hen we think of the word “fashion,” we see that it has an interesting dual meaning. The first is to make or to fashion, from Latin facere, to make, which lingers in the French modern word faire, meaning to make or to do. “Fashion” also harks back to two old French words (c. 1300), fasoun, having to do with form, shape or appearance, and façon, which not only includes construction and pattern, but also the manner in which something is done.
Illustrated French Dictionary
Reader: What does this mean, exactly, the manner in which something is done?
Me: Here’s an example of façon meaning manner in the modern day: Chaque génération raconte son histoire à sa façon. Each generation tells its history in its own way.
Reader: I get it. Chanel makes a dress in her own way, à sa façon.
Me: That’s it, buddy!
So when we turn to a fashion house, such as Chanel, we are attuned to the shape and form, or to put it another way, the construction and the pattern of its luxury goods. And secondly, its manner of creating its products in its own way, à sa façon. In fact, these two meanings go hand in hand when we look at what Chanel, a premiere luxury brand, has managed to accomplish.
Reader: Accomplished à sa façon.
Me : While you are slightly annoying, Dear Reader, I think what you say is especially relevant to Chanel, who certainly brought a unique signature to her brand.
Me: Let me interrupt. Chanel was started in 1910 in Paris by a remarkable woman named Gabrielle, “Coco” Chanel.
Why Coco? Chanel said herself that “Coco” derived from the first syllable of the word, “cocotte,” a French term of endearment for a woman or a girl. (We are leaving aside its meaning as a casserole dish.) In the interesting coincidences of the ways of the world, it is also a term for a woman of the demi-monde (courtesan is the fancy word for these women) and in slang, cocotte is a word for cheap smelling perfume.
Chanel’s first venture into the world of beautiful fashion was via hats, thanks to her beau, Etienne Balsan, who was a textile businessman. She used the ground floor of his Parisian apartment. The apartment was frequented by horsemen and businessmen and, importantly, their mistresses, giving Chanel access to these women from the demi-monde, who were women of fashion. The demi-monde, or half-world, refers to courtesans or elite prostitutes. The gentlemen who frequent this half-world have somehow escaped having a term for themselves.
Today, when we think of her fashion design, she is still known for these skirt-and-jacket suits. And most especially, for the little black dress. And in her elaborated brand, to be sure, we all know the perfume Chanel #5, named after the fifth perfume sample of ten.
The next beau, Arthur “Boy” Capel, set Chanel up in her proper millinery shop.
We don’t think, really, of hats when it comes to Chanel. Her genius was to get rid of the corset that women had to endure. And in its stead, offer more relaxed fashion for women. Oddly, World War I influenced her design. Here’s what happened to fashion in WWI from General Wiki. “The First World War (1914–1918), affected European fashion through scarcity of materials, and the mobilisation of women. By that time, Chanel had opened a large dress shop at 31 Rue Cambon, near the Hotel Ritz in Paris. Among the clothes for sale were flannel blazers, straight-line skirts of linen, sailor blouses, long sweaters made of jersey fabric, and skirt-and-jacket suits.”
Little Black Dress
HOW DID SHE LEARN TO SEW?
Click on the link to find out!
Fast forward to the Second World War. Chanel’s boyfriend now was Hans Günther von Dincklage, a Nazi intelligence officer, whom she’d met in Paris. It was assumed she was a spy, and in the thick of the war, she was used as one.
“By order of General Walter Schellenberg, of the Sicherheitsdienst, Chanel was dispatched to London on a mission to communicate to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill the particulars of a “separate peace” plan proposed by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, who sought to avoid surrendering to the Red Army of the Soviet Russians.” Imagine, the fashion designer.
SURVIVAL SKILLS INCLUDING CHURCHILL
It all gets even more dramatic. “At War’s end, upon the Allied liberation of France, Chanel was arrested for having collaborated with the Nazis. In September 1944, the Free French Purge Committee, the épuration, summoned Chanel for interrogation about her collaborationism, yet, without documentary evidence of or witnesses to her collaboration with the Nazis, and because of Churchill’s secret intervention in her behalf, the épuration released Coco Chanel from arrest as a traitor to France. Despite having been freed by the political grace of Churchill, the strength of the rumours of Chanel’s Nazi collaboration had made it not possible for her to remain in France; so Coco Chanel and her German lover, Hans Günther von Dincklage, went into an eight-year exile to Switzerland,” after which she managed to reestablish herself in Paris where she died at 87 (Wikipedia).
51 AVENUE MONTAIGNE
Just off the Champs Elysées is a Chanel boutique where you can be fitted for the perfect Chanel wardrobe. I arrived, off the street, so to speak. The building was simple and elegant. It was a large stone structure with high windows, and a medieval fence topped with gold. Inside, it was very lovely with furniture for the shoppers, and a regal staircase. I wandered around in the store and I took a photo. Then I asked someone if that was alright. Better to ask forgiveness than permission, as they say. He said to me, in French, of course. We don’t do that. (On ne fait pas.) In the course of my exploration, I saw many, many of the skirt and jacket suits with their three buttons. It was as if they had been plucked from the wardrobe of Jackie Kennedy.
“Madame,” a gentleman said. “May I have your name, please? We will schedule you directly for an appointment with one of our representatives.” And had I been in the mood or in the monde, I would have enjoyed my very own fashion expert, together with a free cup of coffee. I did decline, happy with my jeans and cashmere sweater. (Have I told you about my sweater: white, turtle neck, long and so so soft in cold cold Paris.) I wanted to take a video of a video they had on a loop playing in the store. They said, in a conspiratorial façon that it was on the Website. Well, larger than life camels and owls and well, see for yourself!
Somehow, on the face of it, fashion and the play Waiting for Godot do not seem made for each other. However, if we look more closely, we see two minimalist illustrations of the idea of fashion. First, the hats. Beckett could not describe too much about what his characters wore, but he was certain of the fact they wore hats. Bowler hats. And secondly, if we look at his play as what he fashioned or made, we can certainly see he did not follow the crowd, Beckett, but he wrote à sa façon. Yes, you might say, Dear Reader, but what did Godot wear? Will we ever know? Maybe Chanel would like to do a fashion show based on the play? Two vagabonds in bowler hats would strut down the runway. Maybe the tree could follow? Godot sending up smoke signals? Use your imagination, people!
Thanks for this post! I just learned about Les Demi- mondaines… as I was at an expo about Sarah Bernhardt, the great French actress, and found out that she was a Demi mondaine!
Love this one, especially the asides ! Maryama