- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Coco Chanel “invented a new way of behaving through fashion,” says Catherine Leterrier, a two-time Cesar (the French Oscar) Award-winning costume designer. “She gave freedom to women because she was so modern in her own way.”

In “Coco Before Chanel,” the new biopic starring Audrey Tautou as the legendary French designer, who died in 1971, director Anne Fontaine turned to Mrs. Leterrier to re-create the restrictive and idealized Victorian-era women’s fashions that spurred Chanel’s revolutionary changes.

The house of Chanel was not pleased with recent films about the designer — including 2008’s “Coco Chanel” starring Shirley MacLaine — explains the company’s general manager for external relations, Marie-Louise de Clermont-Tonnerre. Ms. de Clermont-Tonnerre created the Paris-based Chanel conservancy, an archive of books, photographs and clothes associated with the designer. Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel’s creative director, decided to work with Mrs. Leterrier and allow her into the conservancy, which is accessible only to select researchers and journalists.

The conservancy did not have original Chanel pieces dating as far back as the film’s period setting in the first two decades of the 20th century, but Mrs. Leterrier used photos and artifacts housed there to learn about the binding styles that dominated women’s clothing when the young Chanel was embarking on her career.

Mrs. Leterrier and a team of dedicated seamstresses and milliners created original costumes for Miss Tautou and the film’s extras, including about 800 hats, the requisite accessory of the day.

At a time when a taste for big hats predominated — “With that on their head, how can they think?” Chanel famously demanded — Chanel achieved her big breakthrough with simple and unfussy straw boaters, which she sold in her first shop in the Rue Cambon in 1910.

After her success with hats, Chanel turned to perhaps the most uncomfortable and oppressive item of Victorian clothing, the corset, which romanticized a woman’s shape by whittling the waist while accentuating the breasts. Mrs. Leterrier insisted that the film’s extras wear corsets, going so far as crumpling newspapers and sticking them into the bustline of their costumes to simulate the undergarment’s effect on the body.

She and Ms. Fontaine engaged in a healthy debate about the use of corsets after “two or three of the ladies” fainted on the set, prompting an emergency medical team to be present during the remaining shoots.

“Back then, they knew if you wore a corset, you did not have a big lunch,” Mrs. Leterrier explains with a giggle.

Ignoring her critics — “Without a corset, the dress will be shapeless,” they warned — Chanel created a new aesthetic in dresses, one shaped by women’s figures as they existed in reality rather than in men’s fantasies.

“Chanel’s dress was a new silhouette,” Mrs. Leterrier says. “It allowed a woman to move freely, and you could see the natural silhouette of the body.”

Chanel’s new look may have been more natural, but not lacking in sex appeal. “It is so easy to undress you,” Chanel’s lover, Boy Capel, whispers to her during one of their trysts, referring to the lack of ties, panels and layers in her dress.

The film foreshadows the trail Chanel blazed with the “little black dress,” a staple of every woman’s wardrobe since its inception in 1926. “Only black will show the eyes,” Chanel insists in the film after a salesman questions her choice of black in a dress shop.

Black was considered gauche to wear in public at the time, but one of the more memorable scenes in the film has Chanel and Boy dancing in the middle of a ballroom. She is luminous in a long black dress in a sea of lemmings in their provincial pastels.

Rather than parading around in, as Chanel put it, “walking curtains” with “too much makeup, too much jewelry, too much everything,” women embraced Chanel’s new, more streamlined aesthetic.

“She was her own muse,” Mrs. Leterrier observes. “Instead of copying the socialites she admired, she got them to copy her.”

As the women’s suffrage movement gained momentum in France and in the United States in the Roaring ‘20s, the Chanel look made it chic for women to dress for themselves without adhering to male standards of female beauty.

Chanel made short hair, trousers and menswear-inspired shirts and jackets wildly feminine.

Chanel fans may be disappointed that her illustrious jewelry collection, the camellia and the quilted handbag — all embedded in Chanel iconography — are notably absent from the film, but, as Mrs. Leterrier explains, the first “it” bag, known as the 2.55, didn’t arrive until much later in Chanel’s career, in the mid-1950s.

As for the inevitable ropes of pearls, bangles and brooches seen on Chanel in photographs, Mrs. Leterrier explains that Chanel is “too poor” in the film to afford much jewelry and had not yet assembled her well-heeled circle of friends, such as the Duke of Westminster and Winston Churchill, to be given such trinkets.

She does don her trademark pearls in the finale of the movie, while sitting on the grand staircase of the Maison Chanel surveying her models descending the stairs in their quietly elegant ensembles. This is the only scene in the film in which all of the clothes are Chanel originals .

Both Mrs. Letterier and Ms. de Clermont-Tonnerre hope the film will help a new generation of women, whose only exposure to the independent designer is from the name on a perfume bottle, appreciate Chanel’s legacy.

“Before Chanel, you were a 19th-century woman,” Ms. de Clermont-Tonnerre muses. “After her, you were the modern, Chanel girl.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide