Film Costume Review – Coco Avant Chanel

(Originally blogged October 6, 2010)

Tatou as Chanel in her millinery salon, c. 1912

I saw this film a while ago but didn’t blog about it at the time because it was after the film had left the theatres. However, people keep asking if I have seen it, so I am finally putting fingers to keyboard and writing a review of Coco Avant Chanel.

There were filmed interviews done with Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel in the 1960s. At that time she was old, cranky, self-important, dismissive, arrogant, and annoyingly spoke in sound bites so she would be quoted. Despite her personality quirks, she knew how to self-promote and bend the truth in the interest of putting a spin on some of the more difficult parts of her life. The only more secretive Parisian couturier than Coco was Madame Gres (aka Alix).

Coco Avant Chanel is considerably better than other biopics about Chanel’s early life but it just barely touches upon her early career. This bare bones history implies most of what happened occurred over a year or two, but the events portrayed (aside from childhood flashbacks and the finale flash forward) took place over about a fifteen year period.

The film does depict how Gabrielle learned to succeed, often by using the men in her life. She possessed an adept ability to style herself but there is too much credit given to her ability to style others. The film almost suggests that French women had no taste or style until Chanel arrived and single-handedly banished the corset. This is simply not true. The abandonment of the corset had more to do with the changing role of women and a lack of steel during World War 1 (an event that is nearly omitted from this film), and if you had to pick one designer who was responsible for the banishment of corsetry it would be Poiret, not Chanel. Chanel was a milliner until she began making seaside clothes from jersey at her shop in Deauville during the First World War. Her fame as a couturier did not really blossom until after she had launched her No. 5 perfume and the boyish ‘La Garconne’ look of the mid 1920s was in vogue. This was around the time she adopted her more familiar first name ’Coco’.

Audrey Tatou admirably finds the hardness of the old Chanel to portray in minute amounts of the young Chanel — you can see where Coco’s character developed as she hardens to the realities of life. When she realizes she is used goods in the eyes of society and will make no man a suitable wife, she turns to a career in fashion, first as a milliner and later as a couturier.

If you took away Audrey Tatou and a few key scenes in the film, you would be left with a soap opera of a film, and I can’t say I was enamoured with the costuming, although those worn by Tatou are exquisite, the extras are not always decked out with the same attention to detail. This part of her life has now been retold a few times on film and it’s not really that interesting for the costuming because it’s more about the development of her character.

I look forward to the day when a film is made about the next stage of Coco’s life from her runaway success as a designer for the modern woman in the late 1920s, her hobnobbing with Paris’ artistic set, and her rivalry with Schiaparelli in the 1930s, her traitorous behaviour during WWII, self-imposed exhile, and quiet return to fashion in the 1950s, culminating with the development of her iconic suit style in the late 1950s. This is a film waiting to be made! However, for Coco Avant Chanel, I can only come up with a 7/10 for the costuming.

Take a quiz – Win a prize! —— And the winner is Mary-Jane Enros!

(Originally blogged January 15, 2010)

Congratulations to all who sent in their answers to the fashion designer quiz. All questions were answered correctly but not by one person! There was a three-way tie for first place with a score of 10 out of 12 by Vintage Visage, Linn Alber, and Mary-Jane Enros but the first person to submit their answers was Mary-Jane Enros of Poppysvintageclothing – CONGRATULATIONS!

1 – This designer survived the sinking of the Titanic

Lady Duff Gordon, who worked under the name Lucile, opened her dressmaking firm in London in 1891 but only became well known after she married Sir Cosmos Duff Gordon in 1900. In 1909 a branch of Lucile was opened in New York and another branch opened in Paris in 1911 – she was on her way from Paris to New York when she boarded the Titanic in April 1912. The lifeboat she and her husband were in had left the Titanic nearly empty and did not go back for survivors, leaving the Duff-Gordons open to speculation of paying off the boatmen. Her reputation never fully recovered and by 1918 her romantic dress styles were less appealing to modern woman and her London business closed. The New York and Paris shops closed with the onset of the Depression in about 1930. Lady Gordon died in 1935.

2 – This designer’s first job was designing skiwear for White Stag in 1948

Emilio Pucci was a leading figure in Italian fashion of the 1950s and 1960s, but his designing career began when he was commissioned by the American company White Stag to design skiwear after Pucci was photographed for Harper’s Bazaar in 1948, wearing a ski suit of his own design. In 1950 he opened his own couture house in Florence and gained a reputation for colourful casual clothing. By the mid 1960s his clothing was seen everywhere including as stewardess uniforms for Braniff airlines. At the height of his fame as a designer he served as a Member of Parliament for Florence between 1964 and 1973.

3 – This designer was known for wearing dark glasses decades before Karl Lagerfeld or Anna Wintour

Admittedly this was a bit of a trick question, because I didn’t specify it was a FASHION designer… Edith Head, the costume designer, wore dark blue lensed glasses as a way to see how costumes would look in a black and white film. The glasses became her trademark and although she was rarely photographed with out her blue glasses, she commonly wore clear glasses when out of public view.

4 – This shoe designer trained for the Italian track and field team for the 1960 Olympics

Most people probably don’t know his name but they will know his shoes… Armando Pollini was an athlete before he settled down to shoe design. His most famous was a clog mule with a leather strap that sold millions of pairs in the late 1970s under the brand name of Candies.

5 – This designer redesigned the Girl Scout uniform in 1948

Born Main Rousseau Bocher, he served in WWI and stayed on in Europe after the war, eventually becoming the fashion editor for French Vogue. He founded his own atelier in Paris in 1930 and quickly became a very successful couturier as well as the first American admitted to the couture syndicate. He fled Paris in 1940 and went to New York where he was quickly embraced as a prodigal American designer. In 1948 he was commissioned to redesign the Girl Scout uniform. Before opening his atelier in Paris, his name was properly prounounced as Main ‘Bocker’ or ‘Bosher’. However in Paris he took on the French pronunciation of his name – ‘Mahnboshay’.

6 – This designer survived the explosion of the Hindenburg

Philip Mangone was the son of an immigrant Italian tailor. He learned his craft from his father before working at numerous different firms eventually opening his own business in 1916. He became famous for his tailored wool coats and suits that were often made of European wools. After one of his European fabric buying trips in 1937 he headed home, with a severe cold, aboard the Zeppelin Hindenburg. He was badly burned in the crash and spent most of the next year recovering in hospital. Upon his release the first thing he did was to board a flight to Chicago to prove to himself he wasn’t afraid to fly.

7 – This designer was engaged to Grace Kelly before she married Prince Ranier of Monaco

Oleg Cassini was working in Hollywood as a costume designer when he met and married the actress Gene Tierney. However, the marriage suffered, especially after Gene’s daughter was born retarded – caused by Gene having been exposed to measles while pregnant. The story became the inspiration for Agatha Christie’s novel ‘And the Mirror Cracked’. After the couple divorced in 1952 Oleg Cassini took up with Grace Kelly and had proposed to her on several occasions before finally being rebuffed for Prince Rainier of Monaco.

8 – This shoe designer’s ancestor is Sun Yat Sen, the first president of the Republic of China in 1912

Beatrix Ong is fairly new on the scene of shoe design. She worked at Jimmy Choo under Tamara Mellon before striking out on her own. Beatrix can trace her ancestry back to a great uncle who was Sun Yat Sen.

9 – This designer survived the atomic blast at Hiroshima

As a seven year old, Issey Miyake lived on the outskirts of Hiroshima. To this day he says he can remember the bright light and black cloud and the desperation of the people running about after the explosion. The only good to have come from it for him was a passion to create rather than destroy.

10 – This designer consulted a psychic before opening his Parisian atelier to make sure the timing was right

Isaac Mizrahi, Paul Poiret, Coco Chanel – many designers used psychics, fortune tellers, mediums, and ouiji boards to foresee the future and their success. However, Christian Dior was probably the most avid follower of psychic visions. At a young age he was told he would become very important for women, and before agreeing to open his own atelier he sought the advice of a psychic to make sure the timing was right. In matters of business, the psychics were absolutely right in all the advice they gave Dior.

11 – This designer dated a German officer who had worked as a spy in Paris before World War II

During World War II, at the age of 56, Coco Chanel took up residence at the Paris Ritz hotel, along with Hans Gunther von Dinklage, a German officer 13 years her junior, who had been living in Paris since the 1930s, working as a spy.

12 – This designer changed her last name to be the same as the richest person in America

The story goes that Viennese born Henrietta Kanengeiser emigrated to the United States at the age of eleven and trained as a milliner. Before opening her first hat shop in 1909 she realized her last name would not pull in wealthy clients so Henriette or ‘Hattie’ called her shop ‘Carnegie – Ladies Hatter’, after the richest man in America at the time, Andrew Carnegie. By 1914 she was known simply as Hattie Carnegie.

As seen in… Norma Kamali, Oleg Cassini, Chanel and Davidow

(Originally blogged October 7, 2009)

What happened to September? I have spent most of the last two months finishing off my next book ‘Shoes A-Z since 1950’ but more about that later… In the process of research I came across the cover of Sport Style magazine from August 1, 1983 that shows Norma Kamali’s high heeled sneakers and socks, which I also own (including the socks!)

When it rains it pours… while looking through early 1960s Vogue magazines I came across an article from October 1961 about Davidow suits in New York and their affiliation with Chanel in Paris. Pictured in black and white is the Chanel original, and in colour, my Davidow copy. Similarily, from May 1962 Vogue I found an advertisement for ’California Girl’ tabbard dress and in colour is my Oleg Cassini using the identical fabric.

I love finding images of things in the collection in period magazines –check out the tag ‘As Seen In’ for more examples…