October 23, 2012
This weekend, I saw the documentary, The Eye Has to Travel, a portrait of the legendary fashion editor and larger-than-life eccentric Diana Vreeland. Just like her friend Coco Chanel, who was well-known for her quips, or Chanelisms as they were often called, Vreeland also had her own one-liners on life and style.
Frequently during the film Vreeland tossed around the word “vulgar.” “Never fear being vulgar, just boring,” was one of her familiar sayings. Another was “Vulgarity is a very important ingredient in life. I’m a great believer in vulgarity—if it’s got vitality. A little bad taste is like a nice splash of paprika. We all need a splash of bad taste—it’s hearty, it’s healthy, it’s physical. I think we could use more of it. No taste is what I’m against.”
Vulgar. I don’t hear the word that often. It doesn’t appear much in the lexicon of fashion writing these days. But I have been more attuned to it since I’ve been reading excerpts of Etiquette by Emily Post for the series on dress codes and etiquette. The lady of manners uses the descriptor repeatedly and relentlessly in the chapter “The Clothes of a Lady.”
The Oxford dictionary defines vulgar as: “1) Lacking sophistication or good taste: a vulgar check suit, 2) making explicit and offensive reference to sex or bodily functions; coarse and rude: a vulgar joke, 3) dated characteristic of or belonging to ordinary people.”
I’ve excerpted a few (amusing) quotes from the 1945 edition of Post’s Etiquette from the chapter, “The Clothes of a Lady.” (Italics are my own.)
“The Clothes of the Lady” chapter introduction:
Not even the most beautiful background could in itself suggest a brilliant gathering if the majority of those present were frumps—or vulgarians! Rather be frumpy than vulgar! Much. Frumps are often celebrities in disguise—but a person of vulgar appearance is pretty sure to be vulgar all through.
Vulgar clothes are those which, no matter what the fashion of the moment may be, are always too elaborate for the occasion. . . . A woman may be stared at because she is ill-behaved, or because she looks like a freak of the circus or because she is enchanting to behold. If you are much stared at, what sort of stare do you usually meet?
Frumps are not very typical of America; vulgarians are somewhat more numerous; but most numerous of all are the quietly dressed, unnoticeable men and women who make up the representative backbone in every city.
On the Woman Who is Chic
’Chic’ (pronounced sheek) is a borrowed adjective, but unfortunately no word in our language expresses its meaning. Our adjective ‘elegant’—which before it was vulgarized, most nearly approached it—rather suggested the mother of the young woman who is chic.
On Principles of Taste Apart From Fashion
A lady in a ball dress with nothing added to the head looks a little like being hatless in the street. This sounds like a contradiction of the criticism of the vulgarian. But because a diadem or a jeweled filet or other ornament is beautiful at a ball, it does not follow that all these should be put on together and worn in a restaurant—which is just what the vulgarian would do.
Emily Post, obviously an anti-vulgarian, and Diana Vreeland, an advocate for that trait over dullness, would have had a heated debate about its merits or lack thereof. I’d stand on the sidelines, enthralled and entertained, as both of their maxims feel so far removed from my life, and, in my opinion, the way we describe—and clothe—ourselves today. Though I would side with Vreeland.
August 20, 2012
Yesterday would have been the 129th birthday of Coco Chanel, one of the most stylish Leos in history (if fashion were, for some reason, arranged by the Zodiac). Born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel on August 19, 1883, to very humble beginnings, Coco, as she became known in her 20s—either because she was 1) a poseur, or performer, who danced to a similarly named song or 2) because of her cocaine-related proclivities—was determined to change her destiny. Not only did she succeed in pulling herself up from her well-designed, perfectly tailored bootstraps (or preferably, low-heeled pumps), but her contributions forever influenced the way we think about fashion even down to this summer’s Olympics.
Think Chanel and a few things come to mind immediately: The classic wool jersey suit with its boxy jacket and gold buttons. The quilted bag. Pearls. The little black dress. No. 5 fragrance. Steamy love affairs. (And a few more obscure details I didn’t know: She popularized the suntan. Marilyn Monroe, who loved No. 5, became the perfume’s first spokeswoman. And, by the way, it seems likely that Chanel was a Nazi spy. We know she was a person of strong convictions, and her beliefs became more radicalized throughout her relationship with German aristocrat Baron von Dincklage during World War II.) With her bluntness and polarizing views, she had a way of telling it like it is. Those maxims have become known as Chanelisms.
In honor of her birth, here are ten favorite Chanelisms. Some I appreciate because decades later, they still resonate. Others sounds strangely similar to my mother’s own opining. And then there are those that are amusingly dated, but full of timeless melodrama.
“Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.”
“A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous.”
“I don’t care what you think about me. I don’t think about you at all.”
“There is no time for cut-and-dried monotony. There is time for work. And time for love. That leaves no other time.”
“I wanted to give a woman comfortable clothes that would flow with her body. A woman is closest to being naked when she is well-dressed.”
“Fashion is architecture: It is a matter of proportions.”
“There are people who have money and people who are rich.”
“Fashion has become a joke. The designers have forgotten that there are women inside the dresses. Most women dress for men and want to be admired. But they must also be able to move, to get into a car without bursting their seams! Clothes must have a natural shape.”
“Great loves too must be endured.”
“A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future.”