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Coco before she was France’s Mademoiselle

We are all familiar with the Chanel logo, the iconic image of the two C’s intertwined. Department stores internationally sell the famous Chanel #5, while the authentic handbags are sold at a price range that extends up to $3,500. As a brand, Chanel is inarguably an elite fashion label, and its famed designer, the late Coco Chanel, is a fashion icon whom many modern designers wish to emulate.

“Coco before Chanel” – or “Coco avant Chanel” since the movie is in French with subtitles – is a film of Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel’s modest life before she became France’s famous Mademoiselle. Written and directed by Anne Fontaine, the movie stars Audrey Tautou, who plays Coco Chanel. While during her 60-year-long career, she seemed to embody sophistication, class and affluence, Chanel’s roots and her path to success is obscured by the fame she later achieved.

Fontaine’s film documented Chanel’s experiences growing up in an orphanage with her sister, Adrienne Chanel (played by Marie Gillain), because their father had left their family. Years afterward – due to the fact that her father never returned for her – she and her sister emerged from the orphanage, both intent on becoming self-sufficient. After finding jobs as seamstresses for performers and singers, they began to perform songs at a local bar. Specifically, they performed Qui qu’a vu Coco (Have You Seen Coco) which is how Chanel earned her nickname.

Chanel actually aspired to be an actress, although her talent as a seamstress was recognized from the beginning. Chanel crossed paths with French socialite Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde) and quickly thereafter became his live-in mistress. Through their association, she met many wealthy women who compliment her on her hat-making skills.

During a time in France when every woman was dressed from head to toe in loud feathers, laces and restricting corsets, Chanel wore wearing black pants or simple solid color dresses. She did this at first due to living in poverty, but continued because she didn’t enjoy France’s current style. She also became a vociferous critic, claiming that the hats were too big and feathery, the makeup too thick and bold and the corsets too restricting. In one scene, she told an upper-class woman to lose the feathers in her hat and to forget the corsetry.

Aside from compliments on Chanel’s straw hats and scenes of her sewing – as well as  a happy-ending when she put on a fashion show of the clothing she has created – much of “Coco before Chanel” focused on the Mademoiselle as a female in a male-dominated world. Her choice to abstain from marriage and to favor her career was viewed by contemporaries as controversial. However, during this time, issues of love and marriage were handled with triviality. Chanel found herself treated like nothing more than a sex object by Etienne before falling in love with Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola).

Because Chanel never married, she was viewed as a feminist for her time. Throughout the film she claimed she had no interest in marrying anyone. While she had opportunities to marry, that would have solved her money issues, she opted never to do so. She later famously opined that, “There have been several Duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Chanel.”

Chanel also revolutionized the feminine ideals of her day, which seems fitting given her overall rebellion nature. This was gauged early on, when she stole fancy dresses after being fired from her job. This rebellion was indicative in her designs. The style in France appropriately demonstrated the lack of power women had at the time. Their corsets were as restricting as their husbands and their feathers and makeup covered their bodies. Chanel started out using mostly menswear to create her styles.

Chanel famously said, “Simplicity is the keynote to all true elegance.” She left her styles simple, comfortable and revealing. She left the woman in the clothing the main focus, rather than the clothes.

“Coco before Chanel” helps foster a better understanding of the value of Chanel’s viewpoints during a time in France where most women were not radical or rebellious. But more evidently, “Coco Before Chanel” strips the legend away from the icon, revealing a woman of depth, soul and above all – keen fashion sense.

Lisa Linsley can be reached at llinsley@student.umass.edu.

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