Dangerous Design: Sonia Rykiel, Victorians, and Burkinis

​As the design world today mourns the loss of iconic French designer Sonia Rykiel, two recent controversies involving what one should be allowed to wear in public make me wonder what she might have made of these stories.

Ms. Rykiel catapulted to fame back in 1963, when Audrey Hepburn sought out her boutique in Paris after seeing one of the designer’s “poor boy” sweaters on the cover of Elle, and bought 5 of them on the spot. She employed a mostly dark palette punctuated by electric colors and designs from the Pop Art movement. She was particularly praised for her knitwear and for the use of unusual textures in her work; I am fortunate enough to have several somber but pleasing ties designed by her house. When it comes to style, you could not get much further away from Ms. Rykiel’s aesthetic than the prim and prudish Victorian era, even though she herself was famous for her almost Pre-Raphaelite auburn hair.

Today however, it is Victorian prudishness which is considered shocking. As this article from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation describes, Washington State couple Gabriel and Sarah Chrisman recently took a trip to Canada to celebrate their 14th wedding anniversary. Mr. and Mrs. Chrisman take the idea of period living far beyond simply putting on old clothes at the weekend for something like a Civil War reenactment, and actually try to live as much a Victorian lifestyle as possible – albeit with a very 21st century divergence, in that they blog about their experiences. Thus, when the couple visited Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia during their vacation, they were unpleasantly surprised to be asked to change clothes or leave, since the park maintains a “no costumes” policy.

Then yesterday, news stories and photographs surfaced from France, in which police officers were shown asking Muslim women who had covered themselves up on the Riviera to remove their Victorian – or perhaps better put, Medieval Revival – coverings or leave the beach. The commentariat went ballistic, as summarized in this opinion piece in the New York Times. There were photographic posts of men in wet suits or nuns in their habits at the seaside, asking what was the difference between the French allowing such garb to be worn at the beach, but not allowing Muslim women in France to cover themselves up in the so-called “burkini” or similar garments.

Being French and a member of the Legion of Honor, I would imagine that Ms. Rykiel would mock the Canadians but side with her own countrymen. The French have a habit of chastising everyone else while making exceptions for themselves. Given how many times their country has been subjected to Islamic terrorism in recent years, there is a tendency even among the left-leaning French to categorize Fundamentalist Islamic forms of dress as an actual public danger, rather than as an expression of modesty.
That being said, a ban on the wearing of costumes in a park seems to me just as untenable as insisting that women remove their clothing at the beach. Do we draw the line of acceptability of either practice at whether the space is publicly or privately owned? Who gets to decide what is a “costume”, or what makes an article of clothing dangerous? I would be curious to read some debate in the comments section.

Sonia Rykiel (1930-2016)

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”