Thursday, July 30, 2009

COCO CHANEL: Reflections

This is my first suit, dark green tweed, which I bought at J.C. Penneys at Walnut Park, a little shopping cluster in NE Portland within walking distance from us. I put it on layaway and paid on it all summer long while I picked berries and beans. I forget how much it cost, but I felt enormously stylish when I wore it with gloves and, often, a hat, which I borrowed from my mother. I was in high school (graduated in 1957) and had a fairly ambivalent self-image because even as a young girl I was definitely barrel-shaped.

I just went to check my glove box to see if I still have those apple green gloves, but
I’ve only kept the orange cotton ones, the hot pink leather ones, a black cotton pair
with rhinestone cuffs which I’ve never worn and some leather ones including my white kid wedding gloves. I don’t remember why I bought them since no photos show me wearing them.

The Fifties were a good time and a bad time for fashion. On the one hand women were supposed to sport “the New Look” that Dior invented: pinched waists, crinolines, and torpedo bras that you were supposed to dream you were wearing with nothing else at gala events. I never dreamt that. I was over on the Coco Chanel side: trousers, jackets that reached the hips, soft fabrics -- maybe pearls and a straw hat.

So I ordered “Coco Chanel” from Netflix with high hopes. Alas, it’s just another bodice ripper. A fairly good one as such and what did I expect from a television project meant to be for the lowest common denominator? But I’m still hungry for the real Chanel. Shirley Maclaine did a fairly offhand impression, mixing herself with what we think Chanel is like and showing off her age spots, but there’s still room for someone tough and not at all pretty or wide-eyed to pair up with an Indie script and director who are not afraid of the less-than-savory side of Chanel.

This one undercuts her character entirely with the idea that she got ahead only by seducing a handsome young rich man and was feminine because of a love affair with a half-Jew who was killed in a car accident, thus preventing marriage. It dodges the accusations of collaboration during WWII and never confronts Chanel’s relationship to women, esp. in the erotic dimension. Nor, indeed, does it explain her relationship with sexually ambivalent men.

There are off-hand references to Chanel’s break-through construction tricks, the chain sewn into hems (in the NU costuming workshop we used bb’s encased in long strands of fabric -- you buy it by the yard), the tape at the edges, either hidden inside or frankly applied as adornment, the luxurious linings, the constant hint of military in metal buttons, undercut by the strings of pearls, or HOW jersey was used. This movie referred to the actual clothes even less than the BBC’s beloved “House of Eliot” with its devoted sisters.

The House of Chanel went on after the death of Coco, of course, and this is the way the clothes look this fall: small jackets cinched at the waist, full-length layered skirts, chiffon over something, as we’re accustomed to seeing in evening gowns or even nightgowns. thus we have Chanel’s tailoring on top and nightwear on the bottom. It might be difficult to translate this into something an older woman could wear to the office, since shortening the skirt would mean losing the contrast with the jacket and the long flowing line.

What will probably catch on will be the ruffled chiffon wrapped throats, but Chanel also offered a version with a scoop neck. The small hair -- either cut short or wrapped tight -- is essential and jewelry is not there -- nude ear lobes. Post-party: to bed. Are those bed jackets?

It’s fascinating that Ralph Lauren, that barometer of snobbism that I find hard to resist, is showing a version of this look that is probably more like the original Chanel, though more pale and tweedy. At least it keeps the trousers and jewelry. An older woman with a long neck could carry this off and be comfortable, esp. if she had managed to keep a nice crisp profile and high cheekbones. Winter is coming and one would like to stay warm. Also, I can’t really see traipsing through the muddy snow of cities in those floor-length chiffon skirts.

We post-colonials know that all clothing has strong political implications. Consider Hilary Clinton’s covered-up looks, her mono-color pant suits versus Michelle Obama’s bare arms, so strong and free. These newest Chanel clothes do not swing free and easy the way Coco’s clothes for active women did -- they just blow in the wind. They only need a raised waist to be almost Empire in line, a time which led to see-through dresses and exposed breasts -- very courtesan-friendly. Jane Austen’s time, actually. The Austen movies are always using vignettes on the need to tuck something across one’s decolletage for the sake of propriety vs. removing it to attract a man. Coco would sneer.

I’ve always been taken with Elizabethan ruffs of various sizes and styles, partly because I learned to make them for costumes but also because if they are worn with something dark and plain, they suggest a clerical collar, since that was the period when Protestant clerical dress became formulized and formalized. I once attended King’s Chapel where the female UU minister wore a white stock with her black academic gown -- very stylish and becoming. The Browning Catholic parish has a summer intern, a bearded handsome young man from a seminary in Denver, who wears a clerical shirt -- a bit more a blouse than a shirt -- with a high black collar that encircles his white clerical dog collar. Don’t tell him, but it’s very sexy, suggesting an old painting in a way the more common dickies can’t do. He’ll have to come to terms with that.

As it happens, I’ve saved a couple of blouses from my preaching days that are chiffon (or some approximation) with ruffled collars and ties in front. I might have lost enough weight to wear them, though I’m still very much a barrel-shaped woman and now an old one at that. We see these fashions with pale, bony faces -- what will they look like above a ruddy, round face? Quite possibly like a pig’s head on a plate.

Still, if I dress up in them for some occasion, will my self-image (which has a weak connection with my actual image, alas) be improved and make me feel safer, more elegant, more prepared for the public onslaught? (Which may consist of being ignored.) I think Coco Chanel would answer yes. But I would not want to wear Chanel No. 5. I want my Estee Lauder Aliage back.


Cowtown Pattie said...

The chiffon scarf ruffling is quite pretty, and I have a long neck, but I am already getting the itchies just thinking about that wrapped around my neck all day.

Besides, we only have about 10 really cold winter days anymore here in central Texas.

I remember Laura Ashley and Betsey Johnson designs...

prairie mary said...

My cousin told me that "Threads" magazine had a very complete article about how to make a true Coco Chanel jacket. A quick inquiry came up with these url's. The magazine is at, sensibly enough!

Prairie Mary

Julie said...

My goodness is there anything you can't write about? My generation brought blue jeans out of the barn, for which I am grateful, but I still have my mother's gloves. Now I'm in Southern California and all I need to do is make sure I have on toenail polish with my flip flops, a big designer-looking purse and dark sunglasses and then -- anything goes!

prairie mary said...

A phone call to Taunton, the publisher of "Threads" brought my cousin and I each a photocopy of the article about Chanel jackets. I was not surprised by the amount of basting but I had not realized that the chain was sewn on in plain sight, rather than inside a hem. It is necessary because of the heavy brass buttons, providing a counterweight in back.

The six patterns recommended as starting points are:
Burda 8414
McCalls 4311
Simplicity 4871
Simplicity 4954

Big thanks to Taunton and Threads!

Prairie Mary