Magazine article The Spectator

The New Look That Never Aged

Magazine article The Spectator

The New Look That Never Aged

Article excerpt

THE ALLURE OF CHANEL by Paul Morand, translated by Euan Cameron Pushkin Press, £12, pp. 181, ISBN 9781901285987 £9.60 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Should anyone ever ask me that daft magazine question about who you'd invite to your dream dinner-party ('anyone in the world, alive or dead') my answer would be short: Mademoiselle Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, on her own, with only an ashtray between us. And maybe an ace simultaneous translator, lest my pidgin French bore her to volcanic rage. She was easily bored and, though she was a lifelong anglophile, she never liked women much.

Fantasy dinners aside, this enchanting, tiny book is the closest anyone can get to a faceto-face with Coco. It's written in her voice ('that voice that gushed forth from her mouth like lava') and in her words ('those words that crackled like dried vines'), and though it's full of lies, omissions and contradictions, there's enough raw truth in it to reflect the extraordinary woman who was Chanel, even though glimpsed shard by shard in a broken mirror.

In the winter of 1946, Chanel was brooding in her ten-year Swiss exile, 'unemployed and with nothing to do for the first time in her life'. Her dazzling reputation as the greatest Frenchwoman of the age was in shreds: having lived in the Ritz with a high-ranking Nazi officer during the Occupation, she escaped the 'épuration' meted out to collabos horizontales only after an intervention by Winston Churchill. She was 63; her golden age -- the 1920s and 30s, when she glittered among Picasso, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Cocteau, Visconti, Jean Renoir and Paul Iribe, and her lovers included Grand Duke Dmitri of Russia and the richest man in Europe, the Duke of Westminster -- was seemingly over.

She invited her lifelong friend, Paul Morand, the writer, diplomat and friend of Proust and Malraux, to write her memoirs; they talked into the evenings in a St Moritz hotel and he 'scribbled some notes' each night. Morand's notes were not published until 1976 (as L'Allure de Chanel) and not translated until this year by Euan Cameron. I can't say with authority that it's translated beautifully or not. But it reads beautifully. The translator's note on the title says: 'In French, the word allure, as well as having the sense that it has in English of attraction, charm and enticement, also denotes pace and speed of movement.'

How perfect: pace and movement were exactly what Chanel gave women's dress for the first time in history. She grew to womanhood in the Belle Epoque when women were dressed as wedding-cakes, laced and corseted, dripping with embellishment. Not her. She was 'the exterminating angel of 19th-century style'. She wore clothes that followed the natural line of the body as men's did (she filched anything she wanted from the men she met). And she single-handedly forced the fashionable world to follow her. 'Because I knew how to express my times.' She democratised fashion, taking materials and shapes from sailors, stable-boys, street girls. 'Fashion does not exist until it goes down into the street.' By 1917, she was not working for women whose lady's maids had to pass them their stockings. I now had customers who were busy women; a busy woman needs to be comfortable in her clothes. You need to be able to roll up your sleeves. …

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