Saturday, February 20, 2010

Coco Before Chanel

On Halloween TD and I avoided the madness of the Village Halloween Parade and slipped into the Chelsea Cinema on West 23rd Street to see "Coco Before Chanel," the movie about the young Chanel. In French with English subtitles, it tells the story of how the girl who lived in a French orphanage grew to become the most influential fashion designer of the twentieth century. I've written here about Chanel before (in fact that post is the one most visited by readers) so I was looking forward to this film. I loved watching it and being in that wonderfully romantic era of the Belle Epoque before World War 1. The movie is quiet and elegant in an "unHollywood" way.

Chanel was born in 1883, so when she was coming of age, fashion looked like this:

Tight corsets, long trains and highly structured clothes impaired movement and freedom. Feathers, lace and dripping jewelry were added on to the heaviness like icing on a cake. From an early age, Chanel, in the movie played by Audrey Tatou, notices clothing and simplifies fashion. From the nuns in the orphanage she borrows the idea of austere black clothes edged with white collars and cuffs, which become a Chanel signature. For instance, for a masquerade party, she dresses like a hobo (above) in a black suit with a white collar band shirt and vest, while the other ladies are cinched in and puffed up in their finery.

Chanel falls in love with Arthur "Boy" Capel, played by Alessandro Nivola, who takes her to the seaside resort of Deauville.

There she notices the sailors' striped shirts and adopts them as her own.

I had two shirts like this in college. One, white with blue stripes, came from L.L.Bean. The other, blue with green stripes, came from an army and navy story on Nantucket. I've been looking to replace them ever since.

"Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance," Chanel said later in her life. She reflected the modern age that was dawning and revolutionized clothes so that they followed the line of the body thus allowing the wearer freedom and comfort. In this scene, her sleek, sequined shift contrasts dramatically with the other confections in the room.

Sadly, Boy Capel died in a car crash, and Chanel never married. She had many lovers including the Duke of Westminster in England, from whom she borrowed tweed hunting jackets and Shetland sweaters. I thought that would have been neat to see in this movie, but this story did not go that far. Instead we see Chanel married to her work, creating the clothes, including the Chanel suit, that defined a century. We end with her in a blue sweater and white skirt and pearls – the epitome of timeless, modern chic.
Now that's what I call a Halloween treat!

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