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Modernism à la mode

<strong>The Allure of Chanel</strong>

<em>Paul Morand</em>

Pushkin Press,200pp, £12

Paul Morand first met Gabrielle Chanel at a New Year's Eve party in 1921 at her salon in the rue Cambon, Paris. She was almost 40 by then, and for a decade had created her own, and then other women's, clothes more by appropriation and elimination than by design. As a provincial kept woman, she had worn adaptations of male sportswear; later, opening a hat shop with her English lover standing surety, she extended her sculptural experiments in millinery into bold new outfits: lean, mean suits and dresses in cheapo jerseys, black, beige, greys. Modernism was her métier, and also her milieu - among the other guests who foraged that evening at the buffet in her fitting rooms were Picasso, Cocteau, Braque, Satie and Lifar.

Morand prefaced this book, first published in French in 1976, with a paragraph that dated the night as the start of a future in which perfumes would not be called Autumn Dream, but assigned a number. The fitting rooms were sprayed with Chanel No 5, blended in 1921 from abstract synthetics, more modernism.

The short preface described the little black bull Coco, nostrils flared with vengeful anger, better than anyone had. He called her the exterminating angel of premodern fashion, a Eumenides, Nemesis herself, albeit Nemesis with a camellia corsage. Morand's judgements weren't just based on that distant midnight among the pins and canapés, but on many evenings at a hotel in St Moritz, circa 1947, when Chanel had summoned him as amanuensis, perhaps to polish her pronouncements for publication, although more likely she just used him for talking therapy.

Nobody else was listening to either of them. Both he and she, anti-Semites and passionately Francophile collaborationists, were unemployed and in deserved exile, given that Morand had backed Vichy during the Occupation, while Chanel had shared her wartime suite at the Ritz with a German officer lover, only to be released by a French cleansing committee three hours after her 1944 arrest because she threatened to reveal a hot secret about her old friend Churchill. The fury of Chanel's boredom and isolation snorts through Morand's prosy transcriptions of her speech; she lived for work - not fashion, she despised the actual frocks - but work itself, the strict obligation to maintain women in the simplicity, mobility and dignity to which she had reduced them in the 1920s. Naturally, Chanel lied to Morand as she had to everyone else, mostly about her bastard, pauper origins and her grands amours: she was fairly accurate about Boy Capel and the Duke of Westminster, but mocked Igor Stravinsky and the artist Paul Iribe, and kept silence about the surrealist poet Pierre Reverdy, whom she had adored.

Chanel's aggression, her bullishness that roared into bullying - wear this, don't wear that; whatever they wear, women are contemptible, confused, not worth befriending; they all get old and ugly; they are manipulated by couture's repellent "inverts" (1946 parlance for homo sexuals) - make it knackering to read Morand's interview. What an ego she must have had, even for couture, to interpret a 1936 strike of her seamstresses as a cry for her personal attention, rather than a demand for a minimum wage: how she must have resented her youthful poverty to slap her financial largesse so hard in the faces of the rich. Her analysis of her close yet loathly amity with Misia Sert, serial wife, muse and patron to artists, is disturbing and sounds like Colette about the period of that bitter novella, Julie de Carneilhan; Chanel and Misia practised malice and spite on each other for decades to avert the ennui of being senior arbiters of taste.

But such few pages of Chanel's dictation to Morand that are not directly about herself are swell, because, as a born outsider who defended her renegade status to the end, she saw the arts and society with the eye of an Auvergnate convent floor-scrubber. No surprise that when she costumed Jean Renoir's 1939 film La Règle du jeu, she reserved the wittiest outfits for the lady's maid, who is worth ten of the demanding mesdames she serves. Chanel was early to understand that the imperial Russianness of the Ballets Russes was for export only (she had bankrolled Serge Diaghilev, and remembered that he kept his trousers up with safety pins). She was also amused that Westminster's huge fortune was disbursed less on his yacht than on maintaining multiple homes, each with a full staff, a hothouse to ripen out-of-season fruit, and libraries stocked with dozens of magazines on subscription, none read, few even flicked through.

She had stared right into the superchilled core of fashion and remained unimpressed. Then she despatched minions to socialise on her behalf, and retreated alone to her atelier to wrangle the easy fit of an armhole, on which the physical freedom of modern women depends.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess