Why the Devil Wears Prada

In the brilliant Ernst Lubitsch film “Ninotchka” (1938) the title character – wonderfully played by Greta Garbo in perhaps the finest part of her legendary career – is a dyed-in-the-wool Communist sent from Moscow to Paris, to help negotiate a deal on behalf of the Soviet Union. She is initially stunned and appalled by the bourgeois world around her, though by the film’s end she has embraced it. In a very memorable scene when she first arrives at the grand hotel where she will be staying, she passes a window display for the hotel’s boutique, and pauses before an outlandishly shaped, sculptural-looking object. Ninotchka is informed that the object is in fact a lady’s hat. Shaking her head in disgust, she remarks, “How can such a civilization survive which permits their women to put things like that on their heads? It won’t be long now comrades.”

In a somewhat different vein, on Monday evening I dropped into a recently-opened shop in Georgetown on my way up the hill to the home of a fellow blogger (where we spent a convivial evening on the back porch with some non-blogging friends discussing various and sundry matters.) The shopgirl whom I was chatting with as I examined the selection on offer grabbed my arm and said, “I have a Prada suit that would look *great* on you.” Giving a sly smile, I remarked, “I’m sure it would. But I don’t wear designers who sponsor communism.”

Admittedly the comment as regards myself borders on the immodest, but that regarding my rejection of a particular label is based on a long-time awareness of the machinations of said label’s head designer. Miuccia Prada is well-known among the cognoscenti in the design world as a communist and an active promoter of left-wing social and political policies, a fact which may be lost on many Americans who purchase her wares. Given my distaste for communism, I have never owned anything designed by her, nor would I accept anything designed by her as a gift, such is the extent of my admitted and fully-embraced prejudice. This aside from the fact that her menswear consists of utterly putrid, predominantly androgynous garments, which are really just clothes for genetic males who look like unattractive women with a penchant for copying “From Russia with Love” villain Rosa Klebb’s style.

Britain’s The Independent not long ago described Sig.ra Prada’s output as being full of “irony and sheer brains”, as she employs thread and needle to make fun of the bourgeoisie:

At the root of her work, like the theme of a symphony to which it constantly returns, is the conservatism and restraint that are so typical of bourgeois Milan and so at odds with the world’s image of Italy, and which she absorbed with her mother’s minestrone. But this conservatism is constantly punctured and subverted, rudely shoved aside and cruelly mocked, by a whole mad world of motley influences and by an almost childish compulsion to do what everybody says you mustn’t and what nobody expects.

Those familiar with Whit Stillman’s film “Metropolitan” may recall the scene in which the character of Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols) talks about his disappointment with Spanish director Luis Buñuel’s 1972 film “Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie” (“The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”). Charlie, a member of a group which he has christened the “UHB” or “Urban Haute-Bourgeoisie”, describes how excited he was on hearing of the film’s title, and his subsequent disappointment upon actually seeing the movie. “I thought, ‘Finally! someone’s going to tell the truth about the bourgeoisie!’ But it’s hard to imagine a less fair or accurate portrait.”

Of course Charlie is not aware that, as is typical of many Leftists with the leisure to pursue such ends, Buñuel himself was no proletarian: he came from a decidedly wealthy background, and heartily enjoyed being around wealthy people. And for someone who is supposedly so ironic, so biting in her criticism of the bourgeois, in mocking the bourgeoisie Sig.ra Prada is also, even more ironically mocking herself. She is nothing if not a woman of comfortably middle-class origin supported by a decidedly upper-class income. Like other dowdy, aging baby boomers who criticize traditional ideals, she fails to perceive her own hypocrisy in supporting Marxist ideology on the one hand, while simultaneously flogging her goods with the other – at ridiculously inflated prices, natch – in order to increase her own wealth. Indeed, Sig.ra Prada has now appeared on Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people for many years.

The response from the Left, of course, is that Sig.ra Prada, Buñuel and others like them very much recognize their own hypocrisy, but they are more than happy to take the resources of those whom they perceive as perpetrators of the evils of mankind, and use those resources to promote their supposedly more moral or liberating projects, causes and beliefs. In so doing however, they prove themselves to be no different from the people whose views and methods they claim to despise. They may not believe in the God of the Bible, but they worship themselves through self-promotion; they may pay their workers a living wage, but they would never eschew staying in grand hotels, let alone live in a shared, modest apartment with any of them. (Where would they keep the Château Margaux they laid down two summers ago?)

As Leon Trotsky writes in his 1938 screed, “Their Morals and Ours”, not long after founding the Fourth Communist International and his falling out with what for lack of a better term we can call mainstream communism:

Among the liberals and radicals there are not a few individuals who have assimilated the methods of the materialist interpretation of events and who consider themselves Marxists. This does not hinder them, however, from remaining bourgeois journalists, professors or politicians. A Bolshevik is inconceivable, of course, without the materialist method, in the sphere of morality too. But this method serves him not solely for the interpretation of events but rather for the creation of a revolutionary party of the proletariat. It is impossible to accomplish this task without complete independence from the bourgeoisie and their morality. Yet bourgeois public opinion actually now reigns in full sway over the official workers’ movement.

So much, Trotsky seems to be saying, for the champagne socialist.

I do not mean to suggest that we should always avoid, by our purchases, supporting the work of those whose views differ from our own. That would not only be ridiculously impractical, but decidedly narrow-minded. My personal rejection of the work of Sig.ra Prada is merely a personal affectation, based on my deep antipathy toward both her views and how her aesthetic is informed by them. What I do – most emphatically – mean to suggest, however, is that the educated courtier engage in some very practical exercise of their own powers of discernment. Said discerning gentleman or lady ought to consider exactly what it is that they are buying into, with their purchase of clothing, media, and the like, irrespective of its popularity.

Charles Baudelaire – a man who as a result of his own tumultuous personal life knew whereof he spoke – famously remarked that the greatest trick Satan ever pulled was to convince the world that he does not exist. With greater discernment, we can perceive an infernal hand in many places in our world today – in the way we treat one another, yes, but also and perhaps more subtlety in our entertainments and the way in which we live and even dress. The Devil is very much among us – and I definitely believe he wears Prada.

Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) considers a very curious hat.

Review: Coco avant Chanel

Rarely have I seen a movie more apologetically but accessibly deferential to the intelligence of its viewers than director Anne Fontaine’s beautifully thought-out 2009 film “Coco avant Chanel” (“Coco Before Chanel”) starring Audrey Tautou. Based on the early life of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971), the film chronicles Chanel’s rise from obscurity to become one of the most innovative and celebrated fashion designers of the 20th century. If it were simply a bio-pic there would be plenty to chew over, for Chanel was a complex and unconventional woman whose past she intentionally kept somewhat obscured during her own lifetime. Yet this stunning production also assumes that the viewer will be able to pick up on the influences which shaped Chanel’s work, taking the piece outside of what might otherwise seem a made-for-tv costume drama and creating something extraordinary.

The film begins with the young Gabrielle Chanel arriving at a provincial Catholic orphanage with her sister, where the two are being left by the father, who is either unwilling or unable to take care of them; the film never makes this clear, and Chanel herself does not help. In fact, from this point on the viewer should be aware that during her lifetime, Chanel changed her biography numerous times, depending on whom she was speaking to and what she wanted them to believe. Throughout the film, as she moves from working in a dressmaker’s shop and singing in a bar (where she obtains the nickname “Coco”) to auditioning for the dance hall and becoming a live-in mistress, we see Chanel lie about some aspect of her upbringing, background, connections, experiences, and so on.

In doing so Chanel is creating the persona she feels is necessary in order for her to scramble up out of the gutter. To her surprise, she comes to understand that it will be in fashion, rather than in the bedroom or on the stage, where she will make her name. But make no mistake: Coco wants the good life and is going for it, conventions be damned. When she and her sister are observing from a distance some of the wealthy assembled together, her sister comments how bored they all look. Chanel replies, presciently, “Soon they will be willing to kill just to dine with us.”

It is perhaps difficult for us today, when an item such as a Chanel tweed suit (or a knock-off of one) is considered de rigeur among successful women, to realize what a shock Chanel’s style was to the women of her time. The film takes pains to point out to us how exceedingly uncomfortable it was to be considered well-dressed at the turn of the previous century, wearing yards and yards of fabrics, heavy make-up and jewelry, with giant hats pinned into long ropes of hair. At one point Chanel meets her sister at the races; the latter is wearing a long, fitted white lace gown, and explains that it is the latest fashion from Paris. Chanel snorts at its impracticality and remarks, “I’m sure that train picks up a lot of mud.”

In another, beautifully shot scene, Chanel walks down the boardwalk at Deauville toward the sea, wearing a simple plaid dress and straw hat of her own design. Despite the sun and the heat the women on either side of her are cinched into enormous, heavy dresses that cover every part of their bodies, which of course are dripping in jewels. On top of their heads are hats piled with accordion folds of material that then tie beneath their chins. The modern movie-goer, watching these women try to keep from moving about too much, can only imagine how stiflingly hot and uncomfortable it was.

As she walks past them with the love of her life Arthur “Boy” Capel, Chanel makes catty, but well-observed comments about these supposedly fashionable women. About one, wearing a huge necklace which spreads like a peacock’s tail across her chest, Chanel says, “She’s wearing the family silver.” About a group of others in enormous, uncomfortable hats she sneers, “Looks like a bunch of meringues.” When Capel offers to take her dancing that evening, she explains that she does not have any evening clothes. He counters that she should make a simple evening dress, like the one that she has on.

This is the impetus for Coco to create the famous “little black dress”, Chanel’s lifelong mantra which has become a staple of women’s attire down to the present day: a simple, comfortable, but elegant black cocktail dress that every woman should have in their closet and which can be worn to any dressy occasion. Chanel and the tailor whom she visits that afternoon have quite a discussion about how the dress is to be constructed; Chanel knows what she wants, but needs encouragement from Boy to keep the dress from looking too conventional. When Chanel and Capel waltz around the hotel ballroom later than evening, she stands out in a sea of more enormous white dresses, feathers, and frippery with her simple dress and hairstyle. It is a look which, despite the passage of nearly 100 years, would be completely at home at an evening event today.

It is in these moments of observation, and there are many, in which the filmmakers excel, by giving us a taste of materials, experiences, and the like which came to have an influence on Chanel as an artist. I use the term “artist” intentionally for, as a friend pointed out last night in discussion of the film, one cannot separate Chanel’s radical departure from the fashion of her own day without considering what was going on artistically at the same time. Picasso, Stravinsky, and Gropius were doing in painting, music, and architecture what Chanel was doing in fashion: learning the conventional and then rejecting it to create something new.

The filmmakers take full advantage of the environment that surrounds Chanel to not only provide hints and suggestions of what she will do later in life, but also to create beautiful works of art themselves. Many of the scenes have an autumnal palette to them, like the leaves falling at the House of Elrond, for the Gilded Age does not know that war is on the horizon and that the world they know is coming to an end. Indeed, the often-found-riding Chanel is, from their perspective, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, if they would but recognize it.

When Gabrielle Chanel makes the final transition to become Coco Chanel, the lighting changes: the golden glow disappears and black and white come to dominate the camera’s eye. There is one scene in which she is shown, working alone at night at her sewing machine not long after Boy’s death in an automobile accident, where the only source of light is a sort of gooseneck lamp. Virtually everything in the scene is jet black but for the bright scarlet fabric she is working on, and Chanel stops her work to reflect on and mourn her lost love. It is a short sequence but a brilliant composition, with its vivid slash of red cutting through the darkness reminding us of the work of Eduard Manet or Edward Hopper.

Audrey Tautou is, as ever, an actress who is not only capable of wonderful subtlety in her expressions, but also develops her character through such things as movement, posture, and manner of speaking. Because my French is practically non-existent, in fact I did not pick up on a further subtlety in the performance which was pointed out by a colleague. During the course of the film, just as she visually becomes more and more polished, as she moves up the ladder Chanel’s French also becomes more and more polished. By the final montage when Gabrielle, in the fully-realized persona of Coco Chanel, is seated at the top of her famous staircase watching the models parade past her, the transformation is complete: Tautou is like a Horst photograph of Chanel come to life.

It is interesting to consider the fact that, from a practical perspective, Chanel has had a far greater influence on people’s day-to-day lives than any of the aforementioned artistic giants of the early 20th century. Yet her contributions may not be recognized by the general public for the enormous significance they carry in this regard, in part because she made clothes, and in part because she was a woman. If you are at all aware of the rag trade, or at least have a curiosity about anthropology and sociological development in the 20th century, you will find much to muse over in this film. Even if you do not fit into these categories however, you will enjoy the stunning cinematography of this film in its re-creation of a now-departed age, as seen through the eyes of one of the figures responsible for ushering it out.

Alessandro Nivola and Audrey Tautou in “Coco avant Chanel”

Christ and Clothing

The fashion industry was born out of sin. Some people of course, would say that it has never left its birthplace.  From a Judeo-Christian perspective however, the existence of the rag trade, from haute couture to bargain basement, stems from Eden. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate of the fruit of the Tree of Life, the first thing that happened was that they realized that they were naked. They immediately began to cover themselves, and thus clothing came to be.

Jesus Himself, interestingly enough, gives us an interesting lesson on clothes both in His words and in His personal example, and this is something that I have been thinking about recently. First in a piece which I wrote recently about not looking like a schlub, as Jesus Himself instructs us, I thought about what Christ’s attitude toward what we wear is not a sort of all-or-nothing proposition completely rejecting concern for personal appearance. Yet also since this past Sunday’s Gospel reading from St. Matthew, where Christ tells us not to worry about what we are to eat or what we are to wear, and in particular for our discussion the example of the lilies of the field, He gives those of us who do care about our appearance some food for thought.

In the context of the sermon of course, Jesus is telling us not to concern ourselves with material worries, but rather with putting our trust first in God, who ultimately will provide what we need. And given the “don’t worry” message in this very affecting passage from Scripture, it somehow does not surprise me that so far it has turned up, albeit in different contexts, in several places so far this week, including in conversation with a friend worried about the U.S. Presidential race in 2012, and even in Sean McCarney’s most recent podcast of “Just A Catholic Dad”. There are many big questions we have which Jesus tries to allay for us by reminding us to keep our eyes fixed on the goal of Heaven, and not down here on things which are fleeting and temporary, whether good or bad.

However, I know many people, myself included, who sometimes find themselves in a quandary about what to wear; it is a natural human occurrence which hits some more frequently than others. The Gospel reading caused me to think about the question of what Christ Himself thought about the rag trade, an industry which has been in the news a great deal this week because of the Oscars this past Sunday, John Galliano going off the rails at Dior and into Hitler worship, and Paris Fashion Week being covered in the better news outlets. Vanity, of course, is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, but in some ways it is the least serious because it is ultimately ridiculous (just look at Lady Gaga.) Jesus does not want us to be dirty, weird, and unkempt, but at the same time He does not want us to obsess over what we look like, either; in what little we know of His own appearance, this bears out.

Despite the fact that we all think we know what Jesus looks like, because of the imagination of artists over the centuries, the truth is that we have absolutely no idea. There are no contemporary descriptions of Him, and no contemporary images of Him either. It is a reasonable assumption that He probably looked strikingly like His mother, because of the great mystery of the Immaculate Conception, but since we do not know what she looked like either this does not provide us with much of a clue. What we do know however is that, strange as this may sound, He had style.

One of the very few clues we have about Jesus’ personal taste comes from the Gospel of St. John. All four Gospels describe how, at the Crucifixion, the soldiers divided up His clothing among them in a game of chance, thereby unwittingly fulfilling the words of Psalm 22: “They divide my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots.” But St. John gives us the added detail that when it came to His tunic, the soldiers decided to cast lots for that piece in particular. We are told that it was a seamless garment, woven in one piece. This may seem a small and insignificant detail, but in another context it was recently brought home to me that a seamless garment is quite a special thing indeed.

Some weeks ago I purchased a rather unusual scarf in cotton jersey from Spain, which is not shaped like a standard, open rectangle but rather a very wide tube. It allows the owner to wear it in different ways, such as looped tightly several times around the neck, covering the head and mouth in very cold weather or when robbing banks/fomenting revolutions, worn loosely draped about the neck and shoulders, etc. In a pinch one could even tie up the corners and use it as a sort of knapsack. A lady of my acquaintance who is an avid seamstress admired it greatly, telling me that a garment such as this was a very rare thing indeed, and that one would need a special machine to weave it.

In the fashion world seamless garments are not easy to come by, in part because of cheap manufacturing in Asia which now predominates in the off-the-peg market. There are examples of seamless garments one can find in ready-to-wear, though typically when one does so they are rare and rather expensive. The legendary Italian design house of Missoni, for example, is very famous for its vibrant and distinctive woven garments which are often seamless; however unless you are very fortunate to pick up one of their sweaters on sale, you are looking at paying something approaching $1,000.00 for a single item because of the enormous amount of specialty work involved in producing it.

In the time of Jesus, it was a custom for mothers to weave a seamless tunic for their sons and present it to them when they finally left home. It is possible that this is what Jesus was wearing at the time of the Crucifixion, and there is something to support the idea that this was a garment woven by the Blessed Mother, for not only was St. John there with the Virgin Mary at the Crucifixion, but the Virgin Mary was given into his care by Christ, and we are told that St. John took her into his home from that very day. It is not a stretch of the imagination for us to conclude that she told him that she herself had made the garment and that it was seamless, something which St. John himself might not have noticed otherwise.

In point of fact, St. John is the only one of the Four Evangelists who mentions the detail of the garment being seamless. Alternatively of course, the tunic may have been a gift from one of His disciples, since we know that many women helped to support Him and the Apostles financially as they moved about Judea and Samaria. Admittedly, I prefer the notion that Jesus’ Mother made it for Him.

Even in Jesus’ day, seamless garments were very rare things indeed as they required a great deal of work and were therefore pricey. The High Priest himself, from the days of the Exodus, was required to wear one as part of his office. And as it happens this is an important fact for us to keep in mind: there is another seamless garment which plays a part in Christ’s Passion, but we often overlook this detail.

St. Matthew tells us, in his Gospel at 26:64-65, that the High Priest Caiphas tore his clothing in anger at what he perceived to be Jesus’ blasphemy. This is a problem for Caiphas, because according to liturgical rules he needs to wear a seamless robe in order to enter the Temple of God and perform his priestly function. We can assume that he owned others of course, but ironically enough the rending of his own seamless garment could in and of itself be considered an act of blasphemy – which of course no one calls out Caiphas for doing. The Levitical garment is destroyed, whereas Jesus’ remains whole. I do not need to point out to my Catholic readers, I hope, the great symbolic importance of this.

So here is Jesus, the itinerant Messiah, going about Israel preaching the Gospel and wearing a very distinctive, finely made tunic, almost certainly a gift from His Blessed Mother or the gift of one of the great ladies of the Early Church. (And as an aside, let us never forget that it is the ladies of the community who, more often than not, keep our parishes going on a day-to-day basis; that has not changed since the very first days of the Church.) He is not His Cousin, St. John the Baptist, wearing some sort of shift made out of camel’s hair; nor is He King Herod in all of his finery. He is wearing something that was probably beautifully made, but also very simple, and something which the people of His day would have recognized. They would have owned one themselves at some point in their lives, made by their mother, grandmother, aunt, sister, etc., as a gift recognizing their manhood and independence.

Jesus certainly does not care about material possessions – He Himself tells us in St. Luke’s Gospel that “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” But He does care about Christians going out and encouraging people to abandon their old ways of living and come into His Church. He does not ask us to do so by force of arms, but rather by strength of example. Indeed, many Catholics of my acquaintance could take a lesson from the well-dressed and polite young Mormons I often see in the mornings on my way to work, when I pass their center near my parish.

Is Jesus concerned then, about what brand of socks you wear or if your jacket is from last season? Absolutely not. However, unless you have a calling to be a mendicant or hermit – which most of us do not – you do have a calling as a Christian to take care of the body God has given you, and to remember that it is by your example that you will either draw people into or repel them from ever considering the Church.

Like it or not, we are creatures who respond to visual stimuli. Jesus Himself was fulfilling prophecy and creating a contrasting symbolism by wearing a seamless tunic, but it is worth considering that He did not eschew wearing such a nicely-made garment in favor of something coarser and cheaper. That should give us something to think about.

The Soldiers Casting Lots for Christ’s Garments by William Blake (1800)
Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge