How not to be disgusting

Anne Hollander

  • Coco Chanel: A Biography by Axel Madsen
    Bloomsbury, 388 pp, £20.00, October 1990, ISBN 0 7475 0762 7

Gabrielle Chanel is famous for the Little Black Dress, the Chanel Suit and Chanel No 5. The three can effectively sum up the Modern Woman, suggesting female elegance without pretension and feminine allure without musk and whalebone. The Chanel style precludes the traditional forms of guile by which women have been supposed to arouse a man’s desire in order to lay hands on his money, rather than match his lust with their own. Chanel’s celebrated inventions clothe a female creature who is all the more sexually interesting for being nobody’s doll, besides being nobody’s fool. Even further, they suggest an unaggressive sensuality, the deep pleasure of a self-contained bodily ease that demands no sacrifice of decorum nor startling exoticism to be immediately compelling.

Chanel is rightly more admired as a stylistic innovator than as a genius of pure couture. To a certain extent, her sartorial achievements were common to many dress-designers at work between 1920 and 1940. The Modern Woman was a collective enterprise, and some of her new physical nonchalance and social agility were being celebrated by Jean Patou and Lucien Lelong, Alix Grès and several others besides Chanel: but Chanel was certainly the first dressmaker to conceive of female modernity in bodily terms, to insist on a modest but dynamic self-possession as the most attractive note to strike in modern feminine dress. It was the look of the working girl, hitherto unknown to fashion. She did it while Paul Poiret was still promoting sumptuous colour and monkey fur, egrets and dramatic drapery, and other designers still aimed to clothe the elegant woman in an air of complexity, difficulty, mystery and obvious expensiveness. Chanel’s early designs were the first inventions of haute couture to suggest the sharp appeal in the look of ingenuous poverty and youthful straightforwardness; and she naturally made it all the more appealing by charging huge prices for it.

The fact that Chanel is now more famous than all the other modern designers who soon joined her is partly the result of her extraordinary double career, which gave her the ability to preside over her own revival a generation after the eclipse of her most acute modishness, and the closing of her house, just before the Second World War. Given how contemporary her style still seems, and how recently she was on the scene in person, with her glittering little face, round hats and soft suits, it is hard to believe that she was already 20 years old in 1903, and in her fifties during the Thirties. She achieved her hugest success and established her greatest fame only after the age of 71.

Not many creators in the ephemeral arts have a chance to preside over their own rebirth. From Aubrey Beardsley to Busby Berkeley, they are usually at the mercy of crudely over-enthusiastic interpreters who work on the verge of parody, carrying admiration near the limit and often over the edge of camp. In the late-Fifties revival of the Twenties, Chanel herself returned to manage her own renaissance and keep it authentic. Her personal style was also intact, further enhanced by her aphorisms, which she had first begun to produce in her youth after discovering La Bruyère and La Rochefoucauld. Her invention always began with herself; she wished to be a source of personal feminine wisdom, not just of clothes for women, as in ‘People can get used to ugliness, never to negligence’, and others in like vein.

Chanel also helped set a new standard for female celebrity. As her career grew into a legend, it became possible for other female craftsmen, artisans and successful tycoons to be public figures with as much bravura as opera singers, or as much prestige as writers and artists, and with no loss of respectability. Before the First World War, ladies appeared in the society pages, but the only women who welcomed personal publicity were performers, or cocottes. Chanel’s first public career as a couturière, which began just before the First World War, did carry a strong flavour of flamboyant performance, just as if she were an actress or a grande horizontale, not a dressmaker. She was always as notorious as her designs, and occasionally more so. To get started, she did in fact have to be someone’s mistress, although her way of being Etienne Balsan’s petite amie had run to romping in his famous stables in jodhpurs, not appearing on his arm clad in satin at Maxim’s. Nevertheless, she began at the top, succeeding as an attractive grisette in international turf society. The people she met there became the first customers in her first enterprise, a hat-shop Balsan financed; and her later couture business stayed at the highest level because of those early connections, many of which she was in haste to repudiate.

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