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I should Coco

August 14, 2009

I’ve just come back from watching Coco Before Chanel, the story of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s meteoric rise from orphaned seamstress moonlighting as mediocre cabaret singer to one of the most successful couturiers of all time. I enjoyed this film a lot- it really pulled me in. Audrey Tautou is just mesmerising as Chanel herself, balancing a proud almost unlikeable sterness of character with a gamine fragility.

In essence, this film is a love story. (It’s also love story that’s been romanticised. Some of the characters and their relationships have been taken liberties with- Chanel and Boy Capel’s relationship didn’t pan out quite in real life the way it’s portrayed in the film.) But the fact that it is a love story is appropriate, as Chanel’s lovers throughout her life often had a direct influence on her designs. (From the Grand Duke Dimitri she was to borrow the roubachka, a traditional Russian blouse, fur-lined coats and embroidery. And from the Duke of Westminster, she was to take a penchant for sailing jumpers, gold buttons, white cuffs and tweed jackets.)

The film sees Chanel develop her own personal style, borrowing heavily from her male lovers’ wardrobes and making their clothes her own. (It could be said she invented the concept of “boyfriend dressing”.) The film’s director, Anne Fontaine has said that she tried to convey how the actual events of Chanel’s life shaped and inspired the garments she designed:

“What sublimates a garment is when it comes to life once worn. Movement is what Chanel brought to women’s clothes. Freedom is what she offered to women. Sewing is a very humble art: cutting, tearing, assembling with pins, sewing…This humility has something rather beautiful and the challenge was for me to let it show on screen.”

In the film they make couture look so easy. Chanel, cigarette in her mouth, draws a freehand curve with chalk on a glorious swathe of fabric, and cuts it out with smooth strokes. There’s some nice nods to Chanel’s contributions to fashion history-she helped sound the death-knell of the corset, and another scene where she eyes up her lover Boy Capel’s polo shirt and asks “what’s this fabric?” “Jersey”  is the reply. (Chanel was probably the first designer to use jersey as an elegant fabric for women’s outer garments in its own right, although Jersey wouldn’t receive universal acceptance for decades.) I loved the scene where Chanel eyes up fishermen on the beach at Deauville, and a few scenes later is wearing an identical striped Breton shirt.

The Breton shirt was apparently a bit of a liberty on the costume front. “The aim was not to make a movie about the history of fashion,” the film’s costume designer, Catherine Leterrier, says. “We occasionally had to take liberties with time. To fit in with the storyline, the famous striped mariner’s sweater worn by Chanel in the legendary photos of the 1930s appears earlier in the
movie, in the scene where Coco is walking along the beach with Boy and notices the sweaters of the fishermen as they pull in their nets.”

(I must admit to being a little confused by what year it is supposed to be in the film’s final fashion show scene, as the outfits appear to span the course of Chanel’s career, but Chanel doesn’t appear to have got any older. Incidentally, all the outfits for this scene were authentic Chanel originals from different periods from the Conservatoire Chanel, who collaborated on the film’s costume.)

“In fashion, every designer has their own line, color and material codes,” Leterrier says. “Chanel’s is instantly recognizable. What Karl Lagerfeld did in adapting the Chanel style to the future, I did backwards towards the past. I went back in time, designing the first models that Chanel might have created and which could have fashioned her style.” Leterrier also describes going on a scavenger hunt for costume pieces:

“I hunted down the cotton braids, silk ribbons, buttons and other period accessories at flea markets and antiques dealers… I even found a platinum and diamond necklace that had belonged to Mademoiselle Chanel at the Louvre des Antiquaires.”

This is a beautiful, beautiful film but I was aware while watching it of a bit of a visual contradiction. The young Chanel despises the frou-frou opulence, corsets and lavishness of the Edwardian/Belle epoque style of dress around her, forging ahead with her own unique look. Chanel’s outfits are all about understated chic of a deceptive simplicity. So the challenge for a costume designer is making Chanel stand out against the lavish dresses worn by every other woman in the film. “The difficulty for me was to contrast the elegance of Chanel’s simple and fluid style with the fashion in 1900,” Leterrier explains. “I wanted to keep its beauty, with the blouses that enhanced the bust, the ribbons, lace, feathers and frills, whilst showing its excessive, showy and formal side so I could contrast it with Chanel’s pure, flowing lines.” I’m personally quite keen on the belle epoque style, so the problem for me was that I did actually find my eyes wandering away from Chanel at times because some of the other costumes were more attention-grabbing. The architectural quality of Chanel’s outfits worked well in landscape shots, but in the crowd scenes I sometimes had a bad case of roving eye…


(What was quite weird was strolling round the Gap store after seeing the film. Gap was selling stripey Breton tops galore, and a tweed jacket almost identical to one Chanel wears in the film. Coco Before Chanel has clearly had quite an influence on High Street fashion, although I’m wondering how the High Street stores manage to coincide these garments with the film’s release. How do they KNOW what will be in the film? Do they send their designers to the Cannes film festival and ask them to spot the next big trends? Hmmmmm….)

There’s more pics and an interesting article on the costume design on the Coco Before Chanel site here. (Pics on this post are taken from there.)

Incidentally, there’s another film to watch out for on Chanel coming soon- Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky which charts Chanel’s relationship with the famous composer of the Rite of Spring. The IMDb entry is here.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Lindyhopper permalink
    August 20, 2009 11:44 am

    Saw this film yesterday and loved it. I know it was supposed to be about Coco’s designs, but it was a shame that shots of all the other fashions were shot at speed and it was difficult to ‘appreciate’ them, or not!! Also, one wonders how her creations would have smelt after all those cigarettes she smoked whilst creating them!

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