The Palais Galliera, the City of Paris Fashion Museum, reopens its doors after extension work and presents the first retrospective in Paris of a unique and remarkable fashion designer: Gabrielle Chanel (1883-1971).
While waiting for the reopening of the museum and the exhibition “Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto”, we invite you to discover an exclusive extract from the catalog entitled: “Chanel, the new woman dandy” written by Caroline Evans, professor of fashion history and theory at the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design.
Chanel : The new woman as dandy
Look at the image of Chanel in her mid-twenties at a racecourse in the south of France in 1907 or 1908. She looks chic and sportive, in a man’s coat and tie, topped with a small, neat boater of her own making. Her stance, too, reveals her mastery of masculine insouciance, in two quintessentially male gestures. Her hands are thrust deep into her coat pockets, her binoculars slung casually across her chest. Both are signs of effrontery, in a period in which women’s social and economic dependence on men was symbolized by their fashionable outfits at the races. Everything in Chanel’s appearance sets her apart from the other women racegoers, with their ornate hats and elaborate fashions, women whose appearance was defined by their relationship to men, be they husbands, lovers or fathers. Chanel, who at this time was a kept woman living in an unconventional household, differentiated herself from those women by, paradoxically, wearing men’s clothing as a form of social incognito: the tie of her lover, Étienne Balsan, and an overcoat belonging to his friend Baron Foy. ‘Before becoming a brand, Chanel was an adventuress’, wrote Lilou Marquand, her assistant in later life. 1From her twenties, if not earlier, Chanel developed a unique form of dandyism as social masquerade that never left her: the possibility of both seeming to be what she was not, and not being what she seemed. Ellen Moers has described how the 19th-century dandy was displaced in the early 20th century by the New Woman, a lady with ‘a cigarette, a bicycle and a will of her own’.2Yet there were underlying continuities between the two. Both in her social mobility and in her panache, Chanel had much in common with the
English dandy George ‘Beau’ Brummell, who used elegance, wit and a degree of bravado to navigate the aristocratic circles to which he was not born. In his book on Brummell, the 19th-century writer Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly pinpointed the dandy’s essential gender ambiguity in ways that anticipated Chanel’s debut in French society half a century later. Barbey described the dandies of the Second Empire as ‘hermaphrodites of History’ and ‘twofold and multiple natures, of an undecided intellectual sex’. 3To equate Chanel’s dandyism with cross-dressing tout court, however, would be fundamentally to misconstrue the facts: the point is not that Chanel wore men’s clothes but, rather, that she understood their modernity, and was able throughout her life to regender all clothing in a way that put into question the essential nature of both masculinity and femininity.
Like Chanel, the first writers on dandyism treated gender as a serious business: Moers reminds us that Barbey ‘makes dandyism available as an intellectual pose’.4In Chanel’s hands, it became the pose of a professional woman in the modernist period. As she explained to Paul Morand after the Second World War: ‘The enclosure before 1914! When I went to the races, I would never have thought that I was witnessing the death of luxury, the passing of the 19th century, the end of an era …. That is why I was born, that is why I have endured, that is why the outfit I wore at the races in 1913 can still be worn in 1946, because the new social conditions are still those that led me to clothe them.’5
She lived the rhetorical and polemical possibilities of fashion. At the races before 1914, Chanel had admired a woman with a metal arm as ‘the height of elegance’.6In this view, the prosthetic body can become a stylish accessory to a self that is always under construction: volatile, mutable, protean. Chanel understood the power of the transaction between the organic and the inorganic, alongside the techniques of what Bar- bey called ‘a science of manners and attitudes’. 7Her relaxed disengagement was the product of a stringent bodily discipline. Barbey describes ‘those minds which speak to the body by the body’,8and in this respect, Chanel’s lifelong mobilization of the triumvirate of gesture, pose and personality was eloquent.
Extract from the exhibition catalog “Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto”
1 Lilou Marquand, Chanel m’a dit, Paris: Éditions Jean-Claude Lattès, 1990, p. 7.
2 Ellen Moers, The Dandy: Brummell to Beerbohm, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1960, p. 283.
3 Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly, Of Dandyism and of George Brummell (1879),
trans. Douglas Ainslie, London: J.M. Dent, 1897, p. 141.
4. Ellen Moers, The Dandy, p. 263. See also Jessica R. Feldman, Gender on the Divide: The Dandy in Modernist Literature, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993.
5 Paul Morand, The Allure of Chanel, trans. Euan Cameron, London: Pushkin Press, 2013.
6 Paul Morand, The Allure of Chanel, 2013.
7 Barbey d’Aurevilly, Of Dandyism and of George Brummell, p. 46.
8 Barbey d’Aurevilly, Of Dandyism and of George Brummell, p. 32.