Time for Coco

Hannah Betts pays homage to the ever-chic Chanel


This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

It’s a funny old time for clothes. I mean, it’s a funny old time for everything. However, fashion continues to have the stuffing knocked out of it. Guesstimates have been hazarded that — after 18 months sofa-bound — about half of us have begun to leave the house. And even these dashing adventurers may feel that they have more than enough clobber in which to do so.

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was a moderniser: chopper of hair, shortener of skirts, unleasher of ankles

As the nation’s lemmings reject formality — witness M&S’s decision to drop suits from 144 of its 254 clothing outlets — so its modish outliers are embracing structure, heritage and tradition as a means of semaphoring rebellion. We see this in the preppy look’s usurpation of streetwear this autumn, resale site The RealReal reporting searches for Ralph Lauren up 238 per cent. (We, The Critic, made this happen, obv, with my June column on all things penny loafer.)

And one can see how garments of quality, that will endure, might take flight at a time of economic uncertainty when fast fashion feels intolerably passé.

For me, this has meant a fixation with Chanel. Still, let’s be clear: there has never been a time when I haven’t been fixated by Chanel. However, house ambassador Kiera Knightley crystalised matters when she revealed that, during lockdown, she had daily sported its couture: “We have a trampoline in our garden, and decided we were only allowed to wear dresses on it. I put on red lipstick every day, and every bit of Chanel that I have in my cupboard, and my daughter Edie had Chanel ribbons plaited into her hair.” This, my friends, is how to live.

If you haven’t heard of Chanel, then there’s not much I can do for you. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971) was a moderniser: chopper of hair, shortener of skirts, unleasher of ankles, freer of waists, crosser of dress and bronzer of skins. She was no less a modernist, with avant-garde flirtations (many of them literal) with Cocteau, Picasso, Apollinaire, Stravinsky and Picabia, and co-creator of the supremely modernist Chanel No 5, a bouquet sans blooms.

Chanel was also a structuralist, supplying a system, like a language, the individual components of which only have meaning as part of that whole. So, yes, she gave us the little black dress, transplanted from being the orphan, nun and maid’s habit to the uniform of the elegant. But, also — when she relaunched her label in 1954 after a 15-year hiatus — the septuagenarian locked down the signatures that came together as her look. All hail the tweed jacket, quilted bag, chain belt, two-tone pumps, CC logo, black satin bow, camellia, and ropes of pearls; plus a constant pulse between androgynous simplicity and papal baroque.

It was the Americans who confirmed her status as fashion’s 20th century icon. Her 1950s take on the 1930s once again felt modern, yet timeless; free-spirited in contrast with Dior’s corseted and constricted New Look. Chanel wanted women to move, be empowered.

Her tweed jacket epitomised this ease: its hem weighted with a brass chain to hang perfectly, yet light, free-necked, sans stiffening, supple enough to be able to swing the arms and thrust fists into pockets; teamed with a hand-freeing shoulder bag, and shoes one could stride about in.

Three decades later, in 1983, post-structuralist Karl Lagerfeld re-launched the brand with fabulous postmodern aplomb, taking his predecessor’s codes and making them the world’s most covetable symbols. Since then, however resplendent the pastiche, there has never been a moment of Burberry-esque overkill. Chanel is BCBG and cool, aspirational and inspirational. From royalty to rappers, everyone wants to be branded with double Cs. In achieving this feat, the late Lagerfeld made Chanel a shorthand for style itself.

From royalty to rappers, everyone wants to be branded with double Cs

My wardrobe boasts jacket “homages” from Zara and Mango, Hobbs and LK Bennett, Alice & Olivia and The Fold. (This summer, I snapped up the latter’s silver-flecked, Sackville knitted “tweed”. This autumn it offers the Varena, £265.) Perhaps this homage may extend to adding the odd CC brooch or corsage, perhaps not. Or those not able to throw £4,500-£10,000 at a current design might avail themselves of a vintage version via Hewi, Arch Label Agency, or Vestiare Collective, from between £500-£6,000.

The Lesage blazer I awarded myself for my 50th birthday is monochrome, striped, with Chantilly lace accents.

It issues from late 2004, when Lagerfeld was preoccupied by black and white, the relationship between the masculine and the feminine, and the juxtaposition of severity and frivolity. As such it is The Ultimate Expression of both Chaneldom and Bettsdom.

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