I found myself agreeing completely with the first sentence of Kit Pollard’s Thanksgiving post: “One of the peculiar side effects of blogging is looking for your blogging subject in absolutely everything around you.” In addition to that feeling, as a result of reading DeepGlamour I have found myself interested in learning more about certain subjects, one of which has been the history of fashion.
Having been intrigued by the excerpts on DG, I recently read Karen Karbo’s delightful book, The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World's Most Elegant Woman (DG interview here), and I was struck by how many of Chanel’s designs were created because she was personally dissatisfied with the fashions available for her to wear.
The dress shown in the illustration was advertised in a Parisian paper in 1906. As Barbara Tuchman vividly describes in The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 , the Belle Époque, the era just before World War I, was a period of extravagant luxury for European upper classes. So much so that wealthy, aristocratic women spent much of their day changing from one fashionable outfit to another.
When Étienne Balsan invited a young Coco Chanel to come to Royallieu, the chateau where he bred horses, she agreed and became his second mistress. She was ill-suited to the lifestyle of a kept woman, so she spent most of her days at the stables and became known for her ability to work with difficult horses. She amused Balsan and his pals because she was young, and could jump astride the back of a two-year-old stallion and gallop off.
Given this athleticism, you can imagine Chanel was dissatisfied with much of what women were expected to wear. Having been abandoned by her father as a child and raised in an orphanage, Chanel was fiercely determined to eventually be financially independent. Since she had been making her own clothes since she was a teenager, fashion seemed a possible avenue (despite the fact that the field was then dominated by men). Though she thought some women looked fine in Belle Époque fashions, she didn’t feel they suited her personally. Seeing that some men’s fashions offered more freedom of movement, some of her most successful designs were reinterpretations of male clothing, made convenient and stylish for women to wear. As Karbo relates, Chanel legend has it that she borrowed a pullover from her next lover, Boy Capel, while walking at the beach. Finding it inconvenient to put on, she took out a pair of scissors and cut the pullover up the front. And thus the basic concept of the cardigan was born.
Chanel demonstrated that same sense of style and practicality in creating pant suits, and suits with skirts. Marlene Dietrich is shown at left wearing a Chanel pants suit designed in 1933. You can find Bill Eppridge’s well-known 1966 photo of some famous women wearing Chanel suits here.
As I read about Chanel I realized that a lot of creative work happens in a variety of fields because someone says to themselves, “I could do better than that.” “Better” might mean anything from better suited to your personal taste (such as improving on a recipe) to more satisfying intellectually (perhaps creating a new scientific theory that better matches recently discovered information).
The people who become best known in particular fields tend to have been trying to do better work in those fields for quite a long time. Chanel started as a hat maker and gradually expanded into other areas, including clothing, costume jewelry, and perfume. It often takes a while to master the basic knowledge of a given field needed to execute that “better” idea.
But to get you going, some personal and particular dissatisfaction with the status quo can be a valuable thing. It can motivate you, and help you focus your thoughts and possibly imagine a different approach. In doing this, it helps if you are comfortable imaging that your ideas might in some way contribute to the future being different from the present, even if you’re not sure exactly how (as Virginia argues eloquently in The Future and Its Enemies). It is easy, for example, to underestimate the difference that Chanel’s new clothing options made. But just consider how much easier it became for women to fit our image of people who can successfully hold management positions once they had their own versions of business suits. To see how much difference clothing imagery can make, compare your impression of the shown image of Dietrich in her 1933 Chanel pants suits with this 1935 feminine-goddess image of Dietrich or this portrait of the Wyndham sisters in their Belle Époque dresses. Playing a variety of roles in life is far easier when you have clothing options that help you to look the part for each one.
[The 1906 dress design was found at Wikipedia Commons.]