People and Fashion in the Novel
Just then the door opened, and a small, dark-haired woman with a broad, strong-featured face walked into the room. At thirty-six, Mademoiselle had the short, wiry build of a twelve-year-old boy, and she was dressed simply in a gray jersey suit with a white blouse. The brown curls bobbing around her ears glistened with health; her dark gypsy eyes blazed under thick black brows. She barely glanced at my face, but she took an immediate interest in my dress—a black, low-waisted wool with a white organdy collar and cuffs—noting the perfect fit, the fine cut of the bodice, the graceful skirt that traced the hips. "Raise your arms, girl!" she commanded. I obeyed. "Ah, sleeves the fit properly." She clapped her hands like a delighted child. "Who made it?"
"I did," I said. Mademoiselle hired me on the spot.
Gossip in the atelier held that Boy Capel still paid most of her bills. Why else would Mademoiselle put up with his marriage to another woman? The year before, he’d wed the daughter of an English lord. Now, he didn’t dare appear in public with Mademoiselle, lest they get written up in the scandal sheets..."You know, it was chance that I ended up making dresses," [Mademoiselle] said, studying her reflection over her shoulder. "I could have done something else with my life. It’s not dresses that obsess me; it’s work." She put her hands on her hips and looked directly at me. "Varlet, there is time for only two things. Work and love. That leaves no other time. Love is very important. Don’t think it isn’t. A woman who isn’t loved is lost."
Misia was Mademoiselle’s ticket into the haut monde. Everyone in the atelier knew it was Misia who’d introduced her to Picasso, Cocteau, Stravinsky, Diaghilev and Misia’s lover, the Spanish painter José Sert. In her grandly beautiful youth, Misia had been a muse to the stars of late-nineteenth century art from Bonnard to Vuillard. I went to her house once for a fitting and saw their portraits of her on the walls. Now she was bulky and faded.
Patou didn’t flirt; he didn’t have to. He knew a seamstress could live for a month on one intense glance from him. Everyone was in love with him – the seamstresses, Madame Lucille, Suzette, the mannequins, the clients. He was handsome, successful, and rich, a war hero who now devoted himself to dressing and pleasing women.
Vionnet folded her arms in her lap. It looked comfortable enough to crawl into, too comfortable. I’d grown accustomed to Mademoiselle’s cold disdain, even begun to think it somehow a necessary component of couture. I wasn’t sure I could get used to working for his kind, grandmotherly woman.
Vionnet’s smile disappeared, and she leveled her gaze at me. "How long have you worked for Chanel, dear?"
"And why do you want to change positions?"
I hadn’t mentioned that I’d been sick and lost my job. "It’s always been my dream to work for you."
Until a few days ago, I’d never thought of working for her. Vionnet, though, accepted the compliment as her due. "Chanel!" she cried, tossing her hands into the air. "That milliner who calls herself a couturier!"
The next morning, a bright beautiful June day, I returned to my workroom at rue Cambon. It was a relief to be here, standing under the aluminum lights, seeing the fierce concentration of the seamstresses crowded at the scarred wood tables behind soft mounds of gleaming fabric. The click and slice of scissors seemed to swirl the women’s chatter around the tables and dress forms on which half-sewn garments were held together with thousands of basting threads. Through an open window, a whiff of clean air mingled with the citrusy tang of new silk.
As I became more preoccupied with Jacques, Madame Duval pushed me harder at work. One morning, she arrived with a copy of the American magazine Harper’s Bazaar under her arm and excitedly pointed out an illustration of a Chanel outfit, the first time one of Mademoiselle’s designs had appeared in a magazine. The dress was a loose fitting silk chemise with a deep V neck and long narrow sleeves ending in lace cuffs. There was no bodice or waist; a long scarf glided seductively along the hips. The mannequin also wore a broad-brimmed hat with a flat piece of sable twisted along one side of the close-fitting crown, echoing the sable muff she held in her right hand. The dress’s unstructured shape, its low waist and raised him, it’s skin-baring neckline and simple accessories were in sharp contrast to the fussy models from the other couturiers. "Look at this! With one outfit Mademoiselle has done away with the entire Belle Époque!" pronounced Madame Duval. "Leave it to the Americans to have the courage to print it."
Most of the models I worked on were loose and easy, even the evening gowns had the relaxed, casual feel of sports clothes. There was something new in the air of Paris, a kind of youthful openness. You could see it on the street, in the way the shop girls and young wives wore their short skirts and belted jackets, their floaty chemise dresses and big - collared coats. Mademoiselle had caught their insouciance and refined it into chic.
Truth be told, I preferred Mademoiselle’s work. A lot of the clothes I made for Patou were clumsy: heavy, ankle-length skirts worked in panels, coats with military frogging, jackets with huge collars and cuffs. Nothing he did that season, though, was as unflattering as his shepherdess models – froufrou dresses with low waists and bell-like skirts that fanned out at the hips. I made toiles for several of these dresses, including one that was to be made up in stiffened white organdy, called Dolly, after Dolly Varden, the flirtatious character in Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge, who was fond of flashy clothes. I was not happy that Patou had assigned it to Jane, an American mannequin, whose tall, angular figure ill suited the model’s round, feminine lines.
Near the fence, I saw Fabrice leading Térese by the hand. She was wearing a green taffeta dress embroidered with pink silk flowers. Her skirt ballooned at the hips and narrowed around the ankles. An elastic strap affixed to the hem made walking tortuous, and the couple proceeded at a snail’s pace.
I wandered over to the metal rayon holding the collection toiles. I looked through them eagerly, noting the youthful silhouettes, feeling relieved to be free of Patou’s shepherdess dresses and intricate godets. I loved the collection’s buoyant feeling. Every model was different, and every model had its charm – from the casual dresses and lighthearted tunics, to the suits with cardigan jackets and pleated skirts and capes that would be trimmed in fur. The evening gowns were a marvel. Floating above the ankles, they were held up with delicate straps and cut low in back and loose around the waist and hips.
It was doubtful Amanda Nichols would ever appreciate the hours of labor that had gone into this suit – the careful cutting, the meticulous needlework, the fine finishings. Amanda would wear the suit once or twice, then it would be banished to a closet, its life drooping away. Maybe some day, long after she’d forgotten it, she’d happen upon it by chance and slip it on, marveling at the perfect stitching, the impeccable fit, the sturdy fabric. For a moment, she might let herself think of the skill and craftsmanship behind this lovely model. After all, she is a connoisseur of art. But probably she’d decide it was an old model, out of season, and give it to the maid.
The couturière’s arms swung in arcs like a dancer’s as she draped the fabric across Yvette’s hips and chest. Gradually, the outline of a simple sleeveless gown began to take shape, molded with a hundred pins. Mademoiselle stepped aside to study her work. the room was silent except for the trumpet screech of car horns wafting up from the street. "No, that’s not right," Mademoiselle said finally.
We pulled the pins out, and she started again, kneading and pulling the fabric, falling to her knees, then standing on tiptoe, then bending deeply at the waist. She worked with her entire body, talking to herself as if she were in a trance. "Oh, yes, this is beautiful...This is something for me...Ah, that’s the way it should look...No, no, we don’t need any fullness here."
Great success has attended the absolutely simple model of burgundy crepe de chine sketched at the left on page 56. It is closely wrapped around the figure and has cascades of material at each side, which end touching the floor. With it is carried a huge fan of uncurled ostrich, the sort of fan which always decorates the table in Chanel’s salon; the slippers and stockings exactly match the gown, so that the effect of gorgeousness which the gown undeniably gives comes solely from the color and is obtained by such simple means that one wonders how it is achieved.
Simplicity, the sort of simplicity that always has been and always will be expensive, is the characteristic of the Chanel frock; but once the winter gaieties of Paris begin again, there will be no models more often seen than hers, for her success is distinctly among the true Parisiennes.
Vogue, November 1, 1919
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