Wardrobe mistress: Coco Chanel on the big screen

Audrey Tautou plays Coco Chanel in a biopic released this month – but the painstakingly-researched costumes are the real stars of the film, discovers Rosamund Witcher

There are fashion designers, and then there is Coco Chanel.

This month's big screen biopic, Coco Before Chanel, charts the style pioneer's rise from impoverished abandoned child to the toast of Paris, and has been eagerly awaited by anyone with even a passing interest in fashion. The film stars Audrey Tautou as the young Chanel, sewing for a tailor by day, singing cabaret by night and working to build a better life for herself, while finding her unique look and falling in love.

Chanel's story is a fascinating one, bursting with glamour and tragedy in equal measure. But it's the young designer's early wardrobe that will doubtless garner the most attention. Indeed, there can be no greater challenge for a costume designer than to dress a character acknowledged by many to be the world's most stylish woman. A fact that Catherine Leterrier knew only too well when she signed up to design the wardrobe of the young Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel.

"Of course there is pressure because Coco was the greatest," says Leterrier, who's no stranger to the world of fashion, having trained as a couturier and worked on Robert Altman's 1994 catwalk satire Prêt-à-Porter. "It is like, for an actor, when you play Shakespeare."

It helps that Tautou has the perfect combination of birdlike vulnerability and steely defiance to play the young Coco, as well as enough devil-may-care insouciance to experiment with men's hats and ties at a time when other women were trussed up in petticoats and corsets.

One of the challenges was that much of the film is set during the years when Chanel had very little money and her wardrobe would have been a far cry from the woven skirt suit and pearls that we think of as her uniform. Leterrier deals with this by showing the genesis of pieces that would go on to become classics. For example, Chanel uses a black cotton quilted sewing bag in the shape of the classic 2.55 (the famous chain strap would be added years later). And the stripy Breton top with palazzo pants is shown as being inspired by a trip to the beach, where a group of fishermen were wearing the blue and white banded top. "Coco adopted outfits that were worn by workers," explains Leterrier. "Something like the stripy shirt would never have been worn by society. So I imagined that she might have come across some sailors and interpreted their look in her own way."

Now that these pieces are such fashion staples, it's not easy to comprehend just how revolutionary Chanel's style was at the turn of the century. Practicality was the driving force behind the design of the 2.55 handbag: the long shoulder strap was inspired by soldiers' bags, and freed up women's hands. Now considered the epitome of understated chic, the handbag laughed in the face of convention at that time.

Leterrier believes part of the key to Chanel's success was her gamine beauty. "Couturiers in those days were not good-looking," she explains. "But Chanel was her own muse and she became an icon. Now all designers have a look: Marc Jacobs, John Galliano ..." One man with a definite look is Chanel's creative director Karl Lagerfeld. Although he didn't work on the designs with Leterrier, he did look through her sketches and approve Chanel's wardrobe. And most importantly, he allowed access to the label's archive so Leterrier could select vintage pieces for a fashion show scene. "That was so nice of him because I did not have to replicate the classic pieces," she smiles. "I would not have the pretension to redo them."

Like all French women, Leterrier has an ingrained sense of style. But unlike most, she received a fashion education from an early age. "My mother took me to the Christian Dior show when I was eight," she confesses. "For the French, fashion is a way of life."

Leterrier found she had free rein on deciding what the young Chanel should wear. "It is the director Anne Fontaine's first period movie," she explains, "and she didn't want to be bogged down with period details so she let me decide the look. The only thing she said is that Coco should always look different from any other person in the scene. So at the ball she wears black while everyone else is in colour." The scene is a pivotal one. These days, it's hard to imagine a little black dress being an outré option for a ball. But the image of a slinky Chanel standing out among the frothy confections that were then fashionable is a stark illustration of just how ahead of her time she was.

'Coco Before Chanel' is released on 31 July

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
filmIdris Elba responds to James Bond rumours on Twitter
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

    £45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

    £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

    Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

    £25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Assistant

    £18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have previous experience...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015