Books: Cultural Amnesia — Coco Chanel |
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Never pretty but always beautiful, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883–1971) embodied, during the course of her career, two important themes relevant to the story of the humanities in the twentieth century: one of them was the capacity of the popular and applied arts to influence culture at its highest level, and the other was the frailty of creativity under moral pressure. As a designer, her invention of the “little black dress” shifted the centre of attention from haute couture to prêt-à-porter: before her, the height of fashion had been priced out of the reach of any except the wealthy. From the fortune she made from her inventions, she was able to further exercise her infallible taste by patronizing the avant-garde: she wrote cheques for Diaghilev and Stravinsky. During the Occupation, however, her tastes, if not her taste, led her to accept the protection of a German official, with consequences for her reputation that would have been disastrous if her talent had not been regarded, correctly, as a national treasure. She lives on as a brand name: a perpetually bankable guarantee of elegance. The name tells something of the truth, though not all of it.

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Luxury is a necessity that starts where necessity stops

CHANEL MADE A profitable habit out of keeping a tame poet on hand to coin aphorisms that could be put into circulation attributed to her. As a general rule, the best aphorisms are truisms, but are true about subjects too scandalous to receive regular treatment. The truth of this one was most piquantly confirmed in Chanel’s capital city. In Paris under the Occupation, the rationing of luxuries did not stop the women dressing as well as possible. Indeed they tried harder: it was something to take their minds off the grinding boredom, and the competition for the few available men was fierce. Paris was probably the first wartime capital in which the shortage of sheer stockings was compensated for by painting the legs, with a seam pencilled up the back of the leg for verisimilitude. The outbreak of fashion extravagance after the war—the New Look made far more news all over the world than the New Deal ever did—was a generational revenge for shortages of cloth, colour and silk lining.

When I was young enough to be dressing up in my mother’s clothes while she was out—I had my transvestite phase at the age of seven, as I remember—the next most fascinating thing after the propelling lipstick was the look of the sequins on her one and only best dress for evening. Their glitter still affects the way I see Sydney Harbour in oblique sunlight. My mother’s clothes were her sole connection with a better life, and they were vital. Her clothes and mine: the day when she left the hot iron for too long on the trousers of my first proper blue suit was one of the worst days of our lives. We had enough, but not a lot: not enough for it not to matter. Although Sydney was a long way from the worst of the war’s hardships, it did not escape the global law that elevated everything pretty to the status of a rarity. It was only decades later, however, that I fully realized how those few fine things my mother had to dress in had been the true expression of a spritual value. “Philosophy is about people in clothes,” said the British philosopher T. E. Hulme, “not about the soul of man.” It’s about both those things, but he was right to insist that the first mattered.

The next level up from bare necessity is where the life of the soul begins. As the war neared its end, the goods of the American military PX were the world’s first international currency. Girls in Germany could be bought for a bar of chocolate. Less directly but just as effectively, cartons of Lucky Strike and Camel cigarettes bought the affections of women in Britain and Australia. For our fighting men, the superior uniforms of the American service personnel amounted to one of the most soul-destroying aspects of the war. American enlisted men were better dressed than our officers. It hurt worse than German bombs or Japanese bayonets: with those you could take your chances, but the opulent small change of American culture you simply had to take, and taking it was hard.

Years had to go by before those discrepancies ceased to be painful. People’s morality was judged by how long they had held out against the lure of material goods. Chanel’s borrowed axiom had a wide and lasting application—a sociological principle raised to the level of science. Unfortunately her own principles were too easily compromised by it. During the Occupation she chose the easy path. She took on a powerful German protector. It paid off in a big way in the early stages: she would not have wanted for butter and sugar. Later on, when the Germans themselves ran out of luxuries, the deal no doubt held less attraction at the material level. Perhaps she deserves some credit for sticking with him. The censorious committees of l’épuration (the Purification) would not have seen it that way. If she hadn’t decamped to Switzerland she would undoubtedly have had her head shaved: a new hairstyle that even she would have been hard-pressed to make fashionable. The film star Arletty spent two years in purdah for collaborating a lot less blatantly. Finally Chanel was allowed back, because she was one of the keepers of the great secret of couture, which the French correctly saw as the first chance of national recovery. A perennial guarantee to the world that Paris held the secret of a stylish life, couture was already helping to regenerate the French economy when the Citroën DS19 was still being designed. No matter how elegant the cars and airliners (and there was never a more classy looking aircraft than the Caravelle), it was the clothes that sold the world on the idea of a uniquely French combination of artistry and design. Nevertheless, Chanel sensibly kept her head down until, in 1954, inspired by the presence in Paris of the beautiful American model Suzy Parker, she went back into the rag trade.

In the West during the twentieth century, the blockade of the German-speaking countries in World War I, the post-war waves of inflation, the Depression throughout the free world, the war in Europe and the Pacific and its long rationed aftermath everywhere except in America—they all contributed to a laboratory for the study of the connection between materialism and the spirit. But it was in the heartland of dialectical materialism that the laboratory provided measures for the whole of existence. In the Soviet Union, nothing mattered more than access to the special stores, which were reserved for the nomenklatura and its chosen favourites. The special stores were where the luxuries were, some of them poignantly elementary: toothpaste that did not corrode teeth, toilet paper that did not cut, scissors that did. The vast majority of the people were condemned to the ordinary shops, where the command economy proved its efficacy by providing a standard of living only one rung up from the Gulag. Except for the brief burst of the New Economic Policy under Lenin, it was like that for seventy long years: the society that had proposed to abolish the gap between rich and poor made it an unbridgeable chasm. In Moscow in 1976 I was with a party of tourists who stayed at the Metropol hotel, famous scene of many a midnight visit in the late 1930s, when foreign Communist dignitaries would go to bed with all their clothes on in case their number came up. One of my fellow tourists, a lecturer in sociology at an English university, told me solemnly at dinner that it was a relief to be in a country where the gap between rich and poor was not blatant. He didn’t see our Intourist guide slipping some leftover blinis into her plastic leather-look handbag. In Cuba in 1986 the security man in charge of my party of journalists—we were there to help generate publicity for the Varadero resort project—told me that if I really wished to reward him for his help I could use a few of my dollars to buy him a bottle of good rum from the special store. He was a government agent in a country famous for manufacturing the stuff, and in his whole adult life he had never been able to get a taste of it except at the lowest grade.

Except in periods of deliberately induced famine, nobody starved in the Soviet Union, or died of thirst or went unclothed. But they ate, drank and dressed at a level too low to leave them untouched by a desolate envy of the capitalism they were supposed to despise, and finally it was that corrosive spiritual deprivation that brought socialism down. The deprivation was comparative, not absolute: but the comparison was real. Thoughts of it filled the day, the week, the month, the year and the whole wasted life. In the West, someone obsessed with material things is correctly thought to be a fool. In the East, everyone was obsessed with material things from daylight to dusk. It was the most sordid trick that communism played. Killing people by the millions at least had the merit of a tragic dimension. But making the common people queue endlessly for goods barely worth having was a bad joke. At the Paris prêt-à-porter collections in 1982 I met Viktor Sichov, a photographer who had managed to defect from the Soviet Union and bring his whole archive with him. He thought he had spent his life photographing Soviet women in their moments of joy, passion, suffering and defeat. In Paris he finally realized that the true subject of his photographs had been their clothes. The edge of the crime, where it shaded into ordinary life, was the area in which the sadness became most palpable. In the centre it was too intense to grasp. Soviet consumer goods were the small-arms fire of the government’s relentless economic assault on the people. Soviet consumer goods were an insult. They were already rubbish when they were fresh from the factory, and the fate of the people who had slaved, saved and stood in endless lines to buy them was to find that they could not even be cherished, because they were already falling apart. Meanwhile, the tastes of the ruling elite gave the game away. No Soviet diplomat based abroad ever returned to his homeland without a few bottles of Chanel No. 5. So Coco Chanel, who had rolled over for the Nazis, played her part in discomfiting the next dictatorship that came along.