Friday, May 06, 2005

A tribute to Chanel

The making of a material girl, courtesy of Fashion Telegraph

Gabrielle Chanel had the kind of body that we tend to stereotype as French (if only because of that annoying diet book French Women Don't Get Fat).

She was bone-thin, flat-chested, skinny-limbed, straight-backed, partly because she never ate much (she once said of the gourmandising Colette: 'She positively swaggers in gluttony!') and partly because she chain-smoked life-long. She was ahead of her time.

She came to womanhood at the height of the Belle Epoque, when fashionable beauties were Rubensesque and dressed to excess. This was the age of the deep-pillowed bosom, the swathed and bustled bottom, and What-The-Butler-Saw massive thighs. Only savage corseting restrained a woman's waist. Nothing restrained her finery: dresses were bedecked with plumes, flowers, feathers, furs, lace, ribbons, embroidery, flounces, trim.

Had they but known it, the fat French women of the Belle Epoque were eating and drinking in the last-chance saloon. Gabrielle Chanel, born in the 19th century as the half-orphan child of a peasant family in the Auvergne, would single-handedly force women's fashion into the 20th - and the house she founded is still recognisably hers (and richer than ever) in the 21st.

How on earth she did this was always a mystery to me, but in these extraordinary early pictures you can track her genius, her ambition, her bravery and - above all - her modernity. Naturally, she made all her own clothes (and hats), as every woman did except for the seriously rich. But her clothes were revolutionary.

At a time when fashion restricted, reshaped and exaggerated the femaleness of women, Chanel's clothes simply followed the natural shape of a woman's body. This is what men's clothes do. In a picture from 1906, you can see the very beginnings of Chanel's modernity. Her walking-suit in Prince of Wales check is narrow and skims the body. At a time when women's hats were the biggest in history, hers is no bigger than a man's panama.

Chanel took what she wanted from men's clothes because she moved among fashionable men. At 19 or 20 she'd tried working as a nightclub dancer in Pau - it was here she became known as Coco - but was picked up by a young French gallant, Etienne Balsan, the first of her many, many loves.

Balsan bred the best horses in France and went to the races non-stop. With him, she lived in that curious place called the demi-monde, the Parisian half world between society on the one hand and the great unwashed on the other. Balsan introduced her to château life, to horses, to racing and to his friends. By 1910 she was watching the races in a mannish boater, a shirt and tie (filched from Balsan) and a tailored overcoat (off the back of his friend Baron Foy).

For a night of amateur theatrics she dressed as a village groom in clothes she bought from the boys' department at a Paris department store. Gabrielle's short jacket, the Peter Pan collar, the black bow, the Breton straw hat are pure Chanel. Underneath the hat is her thick, piled, ratted mass of (pretty glorious) hair.

When it wouldn't fit under the man's bowler hat she wore to ride Balsan's horses, she raked it back and tucked into a (shocking) pigtail. It took her until 1917 to shear it right off her head - and every fashionable woman followed her lead.

In 1913, when she was 29, she became the petite amie of Balsan's best friend, a charismatic Englishman called Boy Capel. He backed her with a shop at 21 rue Cambon in Paris, only a few doors down from the mirrored glory of number 31 (the townhouse where she moved her business in 1928 - and where it remains today).

From being a kept woman, she was now a femme d'affaires and, when the First World War began, she relocated to Deauville. Here, her genius for knowing what women wanted to wear exploded. As she had borrowed stable-lads' jodhpurs to copy for herself, now she borrowed sailors' jerseys. No one had ever used tricot for anything except underwear before - it was a poor, soft, working-man's fabric, but what she was after was 'chic on the edge of poverty'.

She made a pull-on tunic with deep patch pockets to wear over a slim jersey skirt, or pleats. She hated fake detailing ('Never a button without a buttonhole!') and if she made pockets, you could thrust your hands in them. By 1917 she had raised her skirts, designed a 'swimming-costume' (as opposed to a burka-like 'bathing-dress') and started baring her face to the sun.

She saw what was coming before anyone else: in the postwar future, women - even very rich and fashionable women - would not be gliding along the promenade, dressed as a wedding-cake and holding a parasol. They would be jumping on and off planes, into taxi-cabs, on to subway trains, and their clothes needed to move with them.

'Fashion does not exist unless it goes down into the streets,' said Chanel. She ruthlessly stripped away all the built-in bling of the past century ('Make the dress first, not the embellishment'), aiming always for the straight line, and softening the jutting breasts and buttocks of the corseted era. Bling you could add later: 'It doesn't matter if it's real, so long as it looks like junk.'

Chanel democratised women's fashion, anticipating the mass market. Though each of her pieces was bespoke, she never minded being copied. Before Chanel, the most fashionable dress was a highly decorated number individually created for you by the most fashionable couturier, Paul Poiret - and woe betide him if you met a woman in something vaguely similar.

By 1926 Vogue's drawing of a scoop-necked, knee-length dress in black crêpe-de-chine, with long tight sleeves, was captioned, 'Here is a Ford, signed Chanel.' Any woman could buy a copy, and the universal little black dress was born.

She was now at the peak of her looks; she was making squillions out of Chanel No 5; she was the lover of the ludicrously wealthy Duke of Westminster and rode his horses and shot his game and sailed with him on Flying Cloud. She was coaxed to Hollywood by Cecil B deMille; she designed for a ballet by Cocteau.

Her war years were a bit iffy. When the Second World War was declared, Chanel closed her salon immediately, which was jolly patriotic, but she lived in the Ritz with a high-ranking Nazi, which was somewhat less so. After the liberation of Paris in 1944 she was arrested for collaboration.

This was at a time when suspect collabos were being tarred and feathered in the streets of Paris, but she was let go after a couple of hours and fled to Switzerland. It's always assumed that the Duke of Westminster asked Churchill to get her off, but there is no documentation.

She was still in self-imposed exile in the bitter February of 1947 when Christian Dior unleashed his first couture collection on a postwar world that was weary unto death of nearly a decade of austerity and rationing and uniforms and land-army overalls. His clothes, he said, were femme-femme (womanly woman), his fabrics were fine and lavishly used (50 metres of cloth in a dress) and his silhouette was wasp-waisted, sloping-shouldered and belled to mid-calf.

The clothes were heavily structured and boned, lined, interlined, petticoated, padded and stuffed. (One of the models said, 'I can't walk, eat or even sit down.') They were a sensation. The American press hailed the New Look, and war-weary women hurled themselves into Dior's corsets and ultra-femininity.

When Chanel reopened in 1954 she was 70. It was the on-going success of Dior that brought her back - partly because his perfumes (Miss Dior and Diorissimo) were damaging sales of Chanel No 5 in America and partly because 1950s fashion was the Belle Epoque all over again.

She hated clothes that restricted women. 'Some women want to be gripped inside their clothes. Never! When you step inside my dress, you are free.' She showed collarless, cardigan-style jackets and slightly flared skirts falling from a gentle waistband in soft jersey fabrics. Everyone at the show was wearing a 'waspie' (a particularly vicious 1950s waist-cincher) and most balanced with difficulty on the little gilt chairs.

One English fashionista noticed Chanel herself, crouched on a step at the top of the showroom stairs. She was wearing one of her own suits, and looking 'completely comfortable, a feat she could not have achieved in any other fashionable clothing of the time'. The French press slated her comeback, calling it retrograde. (One newspaper headlined the report, 'At Chanel it's 'fouilly-les-oies' - meaning 'hicksville'.) Some English papers were quite snotty, too, which upset the anglophile Chanel.

It didn't take long. By the time of her next collection in the autumn, she was suddenly a cult among young, hip Parisiennes - maybe because they were more forgiving of Nazi boyfriends than their mammas were. And in America the first collection had sold wildly from the off, delighting the buyers while bemusing the fashion press.

When the Beatles made Please Please Me in l963, even I was wearing Chanel, in the slow-moving very far north of Lancashire. A simple little jersey suit in french blue, banded with sky blue, with bobble-buttons all down the front. Loved it. Didn't know it was a Chanel, of course. The label said Wallis.

'The World of Coco Chanel' (Thames & Hudson, £29.95) by Edmonde Charles-Roux, published on 7 April, is available from Telegraph Books Direct (0870 155 7222) at £25.95 plus £2.25

The Met's Chanel exhibit brings out the A-list from

The Metropolitan Museum of Art was awash in camellias and couture Monday night as the Costume Institute celebrated its latest exhibit, an homage to the house of Chanel.

Selma Blair and Vanessa Paradis at the premiere

And in Vogue magazine:

Coco Chanel, 1928
Above all, Chanel respected the body in her work. Here, in an original dress from the end of the decade, the linear silhouette of her classic twenties clothes succumbs to a swirling asymmetry that presages the glamour of Hollywood's sliver-screen sirens. In 1931, Chanel would be summoned to Tinseltown by Sam Goldwyn himself to dress stars like Gloria Swanson. Courtesy of Mark Walsh Leslie Chin Vintage.

Coco Chanel, 1964
"You have to breathe and move and sit without being conscious of what you have on," Chanel told Vogue's mid-century fashion editor Bettina Ballard. Case in point: her iconic braid-trimmed suit, which first materialized after her 1954 comeback and was originally inspired by the Tyrolean jacket of her friend and photographer Horst P. Horst. Chanel delighted in mixing faux jewels with her own princely hoard; here, the brilliant fakes of Goossens. Clothing courtesy of Chanel, Paris.

Chanel 2.55

Chanel's 2.55 handbag reaches it's 50th birthday this month.The bag has hung from the famous arms of kate Moss,Renee Zellwegger, Heidi Klum , Sophie Dahl and many others.Originally launched in 1955 by Gabrielle "coco" Chanel, fifty years later this limited edition is sold for £860 and the UK is only going to have 100 available.

A limited edition fire-engine red and coral tweed version has been created to commemorate its anniversary.