Fashion Talk: Justine Picardie on Coco Chanel at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Chanel's latest biographer reveals the person behind the Icon, as part of the V&A's Friday Night Lectures.

Written by Sally Mumby-Croft

Illustration by Lesley Barnes

Coco Chanel, the name synonymous with Paris fashion, that has been so carefully cultivated by Karl Largerfield. He feels at times, as if a gentle caretaker as well as being an innovative Fashion Designer who is constantly reinventing the Chanel Staples. With each new season Largerfield alters the tweeds, the stars, the monochrome, the pearls or whilst still upholding the simplistic beauty, which Chanel originally conjured. Chanel is coveted, and her sense of style has embedded itself amongst the designs of the high street, during the talk I found myself playing spot the influence, from the cropped bobs to the presence of stripes on pratically every other member of the audience who found themselves at the V&A that blustery Friday night.

The talk was held by Justine Picardie in celebration of the publication of her new book; Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life. Picardie is a journalist for the Telegraph, an author who writes fiction and non fiction and who has spent the last 13 years researching the life of Coco Chanel. This was an opportunity to discover the person behind the label, that was too good too miss.

Illustration by Joana Faria

A talented speaker, Justine enraptured the audience with tales of Chanel’s rise from rags to riches polevaulting through French Society’s regimented conventions. Chanel made ignoring social conventions a habit of a lifetime, luckily, not only for Haute Couture but for women everywhere who wanted to wear trousers.

Not for Chanel the corsets of early 1900’s France – no, the most striking photographs of Chanel shown at the talk, documented her investment in a shocking departure from the norm, single handily promoting trousers and the eponymous Breton stripe. Importantly (I am speaking here as someone who despises how reliant high heels make me on those I am travelling with) Chanel was an avid wearer of the flat shoe – not for her the gravity defying, walk preventing spindly heels that are oh so popular not only on the catwalk but that shop nestling within the heart of Oxford Street; Topshop.

Illustration by Kelly Angood

“Fashion is very dark, what we wear is what we cover up” Coco Chanel

Justine Picardie covered the usual ground of Chanel’s relationship with men, starting with Boy Capel and touching upon her life spent fishing in Scotland with the Duke of Westminister. Through whom Coco met Winston Churchill in the early 1920’s. The discovery of a picture of the two together lead Picard to explore Chanel’s reported relationship with a German Soldier -via the Winston Churchill archives- which may not have been the action of a French sympathiser, as what was reported; but a (slightly naive…) plan -devised perhaps by Coco and regaled to Winston Churchill – to bring the war to an early end. This may seem rather glib, but to find out more and the outcome of Picardie trip to the archives? Sadly the author left this announcement within the pages of her book.

Illustration by Maria del Carmen SmithAn aside, notice how Chanel sits on the horse in jodphurs, rather than side saddle, a fairly political statement at a time when most women were bound in corsets.

It was the perfect talk – full of teasers about the book’s contents alongside interesting insights into the development of the identity of Coco Chanel – from the influence of the monastery where she grew up where the star mosaics would later inspire her future designs. To her meeting Boy Capel and Duke of Westminister (with whom she travelled to Scotland and discovered the Scottish Mills who produced the now famous Chanel Tweed).

Chanel was funded by Boy Capell, the man seated on the horse in the above illustration, however, as the Fashion House began to produce revenue, Chanel paid back every penny. From the start Coco was to be an independent women – an undeniably lucky, for her connections with Boy helped her attract clients, but a financially independent one nevertheless.

Illustration by Abby Wright

Picardie touched upon the importance of certain numbers to Chanel including the infamous number 5, to the constant use and development of the star motif. In a picture of Chanel’s apartment, Picardie touched upon the presence of tarot cards and the importance of magical thinking alongside Chanel’s training as a seamstress in the creation of the House’s style. Justine attributes this ‘magical thinking’ to her time spent as a child growing up in an ancient monastery, suggesting that the epoynmous Chanel star was inspired by the star mosaics made by the Medieval Monks who originally inhabited the monastery. For more detail, I’m afraid you are going to have to read the book!

Illustration by Antonia Parker

During the talk (which occur weekly on a Friday evening) Justine Picardie described fashion as “a series of Hauntings” and finished the talk with a wish for a book on the continuation of Chanel by Karl Largerfield, to conclude that such a book could only be written once Largerfield had left Chanel and quite possibly this planet…

Coco Chanel, The Legend and the Life by Justine Picardie is certainly on my christmas list!

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