[13 December 2009]
“Some people think that luxury is the opposite of poverty. Not so, it is the opposite of vulgarity.” —Coco Chanel
To understand Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel’s impact on the fashion world, one must begin with the haute couture universe of the early 20th century, a universe that Chanel would eventually overthrow. Hershon & Guerra’s documentary Chanel Chanel describes the ‘Belle Époque’ style that was dominant before the rise of Chanel (Narration by Diane Quick):
Being little more than visible manifestations of their husband’s wealth, women were treated like objects of art, with no concern for their own comfort or needs, their natural body shapes exaggerated through the use of corsets, long heavy skirts and tight-fitting shoes. The effect of these fashions was to make women totally dependent creatures, unable to dress or undress or even step off a curb without the assistance of a husband or maid.
At the time, Chanel worked as a shop clerk and seamstress in Paris. Her lover and patron, Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, was so impressed by Chanel’s bold sense of style that he financed her first business venture, a small millinery shop.
Chanel’s initial breakthrough was in hat design. Belle Époque hats were typically ostentatious and enormous, piled high with flowers and feathers. Chanel remarked: “How can the brain function under those things?”
Chanel’s hats were simple but elegant, including one popular design inspired by a sailor’s cap. The beautiful actress Gabrielle Dorziat and the opera star Marthe Davelli were both photographed wearing Chanel hats, resulting in high-profile publicity for the young designer.
Chanel’s next innovation was in swimwear. As Belle Époque followers strolled the beach covered from head-to-toe, Chanel designed light, loose-fitting sportswear, perfect for resort living. Chanel’s work was nothing short of liberating, freeing women from an anachronistic, impractical, and repressed style.
The documentary Chanel, Chanel uses photo stills of the Belle Époque era and compares them to Chanel’s groundbreaking designs. Interspersed throughout are interview segments with an elderly Chanel, still vital and articulate, at times brilliant.
As women entered the workforce in record numbers during World War I, Chanel released a new collection, including dresses that discarded the corset and raised the hemline above the ankle. Chanel described the time: “A world was dying while another was being born. I was there, opportunity came forward, and I took it.”
After the death of Boy Capel, Chanel took a new lover, the Russian duke Dimitri Pavlovich. Chanel’s association with Russian aristocracy influenced her work, as she began incorporating Siberian fur—sable, ermine, and mink into her designs. Impressed by the intricate embroidery of Russian couture, Chanel began hiring Russian émigrés into her fashion houses.
Chanel Chanel succeeds in showing the progression of Chanel as an artist, a designer with an experiencing nature who was willing to embrace foreign influences and combine them with her own sense of style. Chanel biographer Janet Wallach describes this trait:
Chanel’s genius lay not in the fanciful but in the functional. Her talent was her ability to adapt what was around her…whether borrowing a boyfriend’s sweater to keep warm, or admiring a sailor’s cap and restyling it as her own.
In 1920, Chanel released her flagship perfume, Chanel No 5, the first perfume to bear a designer’s name. “No elegance is possible without perfume,” Chanel said, “It is the unseen, unforgettable, ultimate accessory of fashion. It is arrogance to claim that one’s own scent is sufficient.”
The year 1926 brought another Chanel triumph, the little black dress. Featured in Vogue Magazine, the editors proclaimed, “This simple black dress will become a kind of uniform for women of taste… here is a Ford, designed by Chanel.” The little black dress become a fashion standard, afterwards referred to simply as ‘LBD’. By the mid-‘20s, against all odds, Chanel had become the fashion leader of the world.
Chanel’s bold innovation continued when she designed a women’s suit made out of wool jersey, a fabric commonly used for men’s underwear. Chanel later said, “I dress first and foremost for myself… in my work I ask myself whether I would wear a certain dress. If not, then I don’t make it.”
During World War II, Chanel lived at the Ritz Hotel in Nazi-occupied Paris and began a notorious affair with a German officer. Departing for Switzerland after the war, Chanel lived in self-imposed exile until the age of 70, when she finally returned to Paris and reopened her fashion houses. Her comeback was universally panned by the French press.
But the new line, which included the little Chanel suit, was a phenomenal success in America. When cheap imitations of the suit were mass-marketed in America so that middle-class women could afford them, Chanel said, “Let them copy… my ideas belong to everyone, I refuse no one.”
At the end of her interview, Chanel shows little regard for contemporary fashion: “An elegant woman… should not make housewives laugh—those who laugh are always right. Designers depending on shock instead of beauty should look at the history of art and discover the shock of beauty.”
The documentary reveals Chanel as a critical figure in 20th Century culture, a visionary designer, brilliant businesswoman, and unrepentant romantic. The DVD’s bonus features are practically non-existent, consisting of 30 still photographs that apparently didn’t fit into the narrative.