Rhiannon Harries: Can the ugly facts really kill the beautiful myth?

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The Independent Online

At some point in the past 10 years it became mandatory for everyone to have – alongside an all-time favourite album and an item you'd save if the house was on fire – a personal style icon. People have been admiring the way others dress and attempting to emulate it for far longer than that, of course; it's just that latterly it has been standardised into a worthy artistic pursuit rather than imitation born of pure and simple envy.

The list of names duly trotted out in response to the style-icon question is surprisingly sparse; I'd wager that in at least 50 per cent of cases, fashion designer Coco Chanel gets a mention, and more often than not by people whose habitual clothing is, to put it politely, some distance removed from the impeccable lines of the French couturière.

I might well give the autopilot Chanel answer, were I asked. It was Chanel, after all, who popularised elegant but practical styles for the new woman. Expressing admiration for her is shorthand for saying you like nice clothes but you're not shallow, honest.

But since seeing Coco & Igor, the second biopic about the designer to hit our screens within a year, I find myself rather less inclined to hold her up as a beacon of feminine empowerment.

Touted as the low-key, high-brow take on the Chanel story, it's a beautiful but cold little film, tracing a short-lived affair between Chanel and composer Igor Stravinsky. In it, she generously moves the impoverished Russian émigré and his entire family into her grand villa in the Paris suburbs so he can compose in peace.

She then – rather less generously – begins an affair with him under his TB-stricken wife's nose. Like so many heroic figures who achieve much on a grand scale, it would seem that Chanel was not quite as great at the human-scale stuff.

In fairness, the film is based more on supposition than hard evidence and, like so many biopics, carries its responsibility for the reputations of real people lightly. But it's amazing how a little unwelcome personal info can kill your appreciation of someone's work.

Or not – Anna Mouglalis, who plays Chanel in the film and clearly subscribes to the events it depicts, said in a recent interview that as a woman in a man's world, the designer "had to invent her own morality". Oh dear, Anna, I know a classic quilted 2.55 Chanel handbag is a beautiful thing, but you'll have to come up with a better defence than that.

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