Cinematic footwear: costume designs by Coco Chanel (I)
In a previous post we took a journey through the life and career of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. In this instalment of cinematic footwear, we are going to home in on the designer’s work for the silver screen and explore the impact she had on the world of film. If you can’t wait to know more, just keep reading!
Coco Chanel and film, a match made in heaven
Gabrielle Chanel maintained a close and frequent relationship with studios and directors. Her career saw her undertake endeavours as a stylist, designer and consultant, and she was the shining gold standard for many artistic movements on both sides of the pond.
From the beginning, her creations were highly regarded by the crème de la crème of the art world, perhaps because Gabrielle had dreamed of making it as a singer (which she tried for a while) and had special ties in show business.
The first designs put out by Chanel, such as her hats, were adored by the biggest stars in silent film. One of them, Gabrielle Dorziat, donned her garments publicly, which helped the brand make a definitive name for itself in the world of fashion.
The rise of Coco Chanel and the success of her business soon swooped her off to Hollywood. At the start of the 1930s, Samuel Goldwyn, one of the founders of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) commissioned Chanel with the costume design for one of the studio’s star actresses.
Aware of the revolutionary stir that Chanel was causing in fashion, the producer was certain that her nouvelle elegance was just the charming touch his films needed. He envisioned her putting an entirely new spin on costume design, so that film wardrobes could stand apart from their theatrical relatives.
Although Chanel was at first reluctant and insistently turned down million-dollar deals for a year, she eventually accepted Goldwyn’s offer. And so it was that they embarked on what would be a brief, yet extremely intense, collaboration.
During this period, Chanel dressed stars the likes of Gloria Swanson, who flaunted one of her long dresses in Tonight or Never (Mervyn LeRoy, 1931). Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich also modelled the immense purity and flow of Gabrielle’s designs.
The relationship between MGM and Chanel eventually came to an end though. She never fully grasped the idea of Hollywood glamour, and filmmakers and audiences alike saw her costumes as overly understated. As we saw in our post about Givenchy’s designs in Breakfast at Tiffany’showever, her ideas would be the in thing just decades later.
Gabrielle refused to compromise her principles or play the Hollywood game, which earned her criticism and name-calling for being a “snob”. Further down the line, the designer would claim, without qualms, that Hollywood was the capital of bad taste.
Chanel and her major impact on French cinema
When Chanel’s adventure in Hollywood wrapped up, the French film scene was quick to take her in. The first hit to come out of this budding relationship was Port of Shadows (Le quai des brumes, Marcel Carné, 1938). Michèle Morgan, the star of the film, asked Chanel to be her costume designer, to which she replied, “A film like this doesn’t require clothing; a raincoat and a beret, that’s it!”
Coco Chanel fit the bill perfectly with her minimalist designs, but she also managed to break her own mould with a tight-fitting raincoat that would become an iconic piece for both film and fashion.
In 1939 Chanel also took part in designing the costumes for The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu, Jean Renoir, 1939). She showcased her tremendous versatility as a designer by putting together three completely different wardrobes for the stars of the film.
First there was the understated, yet immensely elegant, maid portrayed by Paulette Dubost. Next was the insipid noblewoman played by Nora Gregor. And finally, Mila Parély as an elegantly fashionable rich woman. This film stands as a testament to Gabrielle Chanel’s boundless talent and knowledge.
Chanel’s career in film did not end there. In fact, the French New Wave would see her rise to the top and become a true inspiration. In the second part of this post we will talk about this next chapter and look at some of the brand’s appearances on the silver screen after the remarkable designer’s passing.