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'Coco'—continuing "The Secrets of The Couturiers"

June 7th, 2007 by tatterdemalion

I have tried hard to like Chanel’s work, but I just have never quite managed it. People would say her work was the epitome of luxury, the definition of chic elegance, that she had the perfect taste. I tried to see it, but I couldn’t. The “classic” Chanel jackets simple looked like an old couch we once had, square, scratchy, and totally un-special in every way. Her “typical” clothes reminded me of stuffy people who put on overly-dignified airs.

All the proclamations of perfection made me wonder if I was the only one who saw the emperor had no clothes, or if I was really just so different from everyone else. It didn’t help that they insisted she knew all there was to know about looking good, and yet in the first picture I saw of her she looked a good deal like a pickled frog (something like this, only perhaps even more so).

I have done further research into Chanel since then, and even though I know she did more than that infernal tweed, and even though I agree with some parts of some of the things she has said, I still can’t find anything in her clothes that appeals to me. (Though I have found that once upon a time she was quite pretty.)

Perhaps the greatest surprise to me was how greatly our outlooks clashed. It was a bit of an awakening to me how much our philosophies affect our work, which sounds positively obvious when I write it. And I guess it is. But I never looked at Chanel’s work and loathed it for what she was saying. I never even stopped to consider what her thoughts behind it might be. I just knew I didn’t like it. In reading the piece about her in The Secrets of the Couturiers (a book by Frances Kennett), I discovered I disagreed with her thoughts as much as I did her work.

As I said, that should have been obvious to me. But when one reads of someone’s thoughts, and then sees the work, one has already made up one’s mind on their opinion of the work. They will see the thought reflected in the work. It was very interesting for me to do the reverse—to see a work and find it unpleasant (without even considering what it was saying), and then discover that it flowed out of thoughts I also disagree with.

You see, Coco was a feminist. And I am not. Even though I am female. This can seem unheard of, as though of course if you are female you are a feminist; to do otherwise is to betray the core of your being. But to tell you the honest truth, most feminists make me ashamed of being female. Or at the very least, highly embarrassed. If being female means you have to be a feminist, I’d rather not be female. But if I can be a female, without being a feminist, I am perfectly okay and at home with that.

And that is my first point of contention with feminists. They aren’t perfectly okay with being female. They are not perfectly okay with accepting that men and women are different. They make a huge, ludicrous scene, marching out and declaring “Women are just as good as men in everything!”

And that just makes me want to crawl into a hole and die.

First of all, it’s a blatant lie. And if you really, truly honestly believe that, you are so ignorant and unobservant you need nanny and a seeing eye dog. Men have their strengths, and women have theirs; and we both have our own sets of weaknesses. Neither is the same as the other. We are different.

Secondly, they are admitting defeat before the battle has even begun, and so it is no wonder they’re the laughing stock of men. To say that you are just as good as someone else is to already admit they are better than you. Why else would they be used as the standard of goodness?

Chanel, in her own way, commits both these crimes. Secrets of the Couturiers quotes her biographer Marcel Haedric as saying:

Her stroke of genius was to transpose the masculine English fashion to the feminine with taste that precluded any ambiguity, as she had already done with hats. She transformed everything she touched—her jackets, her blouses, the ties on the blouses, the cufflinks at the wrists, everything she borrowed from men became ultra feminine through her magic.

But why? Why even bother “borrowing” from men in the first place? It’s like trying to make a dog look like a cat, or vice versa. Sure, they both have the same number of limbs, but what’s the point to it? If you want a cat, get a cat. If you want a dog, get a dog. Why try to make a cat look like a dog? Even a catty looking dog? Isn’t the cat good enough as it is? Why mimic the dog?

Some of the descriptions from her earliest shows sound as though they may have been more interesting.

Her first collection, 1922, showed Balkan embroideries on black crepe de chine; in 1924, she showed gorgeously drooping chiffon with floating sleeves and long loops of glass and cut steel beads.

But the things she famous for. . .

In 1925 she revolutionized ‘separates’ with her cardigan jacket two-pieces. In 1926, her straight-hanging jersey dresses epitomized the look of the Jazz Age. Square-necked, or adorned with simple white collars, the bodices hung straight to the hips, modified by careful seaming to give the eye interest. From the hips, the dresses would break out in easy pleats as the wearer moved, but the overall silhouette was one of sleekness, an uncluttered elegance. Topped by the ubiquitous cloche hat, it was a look that women of all ages (particularly young ones) could wear from morning till night. Plain, quite drab colours, beiges, fawns, greys, navys and even black, in spite of recent enforced wartime use of the colour—became ultra smart.

This style of dressing changed hardly at all through Chanel’s long career.

. . .were for the most part, shapeless. And with the tweeds she used, they constantly bring to my mind a burlap sack. Utterly straight cuts are generally most suitable on utterly straight bodies. The uncomfortable fact of the matter is that the majority of women are not utterly straight. (Though, I will grant that Chanel appears to be.) Men are straight. We curve. That’s who we are. Why try so hard to get a straight line out of a curved body?

This shapelessness is usually defended as practicality and freedom.

Possibly Chanel was thinking of Courreges’ structured creations when she said:

Men make dresses in which one can’t move. They tell you very calmly that dresses aren’t made for action. I’m frightened when I hear such things. What will happen when no one thinks as I do anymore?

Well, you certainly won’t see me sticking up for Courreges. And her complaint does hold a certain grain of truth. As the book mentions in a later chapter, p. 85,

It is no coincidence that all the women featured in these profiles of the couturiers have injected a strong note of practical innovation in their designs. There is an appreciable difference of approach between male and female designers.

To be sure; female designers have the added caution of having their bluffs being called. One who makes clothes for their own gender is expected to wear such clothes; one who makes clothes for the opposite gender does not need to face that danger. But there is a difference between being practical, and being ugly and unflattering, which, even if it is my own opinion, is what most of Chanel’s designs are for the average woman. (I do consider the fact that her cut of clothes was perhaps a tiny bit more suitable to her body-type. But even so, there is the problem that the majority of women claim that Chanel’s clothing is the epitome for a well dressed female, and it is there I strongly disagree.)

And Chanel’s complaint, ultimately, is not against the male designers, but the females which flock after them. I assure you, there are a plenty of women who were quite capable of action all throughout time; they just weren’t always the “glamorous” or “fashionable” women. One who is willing to give up her freedom for the sake of looking modern is going to be at fault regardless of what the designers are thinking.

But the thing that bothers me about Chanel’s “fear” over “un-active”, or perhaps one might say, un-independent, woman is the hypocrisy of it all. Chanel didn’t get her business going by her own independence or action, unless you count the “action” of “bewitching her lovers”: from her first boutique to her couture house, Chanel was funded not by the work of her hands and the sweat of her brow, but by the rich men she liked to hang out with.

. . .At around the age of 20 she had a job as a nightclub dancer at Pau, in the Pyrenees, where she met a young English man, who subsequently set her up in business with a small hat shop in Paris. . .During the First World War, Chanel moved out of Paris to Deauville, to work for the Red Cross. The next step in her career is so well known that it too seems almost legendary. Based in a little boutique (supplied again by some bwitched lover), Gabrielle watched the war efforts of the wealthy, at this most fashionable seaside town. . .After the war, Chanel returned to Paris and opened her salon, this time under the auspices of a wealthy English peer—the Duke of Westminster.

Don’t worry, she did have some morals.

. . .The English peer, though married, offered to divorce his wife and marry her, but Chanel refused when he made it a condition that she would have to give up her work and live a more suitable life. On the brink of considerable independent success, such an idea was not attractive to her, in spite of the inevitable loneliness which became part of her life.

Sadly, hypocrisy and a willingness to compromise everything for fashion are also things that bother me about feminism as well. As Claire Shaeffer points out in Couture Sewing Techniques, p. 17,

Poiret. . .introduced his infamous hobble skirt. Although so narrow that it had to be worn with “hobble garters” to limit the wearer’s stride and keep her form splitting the fabric, it was popular among fashionable women, including suffragettes.

Arrgh. I can just see it now. “We are intelligent!!” Hobble, hobble. “We are capable of making discerning and insightful decisions!!” Hobble, hobble. “We won’t be dragged about on senseless whims, but will make practical and productive choices for our country!!” Hobble, hobble. Not that men are without their hypocrisies and even horrible and pointless fashions, but geez, ladies, what a way to present your cause. I think I shall die of mortification just thinking about it.

To me, there is nothing appealing about nearly all the work of Chanel. You might say it’s because I don’t like tweed. (Which would be true.) You might say it’s because I find straight boxy cuts completely unflattering. (Which would also be true.) But I would say that, despite all her talk of freedom and independence for women, she never really treated women with enough respect. A woman who truly respects herself need not chase after every man and all of his fashions. A woman who feels no need to apologize for being female need not worry herself comparing herself to men; she will consider herself and who she is, not to men and how she measures up to them.

Since I am entirely comfortable with being female, I feel no need to wear men’s clothing. Even if it has been touched with Coco’s feminine magic. It offers me nothing.

Except to remind me of an old couch I used to do somersaults on.

Which was fun.

But not worth wearing tweed for.

Posted in Books, Chanel, Contemplations, Couture, Design, Fashion | 3 Comments »

3 Responses

  1. ?Coco??continuing ?The Secrets of The Couturiers? » The Ethereal Voice Says:

    […] _uacct = “UA-1202685-1″; urchinTracker(); Map of the Ethereal Land The Ethereal Voice Front Page – Politics – Money – Knowledge – Art – Food – Fun Masthead About ?Coco??continuing ?The Secrets of The Couturiers? By Tatterdemalion | June 7, 2007 – 9:23 pm Posted in Category: Art I have tried hard to like Chanel’s work, but I just have never quite managed it. People would say her work was the epitome of luxury, the definition of chic elegance, that she had the perfect taste. I tried to see it, but I couldn’t. The “classic” Chanel jackets simple looked like an old couch Click Here to continue reading. […]

  2. Reader Says:

    Unfortunately, you understand little about feminism or feminists. Virtually everything you’ve said is incorrect.

    Although I don’t like the boxy cut Chanel jacket, the tweed is very soft.

  3. anna Says:

    I was horrified by your proclamations on feminism
    I urge you to read more about WHY and HOW early feminists sought to equalize pay and job rights not to mention the issue of birth control

    female clothing arose from patriarchial values which put women in a purely ornamental role devoid of power during the victorian period
    then as women sought control and power they were subsequently mocked for their impractical dress (which men put them in)
    perhaps early feminism seems too polarizing because you don’t see it from the context of the time….if couturiers still had their way (and men) we would still be trussed up in corsets and not working…..and for that early designers such as chanel, vionnet, mccardell, shiaperelli and gres have my thanks

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