Uncorseting Fashion

In Coco Before Chanel, the clothes offer their own narrative of escape and freedom within the story that is otherwise painted as a love triangle

01 June 2010

La mode se démode, le style jamais” (Fashion goes out of style, never style itself), Coco Chanel once famously proclaimed. It is a sentiment that looms large over Anne Fontaine’s sumptuous 2009 biopic of the famed designer, starring Audrey Tautou, one of France’s favourite ingénues in the title role, released on DVD this May. Chanel’s influence on fashion today is so ubiquitous that it is hard to understand the extent to which she revolutionised it during her career. Equally difficult, then, is Fontaine’s task of ascertaining where exactly the woman ended and her iconography began.

Chanel’s early years read like the tragic plot of a Balzac novel: born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel into an impoverished family in a small town in western France in 1883, she was one of five siblings. Her mother died when Chanel was 12 and her father left the young children in the care of an orphanage run by nuns while he sought work. It was here that Chanel learned to sew (although professional biographers point out that Chanel’s abilities with a needle and thread did not extend much beyond straight seams and she made use of professional seamstresses as soon as she could afford them). At 18, Chanel became a cabaret singer. Her nickname, Coco, comes either from one of the songs she sang in the nightclubs of Moulins and Vichy or it is a shortened form of ‘cocotte’—slang for mistress; the latter being the explanation Chanel herself has offered. Etienne Balsan, a polo-playing, horse-breeding cavalry officer with a textile fortune, became her lover. So far, so very Toulouse-Lautrec.

Exposed to high society as Balsan’s mistress, Chanel’s story slowly shed its Balzacian deprivations and turned into a Colette novel as she gained ground in society circles, taking up as a hobby designing hats for the wives and mistresses of Balsan’s wealthy friends. Having pestered Balsan unsuccessfully to financially back her, Chanel left him in 1913 to open her first shop in Paris, which quickly went under. Starting a new venture on the eve of the Great War was not the smartest decision she’d ever made, but it gave her a taste of independence and her first lesson in the business of couture. She relaunched herself, a feat she would repeat many times with great success, with the help of Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, Balsan’s former best friend and (supposedly) the love of her life. Chanel opened a millinery boutique in the fashionable seaside town of Deauville which was a success in attracting a wealthy clientele intrigued by Chanel’s pioneering style. And, indeed, it was intriguing. She innovatively unfastened the corset, thus far the staple of a woman’s wardrobe; cut away the frills and bustles of La Belle Époque; introduced costume jewellery as a wardrobe staple, and raised hemlines in knee-length skirt suits, matched with boxy jackets and large pearl necklaces. She would, of course, go on to ‘invent’ the staple of female wardrobes: the little black dress that could be worn throughout the day or at night, depending on accessories, amply demonstrating Chanel’s philosophy that fashion should be functional first. The fragrance that would bear her name, Chanel No. 5, would become legendary for its uniquely non-floral scent well before Marilyn Monroe famously confessed that it was all she wore at night. The legend of Chanel couture derived from these innovations, offering women the choice of dressing as they pleased and freeing them from uncomfortably limiting gowns that dictated which activities they could, or more often could not, pursue. The frou-frou clothes of the fin-de-siècle were discarded in the wake of this new femininity that revealed women’s bodies free from strictures—the literal embodiment of the modernity that was overtaking European art, culture and literature. This is the journey Fontaine’s film takes us on, hinting at, but ultimately ignoring, the rest of her fascinating life.

Ferzina Banaji is a former research fellow in the Department of French at the University of Cambridge. She has completed a book on contemporary French cinema. 

Keywords: film France Ferzina Banaji Fontaine Audrey Tautou Balzac Coco before Chanel Chanel fashion