Thursday, 14 June 2012 06:20

Coco Chanel - the story of a revolution

Written by

Even before they had a practical purpose, clothes were meant to have a message. They mark, differentiate, ennoble, humiliate, include and cast out; in other words, they talk about the person wearing them. If there is one statement that definitely applies to fashion, or clothing in general, it is that it has always functioned as a language. Before fashion became fashionable, clothes represented stability: changes appeared slowly and the meanings of clothes where obvious. In the first decades of the century, Coco Chanel violated this familiar language. After throwing away corsets, dressing women like men and making clothes from unusual fabrics it was hard to say who was who.

Her experiments with couture were called a revolution and ranked her on Time magazine's list of the most influential people of the 20th century. A century after her debut in Parisian salons, she remains an icon in the ephemeral world of fashion and beyond it. Only in the last years the legend of the French couturière was revisited several times in cinema ("Coco before Chanel", "Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky", "Coco Chanel") - a feast for fashionistas and fashion victims and a rare occasion for fashion historians. The contemporary look at the European legend of fashion presented in these films might be a good opportunity to ask questions about contemporary fashion itself.

Coco wasn't the only provocative designer at that time, she wasn't even the only woman designer. But she was the one to opt for a democratic turn in fashion.

Today, the two C's stand as much for the label as they do for the image of Coco Chanel herself; a self-confident, determined and scandalous personality – an ideal character for cinema. What may seem surprising now is that Coco wasn't the only provocative designer at that time, she wasn't even the only woman designer. But she was the one to opt for a democratic turn in fashion. In times when functionality and comfort did not go along with elegance and the elitist idea of fashion, Chanel tried to create clothes that would be suitable and affordable for all women. Coco turned fashion into a popular entertainment and laid foundations for what was to become the dynamic modern fashion industry.

However, the popularisation of fashion quickly became a contradiction, with art on one side and a strictly regulated market on the other. Fashion had to develop specific ways of talking about fashion and exposing it, ways that would cover up its unstable structure and create illusions about what it presented. Catwalks, magazines, blogs, and fashion events not only present the changes dictated by the fashion every season as natural and obvious, but they also create a paradoxical impression that they are an individual mode of expression for the ones who wear it. Fashion creates needs and desires and at the same time controls or masks the scandals that it generates (anorexia, underage model exploitation, model abuse).

Often the scandals in fashion are meant to seem as if they were themselves a way of dealing with social issues end engaging into political conflicts. The last years, for instance, have been rich in collections inspired by wars, especially by the war in Iraq. This was for example the case of John Galliano's – yes, the one that was fired from Dior for antisemitic assaults – fall 2008 fashion line which was based on photos of tortured prisoners in Abu Grahib.

Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, besides being a talented designer and business woman, was also an alleged Nazi spy.

It is quite ironic that what Chanel and Galliano had in common, apart from fashion of course, was apparently raging antisemitism. Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, besides being a talented designer and business woman, was also an alleged Nazi spy. She spent the war living in the Ritz as the mistress of Nazi intelligence officer Hans Günther von Dincklage. After the war she war she was interrogated by the Free French Purge Committee and released after Churchill's intervention.

What does cinema make of all this? The recent films approach Chanel's life and career from different sides, often from the dark ones.

"Coco before Chanel", starring Audrey Tautou, shows the story of a simple but determined and talented girl who grew up in an orphanage and had a difficult life, but everything changed when she started meeting rich men who took her out of her misery and financed her start as a designer.

In "Coco and Igor" Chanel is already established in the world of fashion. She is rich, beautiful, independent, and has a famous lover - Stravinsky. The film deserves special credits for a daring reconstruction of the "Rite of Spring" premiere in Paris in 1913 and for excellent interior set designs, which complement the image of Chanel's taste.

The TV film "Coco Chanel" directed by Christian Duguay – unbearably predictable and badly cast – aspired to show the "real" story by telling (almost) the whole story. It starts with a seventy year old Chanel, recalling her youth. Chanel's narrative flashbacks go back to her childhood and adolescence, her success in fashion, the difficult years of WW1 and then back to the fifties…

By not mentioning Chanel's collaboration, or even blatantly omitting it, these films "speak" the language of fashion; a totalising language that creates and controls meaning and imagery far beyond aesthetics and habits. They fit perfectly into the history of a revolution that became a dictatorship.

Last modified on Thursday, 14 June 2012 08:02
Monika Proba

Monika Proba studied culture anthropology in Warsaw and Paris. She is currently living in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. In Café Cinema she will be tracking images of Europe in classical and modern cinema.

Leave a comment

Make sure you enter all the required information, indicated by an asterisk (*). HTML code is not allowed.

IN -942 DAYS