As someone who has lived in both New York and Paris, it’s hard to imagine a time when women didn’t wear black, or when we limited ourselves to fashion parameters that were in no way influenced by menswear. I cannot picture my wardrobe without a classic button-down work shirt or a comfy boyfriend sweater. Decades before French women had even obtained le droit de vote, or women’s suffrage (if you notice, the word suffrage itself is a masculine gendered word in French), Coco, born Gabrielle, was redefining the norms of women’s fashion. She exchanged constricting corsets in an array of pastel pinks and hats that she refers to in the movie as “birthday cakes,” for more loose-fitting, simple clothing in blacks, blues, and stripes which were considered to be masculine. She borrowed her lovers’ clothing, suits and shirts made of jersey, fashioning them into her own expression of femininity and, in turn, classic style.
The director of Coco Before Chanel (2009), Anne Fontaine, first introduces us to the young Chanel, abandoned by her father, as she pulls up to a dingy orphanage. The scenes are awash with combinations of gray, black, and white—an appropriate backdrop that will later contextualize Chanel’s infatuation with this particular color palate. Fontaine quickly invites us into Chanel’s life as seamstress by day, club singer by night. We watch as Gabrielle tirelessly schemes her way toward a better life for her and her sister Adrienne, played by Audrey Tautou and Marie Gillain, respectively. Gabrielle soon acquires the nickname Coco from the man that will become her introduction into high society. In the end, she proves to be a successful businesswoman, capitalizing on her unique and genuine talent for style while taking advantage of connections that will allow her to thrive in the world of Paris fashion.
A. O. Scott writes in his review of Coco Before Chanel in The New York Times: “One fact of Gabrielle’s life is that a woman without money or status can only acquire them by attaching herself to a man, ideally as a wife but more plausibly as a mistress.” While Fontaine represents the latter point in relation to Chanel and her future success, this statement unfortunately trivializes Chanel’s own genius and, most importantly, ingenuity in capitalizing on such resources to which she did not, herself, have access. Coco Chanel successfully broke the restraints that characterized women’s fashion in her day. She allowed women to liberate themselves from the corset and, in turn, troubled notions of gendered performances of style and fashion. Her inaccessibility to power did not deter her from becoming the successful woman to which she aspired. Through a combination of charisma, wit, talent, and sexuality, the obstinate Chanel was able to manage her connections to elite circles and effectively, change fashion as we know it.
Feminist icons can appear in the most unlikely of places. These days, conceptions of beauty vis-à-vis the fashion industry are a source of popular feminist critique. Yet, Chanel proved that it was possible for women to indulge in the pleasure of fashion, for them to choose comfort, simplicity, and masculinity while still arriving at a uniquely feminine and powerful sexuality. Sometimes one must exist within the boundaries of social construction, effectively communicating with the rest of the world in their own terms, with the hope of one day changing them.