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.

Chanel’s ideals and ambitions were rooted in the 19th century, when a dressmaker or tailor had no social equality with clients, and yet none of the personal notoriety and glamour of a performing artist. To succeed in business, she had to appear to be more of a performer than a craftsman, and so she was, to begin with. She had no education and no experience of cultivated life, but also no professional training whatsoever, either in the theatre or in millinery and dressmaking. Her appeal was as a primitive being, a natural genius like a Zola courtesan. She initially made it in millinery on flair and good judgment about professional staff, although eventually her real talent made a success of her boutiques in Deauville and Biarritz. At those resorts, her simple jersey ensembles and plain straw hats thrilled elegant women accustomed to wearing silk and feathers on the beach. This was just before the Great War, well before her first collection in Paris in 1921, and well before Patou was making similar innovations in sportswear.

Once launched, however, Chanel kept to the demi-mondaine mode, always attaching herself to famous men and appearing everywhere with great éclat, talking wittily and continuously, dressing beautifully, and by no means withdrawing modestly to her atelier to produce creations that could only bring her fame on the backs of other women. Madeleine Vionnet and Jeanne Lanvin, who had both undergone serious apprenticeship in the couture, did that: but Chanel insisted that couture was not an art and it certainly did not demand an artist’s brand of solitary devotion. Rather, she managed to promote her business from the beginning by being her own advertisement, adding the palpable excitement of her own beauty, sexual charm and gilded existence to the radical simplicity of her designs. In the new urban society that came into being after the First World War, where artists, poets and performers came to mix with aristocrats and the new rich, she could finally legitimately join the haut monde of which she had once been only an ambitious and entertaining lower-class appendage. Throughout her career, her designs were fashionable partly because she was a fashionable person; and it had been important for their initial success that not only was she not an artist, she was not a lady. Instead she was a star, the very first in her field.

As such, she has inspired several star-biographies, of which Madsen’s is the latest. The biographies of Chanel that were attempted during her lifetime had to be given up, because interviewing her proved so exasperating. She provided so much conflicting material that it became clear she was perpetually lying about her own past, perpetually reinventing her own legend. After her death, primary research was necessary to establish the facts of her life. Some of these are now fixed, others are impossible to retrieve, leaving a residue of anecdote quite suitable to her carefully tended personal image, so akin to those of Lola Montez and Liane de Pougy, or those of Garbo and Callas.

Madsen’s book takes note of the variability of Chanel’s own accounts of events, and gives several if no single one can be authenticated. He clearly knows French well, but for excerpted French conversation and commentary he does his own translations, and these reveal inelegances in his English even more than does the body of the text. ‘You’ll end up in the dumps,’ someone warns Chanel about the possibility of her lover leaving her. Surely he means: ‘You’ll end up being dumped’? Or elsewhere, when Chanel is sniffing many fragrances, finally choosing one and saying, ‘That’s what I expected,’ surely she said: ‘That’s what I was waiting for’? Later on, translating from the poet Reverdy, he offers ‘One does not see the knees of he who prays’, and, from Chanel: ‘He wasn’t free and nor was I.’ Such limping quotations only reinforce the somewhat unsympathetic and debunking spirit of Madsen’s book.

He has all the sensational material necessary for a star-biography: the love-affairs with Grand Duke Dmitri, Stravinsky and the Duke of Westminster among others, the friendships with Colette and Cocteau and Diaghilev among others, the parties and dinners in great houses, the passionate attachment to Misia Sert, the passionate aversion to Schiaparelli and other rivals, the whole decorative panoply of Chanel’s intense connection with celebrated figures of her epoch. He has madcap Coco casting the Duke’s gift of priceless pearls into the sea over the side of his yacht: and he has her romantic, improbable-seeming role in an aborted negotiated-peace plot that she successfully set in motion during the Second World War. As a star-biographer, he offers the romance of her life in a faintly soap-operatic mode, painting her as the girl whose lovers married others and who hid her sore heart under a bright mask until the end. He gives very little sense of any identification with the existence of such a woman with such work to do and such a life to lead, during her lengthy modern moment. Instead he seems a bit in love with her, irritated and moved and amused by turns.

To do him justice, he also describes Chanel’s extremely unromantic and complicated relations with the Wertheimer family, who first profited, at her expense, from the success of Chanel No 5, and who eventually, after various legal battles with her, ran her whole business, made her rich, and financed her extraordinary comeback in 1954. Madsen is very interesting on all her financial and legal battles, and on the exact details of her life during the time her couture house was closed. He is less interested in couture itself, or even in clothes. This book has very little serious analysis of dress in it that might place Chanel’s real work, apart from her self-image-making, in relation to the work of her colleagues. But he does give us Chanel’s less than exemplary behaviour towards her staff, whom she paid badly and treated insensitively, and her brutal rejection of most of her family.

In particular, Madsen well conveys Chanel’s strong sexuality, which is the true secret of her success and was obviously much stronger than her sense of power or money, or even of style and society. Her intelligence was all about sex; and she was sexually attractive all her life, with no recourse to being the sort of distanced, trumpeting social presence or demanding sacred monster that so many celebrated old women become when they give up making real connections with other people, especially erotic connections. Until she died at 88, Chanel was directly captivating in the same way she had been in her youth, and to persons of both sexes. Her ideas about clothes were all about the enhancement of feminine sexuality without distracting tricks, conspicuous lawlessness or appeals to perversity; she designed the sort of thing she would wear herself, clothes that would promote her own personal earthiness, her own sense of men and sense of fun, her own body and especially her own instinct for the uses of honesty and good manners in successful flirtation. She wished to promote all these qualities in other women but especially to allow women to express their sexuality directly through their clothes as if through their skin, as if clothes were in fact the silky pelt of the female human animal. The unconstricted body and its natural movements must be enhanced by soft fabric and glittering surfaces, and even further enhanced by neat black and clean white, cool navy and pale beige. Not symbolic trappings but basic sexual confidence would announce any woman’s true modernity, and keep her free.

Although Chanel lived through the suffragist agitation of the early 20th century and saw women’s lives undergo great changes, she was not at all interested in female emancipation. She quite failed to recognise the entrenched institutions hampering the free action of women, since she herself had simply clawed her way straight up from the bottom without encountering them. But she was also against any freedom from traditional sexual role-playing, from the demands of male sexual fantasy. Such a freedom would have meant impoverishment to her. She was not interested in any female education based on detached standards of learning and competence, claiming that women only needed a few precepts for life – never leave the house without stockings, a woman without perfume has no future, clothes should make you seem nude underneath, etc, etc, precepts worthy of Gigi’s aunts. Not a word about making a living, only suggestions about how to be attractive by having attractive habits (clothes among them), how not to be disgusting or irritating, how not to be false or silly. Then one could do anything, run a business, govern a country, enact any sort of purpose depending only on will and energy.

With such training one would not only be confident and invincible, one would remain young for ever, just as Chanel herself seemed to do, and as her clothes allowed any woman to do. Simple garments in clear shapes and subdued colours are very becoming to lined faces and ageing figures, as the masculine scheme for clothes attests. Chanel’s use of masculine ideals for feminine dress had to do with the lasting appeal of visual clarity and a sort of cool physical cleanliness, never with the need for a businesslike asexual style for women, which might be useful in practical public life. Chanel had no part in the unsexing of women that seemed an inevitable, if temporary, aspect of the feminist movement in her time; she remained a champion of love as the ultimate aim of a woman’s life, the engine of all other endeavour.

But she would not marry and stop working. Given her 19th-century conception of herself, Chanel’s career was indeed plotted like a performer’s: she had to control her appearances and her productions, and never claim respect or admiration as anyone else’s satellite. Lovers were for private and personal satisfaction. Her own star quality had to invest her at all times, and if she were the Duchess of Westminster, it would not. She could not feel flattered by the chance to live in idleness, and a duchess could not be a dressmaker. Chanel loved her work and loved excelling at it, feeling the satisfaction of making good things and seeing them influence the life and work of others. She loved being copied, to see the spread of her power, but also believed in the continuing public life of fashion, not in its exclusivity. She hated what she called ‘drawing-room fashion’, clothes that are like fancy dress, that die after a moment of limited glory. She was the first couturière to go against the rules of the Chambre Syndicale and permit photographers at her showings on purpose to promote copying and permit ‘stealing’.

Chanel may have been an insecure person, with her steady need to boast about her professional importance and her personal superiority, and her automatic habit of disparaging the achievements of others and the taste of their clients: and yet it worked. Some of it was a further demonstration of her knack for publicity and advertising, which had become important commercial phenomena almost at the same time that she had. Her boasting wasn’t all uneasy self-assertion: it may well have been shrewd calculation, somewhat in the modern vein of political campaigning.

Chanel was one of the architects of modern material culture, a creator of the basic modern classics of female dress that must still be reckoned with by all later designers for women. Her idea that sexiness is best conveyed in terms of self-respect rather than of folly remains in force, manifest in all modern fashion that keeps harshness from overwhelming femininity, informality from overwhelming courtesy, or startling invention from overwhelming anatomy. The easily fitting suits and simple dresses that are still the best envelopes for adult feminine charm were originally worked out with rigorous care. Madsen describes Chanel’s working methods, which were in fact quite similar to those of other female designers, who tend to concentrate on the living woman instead of on a fantasy vision. Unlike most male designers, she never made sketches but worked the toile or muslin right on the body of the mannequin, who stood for hours while she cut and pinned. After that, a garment went to the workshop, where Chanel had no expertise and did not penetrate; and then she might work again on its basic shape and hang, again on her knees in front of the mannequin, after the dress had been made up.

Her designs all have a slightly artless flavour, never displaying the intricate draping and artful piecing through which many designers have shown off their skills. Chanel once wrote a short appreciation of 16th-century fashion, and there are submerged echoes of that period in her work. She used uncomplicated shapes but very subtly textured fabrics; and all ornament was external and independently commanding, never an extreme or fussy extension of the structure. Like the ladies in Cranach paintings, Chanel women might wear expensively plain black with white at the neck, pounds of gold chains and a little tilted hat, the whole ensemble informed with dignity and irrepressible élan.

Applying ornamental edging to simple garments in luscious fabric, and then adding many jewels, also smacks of ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern custom, and of peasant dress from various regions. But Chanel could make judicious use of such primitive simplicities without betraying any trace of ethnic or historical flavour, just as she used schoolgirl motifs without suggesting childhood and masculine touches without invoking mannishness. The right pinch of coarseness or naivety might invigorate a refined conception, but everything would be thoroughly modulated to express only the modern woman, ageless and classless in her abiding sensual appeal.

The classlessness of the Chanel style was partly what made it so enduring, although she herself did not live to see all the larger reverberations of her sartorial notions throughout the modern garment business. It happened first in America, where her huge fame had begun in her lifetime. At her death in 1971, she was still working at the highest level of couture herself, not designing cheap ready-to-wear versions. But those were already in existence; and ever since, the vast numbers of women at all economic levels who find that a nice suit, some costume pearls and a simple black dress will take them through most of life’s public occasions are still testifying to the force of her ideas.

She herself witnessed the rise of self-conscious madness on the fashion scene, the plastic excesses of Courrèges and the sculptural space-age fantasies of Cardin, together with the great rise of infantile untidiness and programmatic immodesty in everyday fashion, and the ascendancy of the costume principle in clothing. When denim, nudity and nailheads took over the couture, she was coming to the end of her life. But despite the abrupt shift of direction in fashion occurring at the time of her death, her principles have never been abandoned. At the couture level, not only is Karl Lagerfeld officially continuing her programme in newer, quirkier ways attuned to this age of instant parody, but the work of many other recent designers, from Giorgio Armani to Donna Karan, is still demonstrating her influence, still attempting the fusion of unaffected physicality with well-mannered elegance.

Axel Madsen has also written biographies of Yves St Laurent, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and a book about the love-affair between Joseph Kennedy and Gloria Swanson. He seems always to write about various kinds of star, presumably so as to reveal their secrets to their adoring fans in the usual sensational way, and reap profits. But there is a great deal of sober information in this book, some of it very welcome since it is missing from better written and more imaginative works on Chanel. There are a few mistakes: Edward VII was not king in 1914, and the mystifying Ballets de Monaco must mean the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo. Besides its stumbling prose and unserious tone, this book’s other fault is an absence of sufficient pictures. The reader interested in the subject must seek out Edmonde Charles-Roux’s Chanel of 1975 and Jean Leymarie’s Chanel of 1987 for more satisfactory visual material.