“Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.”
The quote written above is not a line from the film. It is a quote stated by the woman who created modern, sophisticated, timeless clothing Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. In the 2009 French biopic of the designer Coco Before Chanel we are shown the story of Chanel’s roots. We see where her style and inspirations come from and how she was truly a woman ahead of her time.
Since this movie is a biopic a summary will be like a biography. Gabrielle and her older sister Adrienne were sent to an orphanage when they were little. There they lived until they were older and gained employment as seamstresses. Chanel was also a milliner making hats for clients as well. At night the sisters would perform a singing act in a local nightclub.
At the nightclub Chanel meets Etienne Balsan, a rich playboy living for all the pleasures in life. He tells her they should get together but it is not until after he leaves Paris and she realizes that she needs money that she takes him up on his offer. Coco goes out to his family’s house in the country and makes herself home what will eventually become a three year stay.
Etienne hosts the high society of Paris every weekend with wild parties that go on all day and all night. At first he tells Coco to stay out of sight but she begins to sneak down and everyone becomes charmed by her. Most of all the guests especially the women cannot get over the way she dresses; her clothes look comfortable and almost manly compared to the tight corseted, frilly dresses the women of the time wore. Thanks to a famous stage actress she meets Coco’s small, light hats become the rage in upper society.
One weekend Coco meets an English man named Arthur “Boy” Capel. Capel becomes the love of Coco’s life, he is the only man she ever really considered marrying. When Coco has had enough of living with Etienne it is Boy who helps her to set up her own shop in Paris. Unfortunately their happiness is cut short when Boy dies in a car accident.
That is all I will say about Chanel because if you really want to know more all you have to do is either watch the movie or simply just look up the designer’s early years… I say watch the movie it is more entertaining than just reading. On this note though do not go into the film thinking you will be truly seeing what made Chanel an icon, those qualities are seen here and there throughout. The movie is more about her two relationships that shaped her attitude and her life.
What I loved about this film is seeing what inspired Chanel. She saw the limitations of the then modern fashions with the corset that gave women an hourglass shape. She saw the excessive amount of material hanging and dragging from the dresses that limited motion as well and became dirty so quickly. The scene that I really liked what when Coco went to the seaside with Boy and saw these women on the beach with these ridiculously huge hats and their bodies tightly covered in their dresses. Chanel found inspiration from the striped shirts of the fishermen and in turn made her own outfit inspired by them. Looking at the clothing from a modern view and how women would be dresses to go to the beach is ridiculous. This idea and realization that Chanel had just put her so ahead of her time.
One of my historic passions besides film and art is fashion. I can study fashion from the mid-1800s to the 1960s all day I love it so much. My favorite time periods for fashion are the early 1900s, the twenties, thirties, and forties. I volunteer at a local historical society and I helped to put together a textile exhibit called “Fabulous Flapper Fashions of the 1920s.” It was fascinating to learn how by the 1925 women were fully liberated from the corset and old restrictive clothing. In my research into 1920s clothing I learned that with the end of World War I and the Suffrage movement women were ready for a change they were ready to be free from the old social restrictions. And what better way to shed the old ways and rebel against them then by wearing and creating a new style of clothing? Chanel, with her forward thinking mind, created clothing that a bra had to be worn instead of a corset. Along with Paul Poiret and his straight cut “Confucius Coat”, Chanel helped to set women free. Poiret stated that he wanted to create a new form of beauty for women and that is what he helped to do. Chanel and Poiret steered women’s clothing away from an artificial form to a natural shape supported by a bra (I thank these two everyday for the bra! I had to wear a (modern) corset once for a dress and it was the most annoying thing known to man!). Looking at the clothes that the historical society has in their collection it was amazing to see how just from the early twenties to 1925 changed so much. The dresses that we have on display look like so much fun and so comfortable to wear.
Coco Before Chanel is an excellent film in every aspect. Audrey Tautou was perfect as the designer. The director Anne Fontaine says in the extra features that if Tautou had not been able to make the movie they would not have done it at all because the actress is almost the spitting image of the designer. Coco Before Chanel is one of my favorite movies. This is a great stepping stone for anyone who wants to begin their foray into the world of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel and her beautiful and timeless style.