Coco Chanel in Hollywood

May 31, 2017

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Since I had never read anything about Chanel in America I was very surprised to come across an article on this subject in the Hollywood 2017 issue of Vanity Fair. Writer, Sam Kashner, has chronicled a fascinating piece on a very expensive misstep in “fashion coupled with cinema.” Take a look.

Coco Chanel at work on one of her designs

THE INVITATION

A long courtship, by studio mogul Samuel Goldwyn, convinced Chanel that, at the age of 47 she should work in Hollywood. They needed Chanel but she didn’t need them because she had been a household name in Europe and America since the age of 30. She had reworked haute couture and created Chanel No. 5 – she stood for high style, privilege and good taste. Today, well over 100 years after her birth, Chanel is valued at $7.2 billion and her perfume is sold somewhere in the world every 30 seconds.

Goldwyn, who ran United Artists, believed that “women went to movies to see how other women dressed.” As movie audiences dwindled after the Wall Street crash of 1929, he was looking for new ways to bring in moviegoers.

THE ARRIVAL

In 1931 she arrived in Hollywood with a guaranteed $1 million to appear in Hollywood twice a year to “dress Goldwyn’s stars, both onscreen and off.” (This was when the average American earned $1,850 per year and the rent for a house was $18 per month). For stars such as Gloria Swanson, the image of the star would meld seamlessly with their screen glamour.

Initially, Chanel refused Goldwyn’s generous offer because she didn’t want to be seen as Goldwyn’s employee.  She made it clear to the press that she was a free agent and told The New York Times that she wasn’t becoming a “costume designer.” She stated that, “I have not brought my scissors with me. Later perhaps, when I go back to Paris, I will create and design gowns six months ahead for actresses in Mr. Goldwyn’s pictures.”

When Chanel arrived at Union Station in Los Angeles, Greta Garbo was there to greet her. At a Hollywood reception in her honor she met Marlene Dietrich, Claudette Colbert and directors George Cukor and Erich von Stroheim, who clicked his heels while kissing Chanel’s hand, asking, “You are a seamstress I believe?” Axel Madsen in his 1991 book, Chanel: A Woman of Her Own notes that she forgave this remark by saying, “Such a ham, but what style!”

THE INITIAL WORK

Her first movie was Palmy Days, an Eddie Cantor-Busby Berkeley musical. It was explained to her that film wardrobes had to be “photogenic” and that subtlety would not translate to the screen. Or, in couture, the mannequins were meant to enhance the design, but in films the designs were meant to show off the actresses.

THE RETURN TO PARIS

On her way back to France she toured New York stores and was most impressed with Klein’s on Union Square where she saw designer dresses that sold for $20 on Fifth Avenue, but were $4 in cheaper fabric at Klein’s. Chanel even loved the signs that said, “Don’t Try to Steal -- Our Detectives Are Everywhere” that appeared in several languages.

THE RESULT

After three films the collaboration between Chanel and Goldwyn was deemed less than successful by the press, on both coasts. Depression-era films glittered with silk gowns and feathers and sparkled with diamonds. Chanel’s muted tweeds and jerseys didn’t have the same pizzazz. “The most elegant Chanel was a washout on the screen,” said one costumer.

22 YEARS LATER

Haute couture came back to Hollywood in the form of Hubert de Givenchy’s designs for Audrey Hepburn in the 1954 Billy Wilder film Sabrina. Seven more films launched the chic postwar look that still resonates today.

Shaun Nelson-Henrick



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