The Gospel According to Coco Chanel

Life Lessons from the World's Most Elegant Woman


Skirt!
(an imprint of The Globe Pequot Press)
(September 2009)
Hardcover: 229 pages
US $19.95/CAN $24.95
ISBN: 978-1-59921-523-5

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            For nearly a hundred years, Coco Chanel has been synonymous with every piece of clothing we consider stylish—and with lots of stuff to which we never give a thought. Throw open your closet door and you will find the spirit of Chanel. If you have a collection of jackets for tossing on over a pair of jeans, the better to look as if you’ve actually dressed for the occasion—as opposed to simply parked the lawn mower, given your nails a once over with the nail brush, and walked out the door—that’s Chanel. Any black dress is a direct descendent of Chanel’s 1926 short silk model. A knee-grazing pencil or A-line skirt? Chanel. Jersey anything? Chanel again.
            She gave us real pockets, bell-bottoms, twin sets, drop waists, belted cardigans, short dresses for evening, sportswear including riding breeches, and the need to accessorize madly at all times. Anything that’s got simple lines, skims the body, is easy to move in, and affords the loading on of a lot of jewelry is Chanel.
            So too is anything in which prettiness trumps quirkiness. Chanel ran screaming from the latest fads. She considered them to be expressions of cheesy grandstanding, and, anyway, they rarely held to her standards of simple elegance. Thus ponchos, stirrup pants, or backless dresses cut in a manner that reveals your thong are definitely not Chanel. If you own anything that has epaulets (and you are not in the armed forces), an unnecessary amount of fabric, ill-fitting arms, or Hulk-size shoulder pads, it is not Chanel. Anything related to the grunge revival, featuring ripped tights that look as if you’ve barely survived a mugging? Uh, no. Anything in which you cannot breathe, sit down, or get into a car without flashing your lady bits—well, I don’t even need to say it. When Chanel observed that “not all women have the figure of Venus* yet nothing should be hidden,” this is not what she was talking about. (To clarify, she meant that the loose, long T-shirts we reserve for fat days do nothing but make us look fatter.)   
            The Chanel aesthetic is like the force in Star Wars, surrounding, penetrating, and binding together the universe of fashion, now and forever. As I write this I’m wearing a pair of J. Crew boy jeans—even though they’re square through the hip with straight legs and a button fly, they are cunningly cut to prevent your looking like an appliance box—and a chocolate brown, long-sleeve cashmere T-shirt. Both pieces descend straight from Chanel’s once-shocking ideas that with a smidge of fancying up, menswear could be easily retooled for the ladies and soft, body-defining fabrics (some of which was normally used for underwear) could make the simplest garment seem luxe.
           
When we enter the realm of garments issued from the House of Chanel itself, things get more complicated. I think of everything that was designed by Coco herself, from her first straw boater in the early

* Actually, a lot of us do; what we don’t have is the flat-chested, slim-hipped figure of Chanel.

1900s to the last jacket of her last collection in 1970, to be Chanel- Chanel. All pieces that date from 1983, when the redoubtable Karl Lagerfeld took over and revitalized the fashion house, are Lagerfeld- Chanel.* There are, in addition, high-end knockoffs that pass as Chanel-Chanel (discussion still rages over whether the pink Chanel suit Jackie Kennedy wore on the day her husband was shot was a genuine Chanel or a copy whipped up by a New York dressmaker) and knockoffs of Lagerfeld’s semiannual collections, which usually riff on Mademoiselle’s lady-like suits, gold chains, quilted bags, and the iconic interlocking Cs. There are also—stay with me—mass market copies of the higher end knockoffs. Mavens of haute couture and certain bloggers spend a shocking number of hours keeping it all straight.
            Here is my stab at sorting it all out.

Chanel Classic

            This is Chanel in its pure, undiluted early-to-mid twentieth-century form. It is not only fashion the way Coco intended, it consists only of garments made with Chanel’s own nicotine-stained fingers. (She was a mad chain-smoker. I defy you to find a picture of her working

* Between 1971 and 1983 the House wandered in the wilderness, so to speak. Gaston Berthelot designed from 1971–1973; Jean Cazaubon and Yvonne Dudel took over from there; Philippe Guibourgé designed a ready-to-wear line in 1978; and someone named Ramone Esparza showed up in 1980.

 without a ciggie clamped between her teeth.)
            Chanel Classic is the iconic Chanel suit made of loosely woven tweed (probably in beige, navy blue, or black—the colors Coco preferred), with its quilted silk lining, gold-chain hem, and simple kneegrazing skirt. It is the big clunky costume jewelry, sporting poured glass that looks like hard candy, and the square quilted bags, so classic that an illustration of one could appear on the international sign for handbags. It is the aforementioned black dress in crepe de chine or lace. Hats always figure into Chanel Classic style, including one with a yachting motif that looks as if it would be happy on the head of Thurston Howell III; also, two-tone beige and black pumps, with a comfortable, modest heel that is about as far away from a pair of Sex in the City-sanctioned do me Manolo Blahniks as a black Rolls is from a stoplight yellow Corvette. It is the long ropes of pearls -- which always look as if they pose a risk of strangulation -- and of course, the camellias.
            Chanel Classic is collectible Chanel (the posh city cousin of Fiesta ware, Wagon Wheel furniture, and comic books). It’s investment Chanel. It’s sell-it-on-eBay-in-order-to- paythe- kid’s-college-tuition Chanel. People own private Chanel Classic collections in the same way they own private art collections. It is less about the clothes than it is about the iconic design; iconic being the most overused word in the Chanel canon.
            Not many women have the proper combination of time, devotion, money, and obsessive-compulsive disorder to dress every day in head-to-toe Chanel Classic, but at least those who do always look chic, if a tad nutty. In a recent New York Times review of the Lifetime Channel movie about Coco, starring Shirley MacLaine, the reviewer said, “She was never a wife, but she made the women of the world look like one.”

 

Chanel Homage

According to Dana Thomas, in Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, only two hundred women in the world maintain wardrobes of haute couture (this down from two hundred thousand in the 1950s). Every other well-dressed woman of means buys high-end prêt-à-porter, ready-to-wear, which can still set you back an easy six figures a year.
            Chanel, today, is Brand Chanel. It’s Karl Lagerfeld expanding on the prestige and history of Coco’s achievements. Busy, busy Lagerfeld. Since becoming the art director for the House of Chanel, he has also established his own label; designed for Fendi, Chloe, and recently H&M; created his own advertising campaigns (which he also photographed); designed costumes for operas; opened a bookstore, then a publishing house; and then lost about a hundred pounds and wrote a best-selling diet book about the experience.
            Lagerfeld’s Chanel is the Chanel essence pressed through the sieve of his own (admittedly appealing) haut-Eurotrash sensibility. Chanel’s practical designs sprang from the changing reality of her own life and the lives of the women around her, and Lagerfeld’s spring from the brand that is Chanel, mixed with whatever else is going on out there zeitgeist-wise. Sometimes his designs are practical and sometimes they are not, but each collection is the couturier version of a seventh grade writing prompt: For spring, please create a hip-hop–inspired collection that incorporates quilting, cardigans, and two-tone shoes.
            Thus over the years Lagerfeld-Chanel has shown a bra top accessorized with a lightbulb pendant on a thick gold chain; tighty whities embroidered with a pair of black interlocking Cs worn with black tights (an homage to Chanel’s original use of jersey, once considered only fit for underwear); quilted biker clothes, including biker boots decorated with the interlocking gold Cs; and a black dress studded with jeweled chain mail.
            It’s all a referential hoot, especially the hat fashioned from the black leather quilted bag, complete with gold chain that sort of dangles over one eyebrow, making the wearer look like a resident of Whoville. The metallic perforated lambskin open-toe ankle boot  from the Spring-Summer 2008 Ready-to-Wear line, shown with a denim bikini, gave me pause, but beachwear was never Chanel’s strong suit, and Lagerfeld is apparently no different.
            A lot of Lagerfeld flies in the face of Chanel’s nearly religious devotion to simplicity. Is there anyone, anywhere you can think of who needs a quilted ankle purse or a black feathered, face-covering cage hat? (Designed by Chanel’s resident hat guy, Philip Treacy, it’s part of that mid-1990s bondage thing Lagerfeld had going on.)
             Still, the man is no fool. The underpants suit and face-covering cage hat gained him ink, while the variations on the still-pretty tweed suit gained him customers. Next fall’s ready-to-wear collection is full 9 On style of belted, knee-length suits with longer, fitted jackets worn with pale tights and what look like two-tone tap-dancing shoes. I could think of no better way to spend a year’s salary.

 

Alt Chanel

Chanel was first and foremost a realist, and everything having to do with Chanel style is realistic. She was never unaware of what things cost. One of the reasons she began using jersey was that she could get it cheap. In 1916 or thereabouts Chanel bought up the unsold stock of machine-knit jersey from fabric manufacturer Jean Rodier, whipped it up into one of her famous body-skimming frocks, and made it chic. Then she charged a fortune.
            In the spirit of Chanel, Alt Chanel embraces the reality that to get yourself done up in Chanel Homage you’d have to be a Hollywood starlet famous for her red-carpet appearances, an Arabian princess, the heiress to a Mexican cell-phone empire, or the wife of a richer-than average rich man— i.e., someone whose income resides in the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent of the richest people around, i.e., richer than you and me. Alt Chanel is for the stylish among us for whom income isn’t disposable.
            The key factor in wearing Alt Chanel is cheekiness. There’s a good chance that even if you had all the money in the world you’d still prefer the insouciance, the irony involved in wearing a vintage Chanel tweed jacket over jeans and a white T-shirt from the Gap or, as a friend did recently, pairing a gypsy skirt and sun-bleached red Converse high-tops with a black quilted Chanel purse. Alt Chanel style communicates to the world that you’re hip to Chanel but aren’t a slave to Chanel. It says, “Chanel was an iconoclast, and I am, too.”