‘Gabrielle Chanel. 'Fashion Manifesto’ Palais Galliera
Beverly Held, Ph.D, ‘aka Dr. B.’
Figure 1 Gabrielle Chanel Manisfeste de Mode. Palais Galliera, October - December 2020
Figure 2. Exhibition Posters, as above
Today our topic is the Chanel exhibition at the Palais Galliera. Have you heard of the Palais Galliera, Paris’ Museum of Fashion? (Figure 3) It is on the Place d’Iéna, which you probably do know since it is presided over by an equestrian statue of your favorite general and mine, George Washington. (Figure 4) The museum has been closed for renovations for two years. Now, with double the exhibition space, mostly paid for by the House of Chanel, it is no surprise that the inaugural exhibition is devoted to Coco herself.
Figure 3. Palais Galliera
Figure 4. Equestrian statue of George Washington, Place d'Iena
The exhibition, ‘Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto’ unwinds chronological on the ground floor and thematically on the lower level. A gallery sheet includes an apologia written by the new director of the museum. Here, in part, is what she wrote: “Gabrielle Chanel became a legend during her lifetime, a legend she herself created and perpetuated… As early as the 1930s, the French and international press ran contradictory biographical accounts of her life.… Since her death in 1971, numerous publications have sought to shed light on the multiple facets of her history and personality….More recently, certain books have examined her behavior … during World War II. … The Palais Galliera, as a museum dedicated to fashion, focuses on the work of the seamstress who became one of the 20th century’s most influential fashion designers.” Okay, got it, but we are not obliged to focus only on her professional achievements, are we?
Have you ever heard Guy Raz’s podcast, “How I Built This”? In it he interviews entrepreneurs and asks them how they came up with their ideas. He ends each podcast by asking the entrepreneur how much of their success was due to intelligence and skill and how much was due to luck. When Chanel was asked about her formula for success, she replied, 'We don't need genius, just a lot of skill and a little taste.” If you keep reading, you’ll see that luck and timing had quite a bit to do with it, too.
Since March of this year, Raz has been re-interviewing many of the same entrepreneurs to see how they are faring during the pandemic. I can imagine Coco being interviewed during WWII, comfortably ensconced in her lavish suite at the Ritz Hotel, her Nazi lover at her side, or maybe interviewed in 1954, when she started designing again, perhaps (certainly) evading questions about her WWII activities.
Here are a few things we can say about Chanel: Her designs have defined the zeitgeist of their times. When women wanted less constraints, the simple clothes Coco designed resonated perfectly. She introduced the knitted sailor dress, the turtleneck sweater and the pullover; she shortened skirts and lowered heels. She invented the ‘little black dress’ labelled the Ford of fashion, not only because it was everywhere but because, like the car, it was only available in black. (Figure 5, Figure 6) Chanel didn’t mind people copying her designs, quite the contrary.'Thirty years ago,' she said in 1960, 'I went to dinner at Giro's. I remember counting 23 Chanel dresses in the room. But I was sure of only one: mine. I found that a very pretty compliment.” Obviously Chanel considered imitation the sincerest form of flattery. Her suits were a breakthrough, low key with a subdue palette, giving women a ‘uniform’ as easy to wear as a man's suit. (Figure 7) She said that “luxury isn’t the opposite of poverty, it is the opposite of vulgarity.”
Figure 5.Coco Chanel in her Little Black Dress
Figure 6. Audrey Hepburn in her Little Black Dress
Figure 7. Chanel in her Chanel suit, Suzy Parker in hers, photo Richard Avedon, 1959
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, a little biography, please. Gabrielle Chanel was born in 1883, the second daughter of a laundress and an itinerant peddler. When Gabrielle was 11, her mother died. Her father took her brothers to farms to be laborers. He took Gabrielle and her sisters to a convent orphanage.
The account that Chanel gave was somewhat different. She said that after her mother’s death, her father sailed for America to seek his fortune, that she lived with two aunts after he left and that she was born in 1893, a decade after her actual birth date.
Anything else? Her father sold men’s work clothes and underwear, maybe she wore them and the comfort and ease of those garments made a lasting impression on her. The orphanage may have been strict, stark and frugal, but she learned to sew.
When she had to leave the orphanage at age 18, she moved to a boarding house for Catholic girls in a small town in central France. She worked as a seamstress during the day and a cabaret singer at night. She got her nickname ‘Coco’ at the cabaret. Maybe it is an abbreviation for the French word cocotte, meaning, at the time, kept woman. Her version? Her father gave her the nickname.
Apparently Coco was a hit with the military men who frequented the cabaret. One of those men was a young French ex-cavalry officer and textile heir, Etienne Balsan. Five years out of the convent orphanage, Coco moved in with him. For the next three years, she lived the life of a rich man’s mistress. Bored, she began designing hats. What was initially a diversion became a business and she obtained a modiste (milliner) license. She began selling her hats in 1910, on 21 rue Cambon in Paris. Chanel next took up with one of Balsan's friends, Captain Arthur Edward Capel, an Englishman. (Figure 8) They spent a lot of time in Deauville where she opened a boutique selling the casual clothes she had begun designing. Made of knitted tricot and jersey, these were fabrics normally not seen (except briefly) since they were primarily used for men's briefs. Her boutique in Deauville was in the center of town on a fashionable street. I went to Deauville last weekend to find the boutique. It is no longer there, but its location is commemorated by a plaque designed by her successor, Karl Lagerfeld. (Figure 9, Figure 10)
Figure 8. Chanel and Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, ca 1915
Figure 9. Karl Lagerfeld, commemorative plaque. Deauville, rue Lucien Barriere
Chanel’s affair with Capal lasted nine years. She had hoped he would marry her, silly girl, but even after he married a woman of his own class, Coco remained his mistress. How long the affair might have lasted, we’ll never know since he died in an automobile accident in 1918. Capal’s influence on Chanel would endure since it was either the toiletry bottles in his traveling case or his whiskey decanter that she remembered when it came time to design the packaging for her Chanel No. 5 perfume.(Figure 11)
In 1918, Chanel purchased the building at 31 rue Cambon, down the street from where she had first sold her hats. Now she was a registered couturière, selling clothes, hats, and accessories. She would go on to purchase five properties altogether on the prestigious rue Cambon. Five was (usually) her lucky number.
Chanel launched her iconic perfume in 1921. The year before she had begun thinking about creating a scent that would appeal to the liberated women who were buying her clothes. The name of the perfume, Chanel No. 5 came about this way. When her master perfumer presented her with small glass vials containing sample scents numbered 1 to 5 and 20 to 24, she chose the 5th vial telling him, 'I present my dress collections on the fifth of May, the fifth month of the year and so we will let this sample number five keep the name it has already, it will bring good luck.” The number 5 had significance for Chanel ever since her childhood when the paths she walked to daily prayers at the orphanage were in the shape of fives.
In 1922, the founder of Galeries Lafayette, Theophile Bader, introduced Chanel to Pierre Wertheimer, who, with his brother, had recently become director of the cosmetic and perfume company, Bourjois. Bader wanted to sell Chanel No. 5 in his department store and Wertheimer was prepared to take over production of the perfume. The corporate entity they created, Parfums Chanel divided the labor and rewards as follows: the Wertheimers were responsible for financing, marketing and distribution, Bader sold the fragrance and Chanel licensed her name. For taking all the risks, the Wertheimers received 70% of the profits, for selling it, Bader received 20% and for licensing the name, Chanel received 10%.
Had she been anti-Semitic before that fateful business transaction, maybe. Convent schools in France at the end of the 19th century weren’t hotbeds of progressive thought. In 1923, Chanel met the next man in her life, the Duke of Westminster, an outspoken anti-Semite who may have fanned the flames of her discontent with the business deal she had made with the Wertheimers.
In 1939, at the beginning of World War II, Chanel closed her boutique, because she said, it wasn’t the time for fashion. But one of her biographers suggests that Chanel did it to retaliate against the 4,000 female employees who had struck for higher wages and shorter working hours during the 1936 general labor strikes in France. That doesn’t sound like a woman whose goal in life was to liberate women, does it?
She moved into the Hotel Ritz, (Figure 12) where all the high ranking German officers also found lodging. Recently declassified documents establish that she was a spy working for Germany, charged with the task of convincing Churchill to negotiate a separate peace between Germany and England.
Figure 12. Gabrielle Chanel at the Ritz, World War II
If it weren’t for friends in high places, I’m guessing that after the war she would at least have had her hair shorn and been paraded through the streets as a horizontal collaborator (someone who had sex with the enemy). Instead, she flitted from Switzerland, to the United States then France before she embarked upon a comeback. But before we discuss that comeback, a few words about her Chanel No. 5 battles.
As we know, the Nazis seized all Jewish-owned property and businesses. Chanel saw that as the perfect opportunity to regain control of her perfume. The Wertheimers were Jewish and Chanel could use the fact that she was an 'Aryan' to petition German officials to legalize her right to sole ownership, which she did on 5 May 1941 (her lucky date and 20 years to the day since she had launched her perfume).
But Chanel was too late. The Wertheimers had outsmarted her. Anticipating the Nazi confiscations of Jewish property, they had legally turned control of their business over to a French Christian businessman who, at the end of the war, returned it to them.
So, she tried a different tactic. If she couldn’t get the perfume back, she could ruin it by destroying customer confidence in the brand. She told people that Chanel No. 5 was no longer the original fragrance, that it was no longer being compounded according to her standards. But Chanel was outsmarted once again because the Wertheimers had, before they fled France for New York in 1940, instituted a process whereby the quality of Chanel No. 5 would not be compromised.
Nothing if not persistent, Chanel tried once more in 1946, this time through a lawsuit, once again falsely claiming that the perfume was of an inferior quality.
The dilemma for the Wertheimers, who must have been aware of Chanel’s Nazi collaboration, was that a legal fight could expose her wartime activities and destroy her image - not good for her, not good for them. So, they put business before ethics (I guess that’s what they did) and agreed to renegotiate the original contract. In the new agreement, Chanel would receive 2% of the perfume’s worldwide profits. The Wertheimers also agreed to pay her living expenses for the rest of her life. Huh?
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in an essay entitled, My Lost City, “I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York's boom days.” And so it was for Coco Chanel, when, in 1954, at the age of 71, she got back into the fashion game. Financed by none other than Pierre Wertheimer, Chanel went from success to success, designing the Chanel suit, the sling back pump and the 2.55 purse.
What is it about that suit? Well, like the jersey that got her started, (Figure 13) her suits look to menswear. She took the wool tweed of traditional mens’ suits and made something feminine and enduring and practical and elegant from them. And while the basic premise remains more or less constant, the design is constantly tweaked, new patterns, new colors, the jacket falling a little higher one year, a little lower the next. Maybe not big changes, but nuanced ones that kept the designs interesting and fresh. (Figure 14)
Figure 13. Chanel suits, Palais Galliera exhibition
Figure 14. More Chanel suits, Palais Galleria
What about the two-toned sling back heels she designed? They are low, so they are comfortable for walking. The back is beige because it lengthens the leg (if you are Caucasian, of course). The front is black because it make the foot look shorter. Genius. (Figure 15)
Figure 15. Sling back two-toned heels
And the purse ? She created it in February, 1955, hence the name, 2.55. It is a quilted fabric bag with a fold-over flap and twist lock clasp. It was designed to be practical, the strap is a chain threaded with leather to prevent the metal from clinking. It can be carried or slung over the shoulder. Inside are compartments of various sizes so its owner can find her keys, her lipstick. (Figure 16)
Figure 16. Chanel purse 2.55
Here are a few things that I have been thinking about. Like a musician who can’t read music, Chanel couldn’t draw. Once she had a fashion illustrator who worked for Harper’s Bazaar Magazine make drawings of her designs and not sign them so she could pass them off as her own. But mostly, as a seamstress, comfortable with handling fabric, and anyhow, using at least initially, ordinary, inexpensive fabric, like jersey, she just cut and molded the garment to the body, initially her own. Now we are accustomed to women wearing mens’ clothing, but when Chanel began, the cross gender ease that we have, that we take for granted, was new and strange.
Chanel’s clothes were perfect for her own slender figure, and that little black dress looked great on Audrey Hepburn, too. (Figure 17) But cotton jersey, the fabric she started working with, clings, and because it clings, it can be unforgiving and unflattering. Sure, Chanel fought against the corset, but for most women, her little black dress requires something more substantial than a bra and panties underneath. My mother’s generation wore girdles. My generation wore ‘control top’ panty hose. My daughter’s generation has Spanx. My son has recounted more than once his dismay with the ‘reveal’ that is, when a woman who has been wearing Spanx gets undressed and everything kind of oozes out (his words). So, should women who wear Spanx keep their clothes on? Probably, at least in front of strangers. Do you remember Meryl Streep in the role of Anna Wintour (herself a natural for the little black dress and Chanel suit) in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’? (Figure 18)The only way Streep could have managed that look was Spanx.
Figure 17. Chanel, Black Dresses
Figure 18. Meryl Streep in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’
Because the exhibition is almost entirely of clothes which can be damaged by too much light, the lighting is very low. As with any subject, the more you know, the more you can appreciate the nuanced differences between and among the iconic and classic dresses and suits which form the largest part of the display. Explanatory wall text and Chanel quotes, photos and short videos contextualize Chanel’s career.
Two rooms stood out, for their differences - the Jewelry Room and the Chanel No 5 room.
The Jewelry Room (Figure 19) is basically the opposite of all the other rooms. It is brightly lit and the objects displayed are big and bold and colorful. While her color palette was muted for her clothes, Chanel’s taste in jewelry was anything but. She mixed ‘real’ jewels with costume jewelry, and there was a lot of it - to be worn in the hair, around the neck and pinned onto understated dresses.
Figure 19. Chanel jewelry
The room dedicated to Chanel No 5 is like a shrine. (Figure 20) Crowd control in these days of Covid-19 requires a guard who permits only a few people to enter the space which was bathed in light. In the center, in a glass case, sitting like a jewel of immense value, was a bottle of Chanel No. 5. Playing in an endless loop was Marilyn Monroe telling an interviewer that while she wouldn’t say if she wore pajama tops or pajama bottoms to bed, or a nightgown or nothing at all, she would admit to wearing Chanel No. 5, because “it was the truth”. (Figure 21)
Figure 20. Chanel No. 5 room, Palais Galliera
Figure 21. Marilyn Monroe and a bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume
I couldn’t help but think of JFK and the breathy rendition of Happy Birthday that Marilyn Monroe sang at Madison Square Garden for his 45th birthday and the rumors about their sexual liasons. And then of course, there is the pink Chanel suit that Jacqueline Kennedy wore in Dallas when JFK was assassinated, the bloodied suit that is preserved in the National Archives. I am glad the exhibition didn’t mention that suit or Jacqueline Kennedy. But I couldn’t help thinking about those connections.
And so that is my take, more or less, on this exhibition. There is a lot to think about in this day and age of assigning moral weight to our purchases. Should the Wertheimers have let Coco’s abominable wartime activities come to light 70 years ago? And now that we know, what are our own moral obligations? Easy to understand then why the new director of the Palais Galliera explained the museum’s decision to put aside more weighty questions and concentrate on the fashion.
Vaughan, Hal, Sleeping with the Enemy, Coco Chanel and the Secret War, 2011.