Saturday, April 19, 2014

Extraordinary Women: Coco Chanel (BBC-TV, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the weekly news programs last night, Charles and I watched the next show that was on PBS: an episode in a series of Extraordinary Women about Coco Chanel (the other women profiled in this quirky and bizarre BBC series are Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, Indira Gandhi, Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly), whose story I hadn’t really known much of because of my acute distaste for the whole world of fashion. (One thing I have noticed working for a woman client and talking to her and her women friends is how many more clothes women buy than men; we tend not to give a damn about what we looked like — as long as we have something clean and reasonably presentable to put on in the morning before we go out, we’re cool — but women go out and buy scads of various costumings, many of which they may wear once, or not at all.) I knew a little about her — basically how she had fought her way up from the French gutters with a talent for clothes much the way Edith Piaf did later with a voice, and how her reputation collapsed after World War II when she was accused both of collaborating with the Nazi occupiers and of having failed to keep up with the latest fashion trends — and the show was quite fascinating. Chanel wasn’t born in Paris — she was born in a small town called Samour in southern France — and her last name on her birth certificate was “Gabrielle Chasnel.” Her parents weren’t married to each other — not that this was that big a scandal, not in 1883 France, when rich people flaunted their affairs and not-so-rich people like the Chasnels didn’t flaunt theirs but had them anyway — and when Gabrielle was either five or nine (the information on the Wikipedia page for her varies, but I believe the TV show said nine) her mom died (her dad had already abandoned this wing of his family) and her relatives placed her in a convent school, sort of like the one in The Sound of Music, where upon graduating you had two choices: either take the vows and become a nun, or leave and be totally on your own.

The nuns brutalized Cha(s)nel but also probably inculcated in her the tight sense of discipline that helped her build her later career. She first worked as a seamstress by day, and at night tried for a career in the music halls in the small towns of Moulins and Vichy (she got the name “Coco” from the nonsense lyrics of the two songs she knew), then ended up the mistress of a rich man named Étienne Balsan, a former cavalry officer in the French army. Balsan bankrolled her first fashion venture, a hat-making shop (like the later designer Halston, Chanel began with hats and then worked her way down the body to full outfits). Chanel, who like a lot of the women French society referred to as les grandes horizontals knew how to use her good looks and bedroom skills to get what she wanted out of life, ended up involved with one of Balsan’s friends, a British nobleman and army officer named Arthur Capel, whom she nicknamed “Boy.” Once Capel invited her to a horse race, and she came wearing an outfit she’d adapted from one of his — including a necktie — and when she finally started designing full outfits instead of just hats she made her clothes loose-fitting, cut in chic patterns but made out of common materials, with the idea that instead of wearing heavily padded, ruffled designs that required them to encase their waists in corsets that made even the simplest tasks of daily life excruciatingly difficult and painful, women should dress in styles both beautiful and practical.

According to the program, Chanel was actually the first woman to create a major business designing and making women’s clothes — the idea that clothes should actually be manufactured by a company run by a person with the same sort of body as the ones that were going to wear them was revolutionary (which is itself an indictment of how deep the sexism of the time ran; today it seems common sense that a woman might know more about how women should dress than a man!) — and she managed to make it to Paris (via stops in Deauville in northern France and Biarritz in the Pyrenees, both hot spots for France’s 1 percent of the time) and set up hat shops, clothing shops and even perfume shops (I’ve heard two different accounts of how the Chanel No. 5 perfume got its name — one that it was the fifth formulation she tried and the first one she liked; one that she simply liked the sound of the number — and this show offered a third: that she considered it her lucky number when she gambled.) When World War I broke out she kept the House of Chanel going through the war by whatever means necessary, including making clothes out of jersey because that was a fabric readily available as war surplus, but as the war wound down she suffered a double blow: her lover Arthur Capel married a fellow British aristocrat in 1918 and then died in 1919. What this show doesn’t mention — though Chanel’s Wikipedia page does — is that she had long-standing prejudices against both Jews and Queers; in 1946 she told her friend Paul Morand, “Homosexuals? … I have seen young women ruined by these awful queers: drugs, divorce, scandal. They will use any means to destroy a competitor and to wreak vengeance on a woman. The queers want to be women—but they are lousy women. They are charming!” In 1923 she started an affair with another English nobleman, the Duke of Westminster (while she was also involved with the composer Igor Stravinsky, an association depicted in a recent movie), and through him got introductions to Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII until he abdicated the throne to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson) and Winston Churchill — associations that led to Chanel’s apparent delusion that she could use those contacts to negotiate an end to World War II that would leave the Nazi government in place.

She had an affair with German officer Hans Gunther von Dincklage (13 years her junior; indeed, when she was called out for collaboration after the war one of her defenses was that she wanted a boyfriend and in her 50’s she couldn’t be that choosy!) who worked for Walter Schellenberg, chief of SS Intelligence in occupied Paris. Schellenberg apparently hit on the idea in 1943 that Chanel could be used as a back-channel contact to the British aristocracy to see if Churchill could be persuaded to end the war on terms more favorable to Germany than the “unconditional surrender” he and the fellow Allied chiefs of state were publicly demanding. Nothing came of this, but apparently Churchill personally interceded with the French authorities after the war to make sure Chanel wasn’t prosecuted for collaboration. The TV show then went into Chanel’s comeback: she exhibited a collection in 1952 that was a reaction to postwar fashion in general and Christian Dior in particular (apparently she particularly resented Dior for reintroducing cinched waists, ruffles and all the other confining crap Chanel thought she had permanently removed from women’s clothes); it got terrible reviews in both France and Britain but was a huge hit with American buyers. This is the part of the story dramatized in the musical Coco, which the program erroneously dated from 1962 (it was actually 1969) and which starred Katharine Hepburn in her one musical role on stage or film — it was bankrolled by Paramount in exchange for the movie rights, but with big-budget musicals on their way out by 1969 they never actually filmed it; and Hepburn only got to be in it when producer Frederick Brisson’s first choice, Rosalind Russell (also, by a freak coincidence, Mrs. Frederick Brisson), was too ill to do it. For the rest of her life Chanel held forth from her Paris boutique, still officially listed as working when she died on January 10, 1971 at age 88.

Among the aspects of Chanel’s life mentioned on Wikipedia but not in the show were her political oscillations (at different times she bankrolled both Right- and Left-wing papers in Paris), her unsuccessful sojourn in Hollywood (Sam Goldwyn, recognizing a marketable name when he heard one, signed her in 1931 but she only worked on two films before giving up her movie career, though she designed again for films in Jean Renoir’s fascinating 1939 production Rules of the Game), her long-standing rivalry with Schiaparelli (the second woman to open a major fashion house), and the sweetheart deals she cut with Pierre Wertheimer, his family and others off the revenues of Chanel No. 5 perfume, which covered her living expenses from the end of the war until she died (she’s known primarily as a couturiere but she made far more money off the perfume than she ever did off her clothes). Seen today, Chanel comes off as an indomitable woman, making her own career and living life her way, though also a quirky, cranky and crotchety figure whose collaboration with the Nazis, such as it was, seems more opportunistic than anything else: amoral, not immoral.