Coco Before Chanel...

Last week, we discussed the power of the arts and the life lessons we can take away from them. The works that we studied last week focused a great deal on the nature of resilience, and as I pondered over the fighting spirit, I began to think about the attributes that comprise the fighters we have come to admire, as well as the fighters we encounter in our daily lives.


On the first day of this new decade, I found myself enthralled by the French film, Coco Before Chanel. Starring the lovely Audrey Tautou as Coco Chanel, the foreign film follows the storied designer during her early years in provincial France.


These early years were anything but glamorous. Coco was orphaned at a very young age, and her under-privileged upbringing sparked a fire deep within her soul. She desperately wanted to find fortune, and she let that fire fuel her, burning past each and every hurdle she encountered. Rather than allow the “bad hand” under which she was born determine her future, she used it to help her create a better one.


Even in her youth, Coco stood out. She turned heads wherever she went. She had an exquisite eye for fashion and an instinct for style that proved to be unshakeable. No matter what was a la mode, she never wavered in what she believed looked good, and she paid no mind to those around her when they urged her to follow the current fashion. Often times, friends and acquaintances would tell her, “this is what everyone is wearing,” to which Coco would reply, “well, I am not everyone.”


It is this resolute confidence that made her the fighter she was. She was steadfast in her stance, but more importantly, she believed in and trusted her artistry. This faith and self-assurance would lead her to defeat the odds and create one of the greatest fashion houses of all time.


Coco began simply. She started with hats, ranging from the wide-brim to the cloche, but her hats had one rule as its primary philosophy:

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

This belief stemmed from her disdain for the leading fashion of the 1910’s, which consisted of back breaking corsets that left women horribly uncomfortable, hot, and unable to breathe easily. Coco’s vision was rooted in simplicity. She believed that for a woman to feel confident, she must feel comfortable. Her goal was to blend delicate comfort with an exquisite, feminine palate, and the biggest piece of inspiration that she drew from was herself. She created styles and put together looks that were stunning on her, which in turn drew other women to her line.


Coco’s line would prove to change the trajectory of fashion forever. Because she despised corsets, she introduced the dropped waist, aiming for a more relaxed fit, while still heavily showcasing the feminine figure. While she brought this into the stylistic zeitgeist in the 1910’s, it would enter America with a roar in the 1920’s, as the dropped waist came to define that era of fashion.


Coco also did away with ruffles. She detested frills, having been quoted saying that too much fabric made women look like a decadent pastry as opposed to the world’s most beautiful specimen. Keep in mind that the styles that she criticized were those that dominated the fashion scenes of the French and English aristocracy. Perhaps if the words had come from someone else, these noblemen and women would have been offended, but Coco had a quirky humor and quick wit that charmed the upper-class and brought her to the forefront of a world that was nearly impossible to break into.


Coco’s “no-frills” policy led to clean and neutral lines, which eventually led to the famous Chanel suit. A slim-fit skirt with a collarless jacket, all made completely of tweed, would become her signature wardrobe staple. Her use of tweed was another grand innovation of the time, considering that it was a course fabric primarily used in men’s sportswear.


This may seem like a big leap for a woman who believed in the graces of femininity, but Coco’s innovation came from what inspired her, and nothing inspired her more than her surroundings. She let the provincial fields of France influence her, and she drew inspiration from the equestrian lifestyle that she loved so much. During her lonely childhood, horseback riding singlehandedly kept her out of falling into depression, and she carried this love into her adult life. As a woman, she partook in the equestrian tradition, leading her to style outfits and create pieces that were elegant enough to fit the elite practice, while still being conducive to riding and walking on dirt walkways. Her love for the equestrian lifestyle proved to be one of the most important aspects of her artistic vision because she combined creativity with practicality, something that had never been seen amongst the aristocracy before.


Coco’s choice to use tweed was due to its versatility, but her exquisite hand brought a touch of elegance to the course fabric, an elegance that would bring the Chanel suit to the highest echelons of society, with the likes of Jackie O and Princess Diana donning the sensational frocks.


If there is one aspect of Chanel’s story that really shines, it is the surety she felt for her vision. Imagine if she had listened to the tailor when he told her a dress without a corset isn’t a dress at all. Imagine if she had chosen satin or velvet over tweed for her signature suits, simply because others told her that tweed wasn’t in fashion.


When you study the history of great artists, great scholars, great doctors, or even great athletes, you never encounter a story where things come easily. You encounter a story where the protagonist simply doesn’t let the setbacks stop them. Often times, these were the people who were told “it’s not possible,” or “it isn’t done that way,” but these were also the people who fervently believed in their vision and refused to let any of the naysayers dictate how they do their work.


Last Friday, we discussed the power of moving forward, of fighting back, and of never giving up. We also discussed the power of the arts and the many lessons that we can learn, not only from the works of art themselves, but from the creatives behind them, as well. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel is a fashion and style icon who did away with the confining “rules of fashion” and introduced a style that was uniquely hers, a style that would end up becoming a leading philosophy in the virtuosity that is art in motion.


Coco Before Chanel was a film that moved me and left me breathless. Being a French film made it extra special because I had the privilege of hearing the dialogue in its original language, giving the film a sense of authenticity that truly brought me into the story. This, coupled with the beautiful, calm, yet melancholy music composed by Alexander Desplat of Twilight fame, had me so captivated that by the end of the movie, it took me a while to come back to reality. I was left mesmerized by the film’s aesthetic, and completely inspired by a woman, an artist, a fashionista who refused to let the world dictate how she went about using her gifts. She never let anyone convince her that what she wanted to accomplish was impossible, despite having been born as the quintessential underdog.


As we’ve discussed before, we can learn a lot from the arts and their respective artists. You will encounter people who will tell you that your dreams are impossible, but who are they to tell you anything? What do they know that you don’t? How can they determine your capabilities? The answer is, they can’t. So, the next time you have a goal you desperately want to accomplish, drown out the noise. Ignore the naysayers. Work tirelessly. Lead. Have faith in your vision, but most importantly, have faith in yourself, because at the end of the day, no one has ever stood out by following the crowd.


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