The Gospel According To Coco Chanel: On Fearlessness (Part I)


In The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World’s Most Elegant Woman, Karen Karbo (interviewed here) tells the story of one of the 20th century’s great innovators: the woman who, among other things, popularized the little black dress, made costume jewelry respectable, developed the first deliberately abstract and artificial perfume, and turned jersey and cardigans into women's wardrobe staples. Coco Chanel's greatest invention, the one that made the others possible, was herself. Here, illustrated with video from the newly released movie Coco Before Chanel (the date is British; the film is just now opening in the U.S.), is the first of three excerpts from the chapter titled “On Fearlessness.”

From the perspective of someone who is able to overcome her fears only sporadically through a combination of deep yogic breathing and self-talk, the strong, unrelenting heartbeat of Chanel’s courage alone is enough to qualify her for beatification, St. Coco, Patron Saint of Jersey (the fabric, not the island).

After Chanel realized she could more or less single-handedly (let’s not forget her assistants—she could not have done what she did without the little people) overthrow the institution of the twenty-pound platter hat with her saucy department-store boaters, she decided she could do the same for all of women’s fashion. Pourquois pas? Why not? It was the same principle, only on a larger scale. She was like a warrior queen who invaded a little country as practice for attacking a larger one.

It was the summer of 1914, the uneasy first summer of the first World War, and everyone who could fled Paris for Deauville, a posh resort on the northeastern coast of France, known for its racetrack, Grand Casino, and grand hotels. Chanel (with the backing of her new lover, Boy Capel) opened Chanel Modes on the main drag between the most luxurious hotel in town and the Grand Casino, and there she started selling little skirts and fetching cardigans.

A lucky heat wave in July, and that being-on-holiday-so-what-the-hell feeling that in our times manifests itself as a willingness to stop at the market on the way home from the beach in a sarong, sent fashionable society ladies (with fabulous rich-lady names like Princess Baba de Faucigny-Lucinge and Pauline de Saint-Saveur) into Coco’s shop for her light, comfy pieces, which would soon be known as sportswear, even though the only “sport” women engaged in them was the occasional slow bike ride, promenading between shops and motoring.

The creation of the fetching cardigan has its own equally fetching Chanelore behind it. One day Chanel was tromping around the barn/at the races or strolling along the beach and asked to borrow boyfriend Capel’s pullover. This was the kind of relationship they had, intimate and chummy. She could ask to borrow his clothes and Capel, an iconoclast in his own right, thought nothing of it. But the pullover...what a nuisance to haul this thing over her head—one presumes she had to remove her nervy little straw boater first—and so she simply took a pair of scissors, cut the pullover up the middle, belted it, and Bob’s your uncle. How the shears and belt miraculously appeared at the barn/track/shore is one of those charming Chanelian mysteries that we faithful simply accept. It supports the observation of her friend Paul Morand (novelist, diplomat, modernist, friend of Proust) that she “built her wardrobe in response to her needs, just the way Robinson Crusoe built his hut.”

It took pluck to introduce easy-to-wear clothes during an era when “clothes” and “easy-to-wear” had never yet appeared together in a sentence. At the end of the Belle Époque, the S-bend corset was out, but the long-line corset, looser laced but extending to the knees (!) for a slimming effect, was in, and women’s clothes were still a cross between costume and armor. Ladies dressed every morning in a woman disguise, in clothes designed to aggressively suggest femininity while at the same time hiding the female shape lurking beneath.

So Chanel, the young milliner who still scrubbed with the same no-nonsense soap the nuns used at the orphanage, with one cheeky, well-received concept under her belt (simplify!), decided to expand. She decided rather than disguising women as women, it was time to create clothes that allowed the ladies to work it.

Historians differ on how she came to take this giant step forward. Some say she was innocently putting one delicate foot in front of the other, and moving from hats into clothing was the next obvious thing; others believe she was a crafty businesswoman with a master plan hatched—I’m guessing—during all those idle hours at Royallieu while she was helping Étienne Balsan’s grooms tend the thoroughbreds (as anyone who has horses in her life knows, for every hour in the saddle there are hours and hours of cooling down, bathing, brushing, hoof picking, etc.). I’ve decided to believe the latter, that she was a crafty faux Auvergnate bent on conquering the world in her own way, as opposed to a darling wee thing that simply fell into monumental, world-changing success.

Anyway, it was her big idea at a time when she needed a big idea. Chanel always looked young and passed herself off as younger. If she could have continued to pass herself off as eighteen indefinitely, she would have. In 1914 she was thirty-one, a few years past the age when women who were neither wives nor mothers were written off as “redundant.” In this way things haven’t changed much. Or rather they changed about forty years ago, when it was thought that a woman needed a man like a fish needed a bicycle, and then they changed back. To be thirty-one and unmarried is the same tragedy now as it was a hundred years go, back in the days when driving was considered a sport. At any rate, Chanel’s fate wasn’t yet guaranteed. Just because she had a successful hat business, that didn’t mean she wouldn’t be thrown over by Capel (as she eventually was) and left husband-less, family-less, penniless.

Continued tomorrow...

Reprinted with permission from The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World’s Most Elegant Woman, published by Skirt!, an imprint of The Globe Pequot Press, copyright © 2009 by Karen Karbo.

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