I just watched the excellent biography film Coco Before Chanel about the early life of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. Before watching this film, I knew very little about the woman behind this powerful fashion brand. I have read about her in my favorite books about the 1920s Lost Generation expats because she was a great friend to influential writers and artists living in France at that time. In fact, it has been written that American expat Gerald Murphy’s resort wear inspired Chanel. But, above all, I have always liked the understated sophistication, casual elegance and practical design associated with Chanel, even with little knowledge of the incredible history behind the name.
Coco Before Chanel (2009, French with subtitles) focuses on Coco’s early life and her rise from orphan to seamstress to cabaret singer and ultimately the queen of Parisian haute couture. Audrey Tautou plays the legendary French designer brilliantly.
Rags to riches stories always make an impression on me, and Coco Chanel – an orphaned child of a laundrywoman mother who died when she was 12 and street vendor father who gave her away – struggled in her early years but was ambitious, rebellious and ahead of her time. She became an adult in the early part of the 1900s in a male dominated world at a time when women were not expected to work. Instead, girls “like her” – poor and orphaned but pretty – entertained and sang and danced in clubs and met wealthy barons who financed a leisurely life in exchange for mistress or entertainer. Many women gladly settled for this kind of life. While Coco indeed preferred the life and freedom of a mistress than a wife’s life (not an enviable position back then) and she knew without apology that men of status and wealth do not marry girls like her from impoverished backgrounds, she wanted more than to be a mistress. Her wealthy lovers proved to be instrumental in setting her free to pursue her talent in style and fashion.
Women’s fashion of the time left little to be imagined with tight-fitting corsets and over-the-top dresses, dripping with jewelry and heavy, ornate hats. Coco – with a boyish figure – instead wore a tasteful, elegant, undecorated style that allowed for movement and breathing like men’s clothes, and covered more of her body to leave a little to the imagination. A brief career caberet singing in Moulins leads her to meeting Etienne Balsan, a French socialite, heir and horse racer, and she becomes his mistress and eventually lifelong friend. While living with him he introduces her to Paris society, including an actress that loves Coco’s new design of a straw hat for women. She spreads the word to her rich friends and Coco begins to get noticed. Inspired my men’s clothes, Coco also gains inspiration by rummaging through closets of her lovers. Later she meets and becomes lovers with Arthur “Boy” Capel, another inspiration for her work, who makes a lifelong impact on her by helping her set up a hat-making boutique in Paris. She expands her boutique with deluxe casual clothes for leisure and sports using humble fabric like jersey previously only used for men’s underwear – the final blow to the corseted, restricted fashion at that time – which helps lead her to become a giant fashion designer. (Capel seemed to be her true love, although they would never marry. She said she reimbursed Capel his original investment.)
Whatever she became later in life – with reported wartime controversy and scandal and life among aristocracy – the film Coco Before Chanel portrays Coco in her early years as a gutsy, rebellious woman from a disadvantaged background but with a great sensibility and ahead of her time. A pursuit of expensive simplicity and her many trademarks – the Chanel suit, the little black dress, Chanel No. 5 perfume, and the marinière or sailor blouse – mark her legacy as an important and influential designer in 20th Century fashion that broke old rules of conventional fashion and invented a new way of chic.
“A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous.”
– Coco Chanel