Coco Chanel had no precursors in fashion. Her forerunners were religious fanatics, the ascetic souls who scourge themselves and their societies so as to bring about a new freedom. “I loved what was beautiful and loathed prettiness,” Chanel said. In her severity, her implacability, her hatred of every compromise, she was a perfect Savonarola, a Calvin who conquered Paris.
Her puritanism is on display in The Allure of Chanel, a book written by her friend Paul Morand in 1946, over a series of winter evenings at a hotel in St Moritz. Each evening Chanel would offer her venomous observations in conversation, and Morand would retire to his room to set them down. It is a startling book. The edition I have is illustrated by Karl Lagerfeld, and after his death I once again picked it up. Chanel emerges, in her own words, as “the Léon Bloy of couture”.
Chanel was drawn to “the austerity of dark shades”, the “monastic cut” of tweed suits. She bobbed her hair like a postulant entering an abbey (“A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life,” she said.) In a few years, she would have wealthy Parisian women dressing in rough fabrics like Discalced Carmelites. (She in fact made a habit for one client, Eugenia Errázuriz, who had become a third-order Franciscan.) Chanel called her new style a “puritanism that elegant ladies would go crazy for”.
Along with other innovators such as Madeleine Vionnet, Chanel sought to direct fashion away from ornament and corsetry, focusing instead on the human form – which required many of her clients to start losing weight. She did not mind imposing discipline.
Like her friends Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Picasso and Satie, Chanel was a modernist. She called her early designs “a foretaste of the iron age that was to come”. Morand said that his first meeting with her was a “break with 1914, a past now dismissed, and a path that opened to the future”. Perfumes would no longer called “Trèfle incarnate and Rêve d’automne” but “bear a reference number, as convicts do”.
Chanel insisted that couture was not an art. Yet it seems blinkered to celebrate modernist architects such as Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, while neglecting couturiers who brought similar concerns and methods to their own applied art. Along with Jean Patou and Lucien Lelong, Chanel inaugurated a new era of form-follows-function clothing, inspired by sportswear and using simple fabrics. Not everyone can afford Chanel, but whoever wears Jersey in public is sporting one of her innovations.
Democratic as this elevation of simplicity may sound, it made possible a new form of elitism in dress. Anyone can recognise the fineness of costly silks. Only initiates can appreciate rough fabrics finely employed. Chanel disdained the woman “who is so happy with her green scarf printed in all the signs of the zodiac” which “will only astonish those who don’t know”. Her ideal was an elegant simplicity recognisable only by the cognoscenti.
Anyone who has observed the way our tech overlords dress (Mark Zuckerberg is the most famous example, Jack Dorsey the most telling) understands the strange form of sartorial elitism propagated by Chanel. Post-conciliar liturgical aesthetics conform to the same logic. What Morand called “poverty for billionaires … extravagantly expensive simplicity, seeking out what did not attract attention” is hardly humbler than lace and taffeta.
Malraux once said: “Chanel, De Gaulle and Picasso are the greatest figures of our times.” In contrast to De Gaulle, Chanel collaborated with the Nazis. She not only took a German baron as her lover, she also arranged through him to become an agent of German security. It is hard not to see Chanel’s hatred of prettiness and delicacy, her belief that with modernity something definitely new had come into being, as preparing her for these vile mistakes. For all its faults, the decadent and prettified society of the Belle Époque, despised by Chanel, was too delicate to accept something as barbarous as Nazism.
As Lagerfeld’s death reminds us, Chanel has reigned for 100 years. Black quilted purses still hang from shoulders in Singapore, Dubai and LA. Fashionable women still wear boxy tweed suits. Those who cannot afford these things strive for a cheaper version of ostentatious simplicity.
Just as people in Chanel’s time must have been eager to cast off the past, it is hard not to long for a change. After a century of drab luxury, give me brilliant colours and costly fabrics, ornaments that bring joy to the vulgar as well as to the refined. The belief that beauty is opposed to prettiness has done too much to create an ugly world.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things
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