The march of fashion films continues with "Coco Before Chanel," opening Sept. 25. The biopic, directed by Anne Fontaine, stars Audrey Tautou as the legendary designer who was born poor, orphaned at a young age, grew up in a convent, and slept with a slew of important men throughout her life -- a roster that included the aristocratic horseman Etienne Balsan, the Grand Duke Dmitri of Russia and composer Igor Stravinsky. With each one, she advanced her station in life and her style, taking their pajamas, hats and tweed riding jackets and making them a uniform for the newly liberated woman.
The film focuses on her early years, including her influential affairs with Balsan and English sportsman Arthur "Boy" Capel, who lent her the money to open her first milliner's studio in Paris in 1910.
Costume designer Catherine Leterrier does a good job of demonstrating how radical Chanel's wardrobe choices were at the height of the Belle Epoque. The best style often comes out of limited choices, and it's a neat trick that Chanel was able to make austerity le mode for the upper classes.
Her crisp white collars and cuffs recall the habits worn by the nuns who raised her, and the flat top hats are reminiscent of the straw boaters worn at horse races. It is thrilling to see her at a tailoring shop in Deauville, creating the first little black dress to wear that evening, and on the dance floor, standing out in a sea of ruffly confections and meringue-like hats. It's also a revelation when she wears a striped fisherman's shirt over a long skirt with a grosgrain ribbon for a belt, and white silk men's pajamas with black patent Mary Janes.
Chanel's dogged individualism comes through loud and clear in the film, but her ambition less so. And it's difficult to square this fairy-tale portrait with what we know of the designer in her later years, about her involvement with a high-ranking Nazi officer during World War II, and subsequent war crimes charges (quickly dropped, some say because of an affair with the Duke of Westminster).
Still, it's fascinating to think about how such simple style gestures -- a paring down from the bejeweled excess of times not so unlike those we find ourselves recovering from today -- evolved into a global luxury brand selling items as varied as surfboards and rain boots splashed with CC logos. Guess they're leaving that for "Coco After Chanel."