7/26/10 - coco chanel

In today's excerpt - Coco Chanel. The flamboyance and frills of Paris fashion were lost in the liberation of European and American women during World War I. The leader of the new fashion revolution was Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel:

"Ornate styles were obsolete by the 1920s. Emancipated during World War I, females were now working in factories, offices and shops; riding subways, buses and bicycles; and, in some instances, driving cars. They had neither the time nor the patience for fastidious trimmings, and the designer who intuitively sensed this transition was Gabrielle Chanel—'Coco.' Conceiving le genre pauvre, she put women into men's shaggy sweaters, sailors' tricots, carpenters' coarse corduroys, ditchdiggers' grainy denims, waitresses' bleached aprons, soccer players' striped jerseys, students' sturdy gabardines.

"Nothing was too banal for her—sandals, bandannas, berets. Slender and athletic, with the lissome gait of a racehorse, Chanel made the kinds of clothes that she herself liked to wear. Her gamine creations presaged unisex, yet essential chic in her mind was a prosaic dress drenched in diamonds, rubies and sapphires. Fashion, she asserted, ought to appeal to the masses rather than be restricted to a precious few. When a coalition of couturiers petitioned the government to enact tough legislation to prevent piracy, she dissented, maintaining that fraudulent copies earned them popularity. The conceits of her confreres, she said, were preposterous. 'We are furnishers, not artists. At first art seems ugly and then becomes beautiful; at first fashion seems beautiful and then becomes ugly.'

"The daughter of an Auvergne wine dealer, she was reared on a farm by two maiden aunts and, at the age of seventeen, fled to Paris to escape the boredom of the provinces. After a stint as a milliner, she opened a dress shop adjacent to the Ritz, and it remained her headquarters. She would turn on her charm to induce boulevardiers to escort her to trendy spots like Maxim's, Fouquet's and the Pré Catalan, where she could parade her own raiment before the crème de la crème. Her styles clicked, and, by the 1930s, she was raking in an estimated four million dollars a year—and reportedly had assets of ten million. 'Under her glossy facade,' commented a Paris banker, 'she is a shrewd, calculating peasant.' Her penchant for the common touch notwithstanding, Chanel rattled around in a mansion on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré and consorted with snooty cronies at their châteaux and ski chalets, or aboard their yachts in the Mediterranean. Yet she fiercely protected her individuality. When the Duke of Westminster asked her to marry him, she demurred, saying, 'There have been several duchesses of Westminster; there is only one Chanel.' "


Stanley Karnow


Paris in the Fifties


Three Rivers Press, a member of Crown Publishing Group


Copyright 1997, 1999 by Stanley Karnow


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