Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Coco Before Chanel: Hot Androgyny

So, I realize I am probably the last sewing blogger in existence to see this film. But I finally did! It's still playing at the Paris Theater (very appropriate, non?) here in New York, and it is so worth seeing. It's visually mesmerizing, and it made me want to bob my hair and traipse about in some slinky men's pajamas, a tailored jacket, and high heels. (But then I realized that no one can pull off that look like Audrey Tautou.)

The menswear looks were just so chic, and they made up the majority of Coco's bold wardrobe.

Coco was set in sharp contrast to the "painted lady" look of her time. She ridicules these women, comparing their jewelry to silverware and their hats to meringues. To be honest, I thought perhaps her message was being hammered home just a little too strongly, that she protested a tad too much. (Not that it stopped me from enjoying the movie.)

The film goes out of its way to highlight her subversive sexuality. During two separate steamy scenes, her lover makes very telling comments about undressing her: "I've never undressed a boy before" and "You're always so easy to undress." Interesting, eh? Homoeroticism and easy access = hot, apparently.

I loved seeing the inspirations for her famous looks, like when she swipes one of her English boyfriend's polo shirts. When he goes to reclaim it, she asks, enthralled, "What is the material?" "Jersey," he replies. It's fun seeing this from our modern vantage point, when we know that Chanel will later revolutionize women's wear with the use of wool jersey.

In another moment of inspiration, Coco watches a group of fisherman in striped sweaters hauling in nets from the sea. And what does she wear in the next scene? You guessed it.

The sewing moments are also fascinating. At one point, we witness Coco drawing a pattern freehand onto some rich black fabric. A swipe of chalk, and she improvises the sleeve cap! Incredible.

When Coco at last wears her iconic ivory and black boucle suit at the end, I admit that it was somehow a little disappointing compared to her daringly subversive earlier looks. My disappointment surprised me, considering that's the look Chanel is associated with. It should have been the perfect visual conclusion to the film. And then I realized: through my modern eyes, that suit symbolizes a sort of prim, conspicuous wealth - not iconoclasm. As one of my movie-going companions put it at the end of the film,"It's interesting how the Chanel empire now stands for everything that Coco was against." Couldn't have said it better myself.

How about you, lovely readers? Have you seen this, or are you planning to?


  1. I'm French, so I saw this film last year and I loved it.
    In fact, I'm sewing a lot for many years, and I was "fascinée" by the suits in this film, even if Karl Lagerfeld follows Coco Chanel's way she was the first to imagine another way to dress.

  2. I really, really want to see this movie. I haven't been able to yet. I'm not even sure if it's in theatres here. I need to check. Thanks for the reminder and the review.

  3. I haven't seen't it because it hasn't been showed here in Mexico, but as soon it is I'll I live in a very small town it will take longer to arrive, I'm sure the DVD will be realesed before it coe to my town =)

  4. Oh, the stills you posted have made me desperate to see this film. I had somehow forgotten all about it. Thanks for the reminder!

  5. I spent this past weekend going through the book "Elegance, The Seeburger Brothers and the Birth of Fashion Photography" and found probably 6 photographs of people wearing what were identified as Chanel. Here is one:
    There are also several photos of Mlle Chanel herself at a very dressy theater opening where she is wearing a fur capelet. Because of when the Seeburger Brothers were the most active, most of the photos are from the period of the 20s through the 40s and you see that Chanel was not the only one to do 'le garconne'. The book:

  6. I said precisely the same thing as your friend did after having seen the filmlast spring... Seen from today, Coco Chanel's style is no longer very practical, especially as the house is rather (luxuriously) playing with the codes Chanel invented (tweeds, camelias, black and white, pearls and such), than pursuing this elegant idea of body freedom.

    But I also think this aspect was exagerated in the movie: all the women being in poofy, creamy dresses, and of course, Coco being the only 'sober', reasonable one: "il faut que tu puisses respirer!", how subtle... I have pictures of my great-great-grandmother from that time and earlier, and despite her being a bourgeoise, her clothes seemed far more sober and practical (I liked the movie, though).

  7. I had the DVD sent to me as soon as it was released in France. I couldn't wait to see it... then work struck. A couple of months on, and it still languishes in a pile unwatched. I already get my sewing thrills vicariously here every day (I've barely touched my sewing machine since this summer), now my cinema thrills... all you need do is a sideline in illustrators/ children's books and that's about my full range of interests covered. How cool is this blog?!!

  8. I live in a small town, so the usual round-up of movies that make their way around the blogosphere (this, the Edge of Love, etc.) I don't tend to see unless I can get them online.

    I'm not into designers, but I'd be interested in seeing it purely for the historical aspect and to see the costuming.

  9. great commentary! Thanks for sharing it.

  10. Gertie, I couldn't agree more. I loved the film, particularly for her earlier designs and subversiveness.

    I also watched the other Coco Chanel movie with Shirley MacLaine. It was TERRIBLE (the entire film is in english with french accents! please!), but at least it shows a lot of clothes and goes a bit more in depth of her process when she was starting up. It was worth watching for the clothes, even if the dialogue was LAME.

  11. I'll have to see this one when it hits DVD, as badly as I wanted to see it in the theater. I've tried to rustle up some people to go see it and there seems to be a lack of interest in these parts amongst non-sewing types. Kinda surprising for CA, I thought.

  12. I saw this a few weeks ago - it's really excellent! What's not to love about Audrey Tautou?! And the writing and filming are top notch, of course. I really am amazed at Coco's fierce independence regarding dressing comfortably in those days of Gibson girl figures. Dressing for comfort got lost in the 50s too. By the late 60s, I think my mother was very happy to never see another girdle (required for that hourglass figure)! Thumb's up for a fine film. :D

  13. I saw this movie a while ago with friends, and while we all admired Coco for her independence and bravery in pioneering a new style of dress, we just couldn't get on side with her choice to become a kind of courtesan to that older, rich guy! Nor could I get behind her choice to stay with that married man - if someone I was dating 'forgot' to tell me they were engaged, I don't think they'd end up the love of my life :/

    It's also a little interesting that on Australian movie posters, that picture of Coco smoking was censored - her cigarette becomes a pen! Nobody holds a pen like that D:

  14. I've seen this film a few months ago now and it did not fail my expectations:
    the story itself was not that compelling and not as dramatic as as biopic as for example the Edith Piaf one; however the costumes and the portrail of the development of some of her ideas was well done and made me crave for some of her clean cut clothes (particularly the Breton top! why is it so hard to find a decent Breton top?).

    In the end an enjoyable film that I will end up buying as one of my crafing along films (which tend to be the costume-drama type, which I would call this one as well) but not really a masterpiece of any sort.
    Tey to catch Bright Star, the new Jane Campoin fiml. Now that's sewing and poetry combined :)


Thanks for your comments; I read each and every one! xo Gertie

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