chris Greenhalgh , Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky , 2002, p.175)

Coco: “My work comes first. Always. Men come second.” (Chris Greenhalgh , Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky , 2002, p.269)

In 2002 Anna Mouglalis was chosen by Karl Lagerfeld for the advertisement campaign for the Amateur Allure de Chanel perfume and she is now one of his “muses” still promoting Chanel bags, fine jewelleries and watches today.

She sniffs, compares, and reflects once more. And there it is. Slowly it comes to her: subtle but glorious, splendid, and, in its mix of distillates, almost divine. She’s never smelled anything like it. A feeling of sickness mixes with desire. And then a strange thing happens. In this state of near reverie, her mind flashes back to the floor of the convent and orphanage in Aubazine where she went to school. Her memory lingers for an instant upon the mosaic tiles in the corridor with their repetition of the Roman numeral V. (Chris Greenhalgh , Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky , 2002, p.169)

Chanel No. 5 is the first fragrance launched by Gabrielle Chanel, and has been on sale continuously since its introduction in 1921. It remains the best-selling fragrance of Parfums Chanel, and the company estimates that a bottle is sold worldwide every 55 seconds. The scent, which is characterized by its overdose of a 1:1:1 accord of aldehydes C-10 (decanal), C-11 (undecanal) and C-12 (dodecanal), had been created by the French perfumer Ernest Beaux.

When Marilyn Monroe, asked in 1953 what she wore at night, famously replied, “Five drops of Nº 5” there was no stopping of the success of Chanel No. 5 which continues till today. Certainly also the classical flacon made its contribution to the fame of the scent. It had been designed in 1924 by Jean Helleau, and is since 1959 on display in the permanent exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. Andy Warhol sealed Chanel No. 5‘s status as cultural icon when he made nine silk screens of the perfume, elevating it to Campbell Soup status.

The Chanel aesthetic is like the force in Star Wars, surrounding, penetrating, and binding together the universe of fashion, now and forever. (Karen Karbo, The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World’s Most Elegant Woman, 2009, p.4)

Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn (Gore Vidal). To know who we are is a challenge for most of us. As dutiful consumers of media we are dogged by the feeling that we should exist in a state of eternal self-transformation. To plant our flag in the ground – right here, right now – and say “This is me!” seems to us to be settling for less, or giving up, or not being all that we can be. (Karen Karbo, The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World’s Most Elegant Woman, 2009, p.22)

A Woman’s right to pleasure: In Coco Avant Chanel (2009), a more cynical or realistic Coco claims, “A woman in love is a disaster,” and when facing the helplessness of the situation in which Boy Capel cannot marry her because he is engaged to an English heiress, she decides, “Better a mistress than a wife.” The independence she achieves through her work makes it seem as though she triumphed.

Do we grow into the type of confident women, who, like Dorothy Parker can look at a man at a party and say, “Would you like another drink before kissing me?” or are some women born that strong? The girlish need to be swept off one’s feet, does it ever go away?  Do we eventually learn to upset the balance of power and get away with it?

How empowering to realize that we have the courage, the finesse to sweep someone off their feet. “A woman’s right to pleasure” is what it all comes down to, according to Philip Roth. A right that generations of women have been fighting for, one which my generation takes for granted. Or maybe we just have to discover it for ourselves. Win and earn our own rights, one by one.

What cultural analysists, like bell hooks have taught us, is that feminism, like democracy (John Dewey), and other core values, has to be born anew in each generation.

After all, “well-behaved women seldom make history” (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich)!

Gabrielle Chanel (1883-1971)

This entry was posted in Books, Fashion, Film. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Mademoiselle Coco

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  3. 24hbeautiful says:

    wow. After reading your post, I wanted to go and get the novel now. Amazing!

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  5. Pingback: Horst: Photographer of Style | Suites Culturelles

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