Tango Diva : Travel Stories for Women, by Women

by Stephanie Block

“There have been several Duchesses of Westminster—but there is only one Chanel!”

This was French designer Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel’s (1883- 1971) answer to the proposal of marriage from the Duke of Westminster. Like Jane Austen, the only marriage she entertained was to her art. Poor Duke. But history’s consolation to him is that it was his own dashing fashions that inspired many of her designs. Emotionally castrating him and feminizing his look at the same time- all in a Diva’s day’s work, n’est ce pas?

“People laughed at the way I dressed, but that was the secret of my success: I didn’t look like anyone.”

You can see echoes of the debonair Duke and other original Chanel designs at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art this summer through August 7th. A non-chronological, thematic retrospective of the House of Chanel under both Mademoiselle and Karl Lagerfeld, what is immediately apparent is the timelessness of Coco Chanel’s designs. You’ve heard it a million times- “timeless, enduring, classic,” but when you walk into a room dripping with gowns from the twenties and thirties and feel certain that they’re from today, all that fashion jargon really hits home.

“Fashion passes; style remains.”

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was truly not just whistling Dixie, or in her case, La Vie en Rose. The woman could sew, was a great fly fisher and equestrian, and literally charmed the pants off men, which she would later refit to suit her. And this queen of fashion held court with the likes of Picasso and Jean Cocteau. She was fearless in her quest for rational style and merciless in her demand for comfort. Bodices? Out. Corsets? Curse them! When World War One made it difficult to recruit fine fabrics, Coco Chanel began using, horror of horrors, jersey knit! Reserved almost exclusively for men’s underwear, to apply this nether-region fabric to women’s fashion made all of Paris gasp, Mon Dieu! But few women could resist a sudden sense of letting it all hang out.

“Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury.”

Looking beyond the wallpaper pulsating with camellias (Coco’s favorite flower) and Karl’s rather epileptic fashion fits such as the SCUBA and biker tableaux, you can almost hear the heady beat of Coco Chanel’s modernist heart and synaptic severity of her rebel’s mind.

In this exhibition gallery of one woman’s gall, one can whisper merci, Coco, merci for the little black dress, for costume jewelry and chains on purses so that we don’t have to keep clutching them. Brava for pants and jersey knit.

Because in the end, what is timeless is not the clothes themselves, the darts and buttons (many lion heads for Mademoiselle’s sun sign), but the ideas addressed with the dress- that the new woman can be as fashionable as the old, that a nod to the realities of daily life is not vulgar. And that being a pioneer is the most timeless art of all.

The exhibit was made possible by CHANEL and the Costume Institute, along with Condé Nast, and curators Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton of The Costume Institute with input from Karl Lagerfeld. For more informaiton, visit www.metmuseum.org

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Roof Garden Martini Bar!

From Chanel to Chambord- after you’ve communed with Mademoiselle, one must toast her, bien sur! And where better than the Met’s Roof Garden? City and park views, outdoor art installations, a bustling sunset, and edgy New Yorkers savoring a smoke- sometimes art is art and sometimes life is art!

See Get Modern at the Met for more information.

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