February 4, 2022 — 2.13pm
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“I am not a heroine,” Gabrielle Chanel told one of her biographers. “But I have chosen the person I wanted to be and am. Too bad if I am disliked and unpleasant.”
Like most things this famous couturiere said, this statement requires unpacking. Madame Chanel could be extremely unpleasant, but also wildly generous. She was admired and idolised more than disliked, although she might be savage with foes and friends. One of the great self-inventors, Chanel was constantly refining and altering the story of her life. She was a consummate liar who scripted her own myth and accepted it as fact, until she decided to change it again.
Not only did Chanel choose the person she wanted to be, she turned her models into facsimiles of herself, dictating their look, their posture and gestures. Those with larger busts might be required to wear a corset that made them seem as flat-chested as the boss. Chanel was a fashion dictator who would have liked all the women in the world to dress in the style she invented and sold. She came closer than any other designer in history to realising this fantasy.
None of this is spelled out in Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto at the National Gallery of Victoria, but visitors who know nothing about Chanel will realise they are in the presence of a powerful, distinctive vision. I’m not going to critique the dresses, suits and accessories because that’s not my area of expertise. Chanel, more than any other figure from the world of haute couture, needs to be seen in general terms as a creative dynamo who exerted an enormous influence on the culture of the twentieth century.
She befriended and worked with many of the leading artists, writers, musicians, designers, dancers, actors and filmmakers who made their way through Paris, including Picasso, Cocteau, Colette, Diaghilev, Jean Renoir and Stravinsky. She had an affair with Stravinsky and long-running relationships with the poet, Pierre Reverdy, and the Duke of Westminster, but would never marry.
Born at a Charity Hospital in the Loire Valley, in 1883, Chanel came from the humblest of backgrounds. She owed her entry into the world of high fashion to the patronage of two wealthy upper-class men, and her own indomitable instincts. She had the ambition and will to succeed, an innate sense of style and a formidable intelligence. From her earliest years, Chanel aimed to stand out: wearing men’s clothing when other women were wreathed in huge, elaborate dresses.
She is said to have got her nickname, “Coco”, from a popular song which she sang at a café in Moulins, in the early 1900s. True or false, it was the name by which she was known all over the world. I don’t know why the Parisian museums behind this exhibition should have chosen to use Chanel’s real name, “Gabrielle”, when “Coco” is a brand.
Perhaps the curators intended to draw a line under a disreputable episode from the Second World War, when Chanel, unwilling to remain in hiding in the provinces, took herself back to Paris during the German occupation. Her old residence, the Ritz, was under the control of the Gestapo, who were delighted to welcome her home. She would have a long-running affair with a German official and even suggest herself as an intermediary between the Nazis and Winston Churchill, whom she counted as a personal friend.
The war years formed the subject of a book by Hal Vaughan in 2011, which has been denounced by Chanel’s admirers, who refuse to see her tarred as a spy or traitor. She does, however, tick all the boxes as a “collabo”. Although Chanel was never brought to trial, she withdrew from the fashion business between 1939 and 1954, returning when the world wanted to look forward rather than dwell on the sins of the past.
This may be why there is virtually nothing in the show, or in the excellent catalogue translated from the French, that looks closely at the war years. It may be the reason Chanel has been reborn as the dignified “Gabrielle”, rather than the playful “Coco”.
At heart, Chanel was more Modernist than moralist. Like a modern architect she aimed to strip away all superfluous decoration, creating fashion that was versatile and easy-to-wear. “All my art,” she said, “consists of cutting away what others have added.”
At a time when dresses were so complicated it required a servant to help put them on or off, and a travelling case the size of a wardrobe, she produced lighter, more durable garments that could be worn anywhere by women of modest means and independent habits.
Her early rival, Paul Poiret, called Chanel’s style “misérabilisme de luxe”, but she would still be thriving when he closed his doors. “I made fashion honest,” was one of her claims.
Chanel pioneered the craze for sportsware, which catered to the tastes of the garçonne, or flapper, who was trim and energetic, who liked to dance, drink and smoke, play tennis and drive cars. In 1926, after a night at the theatre when she felt disgusted by seeing so many ornate gowns in gaudy colours, she came up with the idea of the “little black dress”. It was mocked as a funereal gesture, but her instincts were proven correct: this simple, functional dress came as a massive relief to women who were tired of the expensive formal fashions of the day. Few could afford a gown from a leading couturier, but a version of the little black dress was within reach of any middle-class woman.
Like so many of her innovations it started a trend and would be copied all over the world. Unlike other designers, Chanel never worried about piracy, which she saw as free publicity. The difference between the original and the cheap copy was easy enough to discern in the details, the quality of the cut and the fabric.
The joke was that she had “invented poverty for billionaires” because the wealthy were now prepared to pay a premium for something so basic. Chanel bet and won on the idea that she could make Parisian socialites go crazy for puritan modesty.
The simplicity of Chanel’s outfits was complemented by a taste for lavish, theatrical jewellery, which drew on antique models. She made exclusive items with diamonds and other precious stones, and equally exotic pieces using artificial jewellery. She would often combine real and fake stones, emphasising personal taste over the shallow snobbery based on spending power.
Her most consistent money-spinner, from the moment it appeared in 1921, was the famous perfume, Chanel No. 5, an abstract fragrance with an abstract title, sold in a sleek, squarish bottle that has been called Cubist or Minimalist. By going against the conventions of luxury packaging and identifiable floral essences, she created a perfume for Everywoman.
When Chanel made her comeback in 1954, having spent 15 years out of the game, she was widely mocked for relying in the same formulae that had brought her success in the past. But she had timed her return to perfection, realising that Christian Dior’s glamorous “new look”, which debuted in 1947, was showing signs of age. The ineluctable logic of fashion meant that complexity would be superseded by simplicity, extravagance by restraint. Within a year or two, Chanel was back at the top. Pitting herself against the spirit of the 60s, she wasn’t making clothes for a season or an evening, but garments that would still look fashionable years later. “I am against fashion that doesn’t last,” was one of her maxims. Reserving the right to contradict herself, she told another interviewer: “The more transient fashion is, the more perfect it is.”
After sampling museum fashion shows filled with bizarre, sculptural creations that could never be worn in the street, you may find the discreet, pragmatic style of Chanel too conservative. Any flights of the imagination are held in check by an implacable logic that understood the market and the psychology of the customer. It’s the cumulative power of invention, the perfectionism, the breadth of understanding that sets her work apart. Chanel did not merely borrow from modern art, like Yves Saint-Laurent with his Mondrian dresses, she was an active participant in the whole Modernist adventure. She was always a leader, never a follower.
Chanel’s extraordinary career was built on paradoxes. She used artifice to probe fundamental truths of human nature. She conquered the wealthy with a wilfully impoverished style and sold timeless elegance to the middle classes. Her success was an act of class revenge, her self-confidence a weapon that floored her competitors and her admirers. Never conventionally beautiful, she charmed a succession of talented, high-powered males, but chose a solitary existence. She played down her achievements only to raise them higher, saying: “Fashion is not an art, it is a job. If art makes use of fashion, then that is sufficient praise.”
At other times she came up with more expansive views, pronouncing that “fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.”
Ultimately it might be better to admit that fashion is both a job and an art: a commercial activity and a creative enterprise that can be as frivolous or profound as the designer herself. To engage with the style and intelligence of Chanel’s work is to discover a remarkable self-portrait.
Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto, at the National Gallery of Victoria, until April 25.
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