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Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel

On May 5, 1921 – the fifth day of the fifth month – Coco Chanel had a gift for her soigné clientele. She had commissioned Ernest Beaux, known as le nez (the nose), to create a variety of fragrances for her review. Number five was the clear winner. Chanel No. 5 would become the best-selling perfume of all time, with current estimates that a bottle is sold every 30 seconds around the globe.

From May 5th through June 5th, the Palais de Tokyo in Paris is hosting a special exhibition titled No 5 Culture Chanel celebrating the “timeless and iconic artistic essence” of the famous perfume. Certainly that description also defines Chanel’s divinely classic fashions, as relevant today as when they were first introduced.

Chanel with Ballets Russes dancer Serge Lifar

Chanel with Ballets Russes dancer Serge Lifar

But of course, those designs were anything but classic in the early decades of the 20th century. Chanel was a rule breaker in life and work, which brought her to the attention of Ballets Russes impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Chanel happily joined his circle of creative groundbreakers, offering both monetary and artistic support (not to mention having a scandalous affair with the married composer Igor Stravinsky).

It was in the company’s home base of Monte Carlo on the French Riviera that the 14-year-old Alicia Markova would come under the spell of the famed fashion designer.

Markova in La Chatte (The Cat) at the Ballets Russes

Markova in La Chatte (The Cat) at the Ballets Russes

Markova remembered seeing Chanel and Pablo Picasso sitting together during dress rehearsals for new productions. Diaghilev staged “fashion parades” of costumed dancers for the pair, seeking their opinions and suggestions. The Ballets Russes was as famous for its highly original sets and costumes as for its music and choreography.

“Highly original” is also a perfect description of Chanel’s novel modern design aesthetic at the time. After decades of women being painfully cinched into tight, wasp-waisted corsets and covered neck-to-toe in elaborately draped fabric, Chanel chose to reveal the body’s natural contours in comfortable, softened silhouettes. It was as revolutionary as Cubism.

Chanel's clingy new bathing suits captured by Picasso in "Women Bathing" 1918,

Chanel’s clingy new bathing suits captured by Picasso in “Women Bathing” 1918,

“The provocative Chanel bathing suits – sleeveless, skirtless, clinging – would catch Picasso’s eye,” writes his biographer John Richardson. “Fascinated by this revolutionary garment’s effect on the way women looked and behaved, Picasso did a fine, small painting of three bathing-suited girls – each fiddling with their hair – on the beach below Palace Hotel. This is the first of countless bather compositions in Picasso’s work.”

Diaghilev also took notice of Chanel’s “sports clothes” revolution in the Riviera, asking her to design costumes for his new contemporary production Le Train Bleu (the luxury locomotive that transported wealthy Europeans to Monte Carlo). With libretto by Jean Cocteau and choreography by Bronislava Nijinska (Nijinsky’s sister), the satirical ballet poked gentle fun at the idle rich vacationers.  Diaghilev asked Chanel to translate her latest de la mode styles for the dancers. While audiences loved it, the performers were less enthused.

Chanel's costumes for Le Train Bleu

Chanel’s costumes for Le Train Bleu

As I wrote in The Making of Markova: Consider poor Lydia Sokolova. Chanel presented her with a wool jersey bathing costume and rubber slippers that stuck to the stage. What could be worse? The ballerina also had to wear oversized faux pearl earrings, much like the costume jewels favored by Chanel’s affluent clientele, the very ones who would be in the audience on opening night. The ear bobs were so large and cumbersome, Sokolova couldn’t hear her orchestra cues. Leon Woizikowski fared no better. He had to master grand leaps while wearing his Chanel-designed golf knickers, shirt, tie and striped long sleeve sweater; and Nijinska’s tennis dress came complete with a full-size racket.

Markova à la Chanel

Markova à la Chanel

Markova was well aware of Chanel’s status as the epitome of modern chic on the Riviera. Diaghilev had told her to study not only how “Coco” dressed, but also how she walked and sat. The teenager couldn’t have found a more stylish role model, and the adult Markova would come to share her fashion idol’s preference for understated elegance, black and white fashions, and a few pieces of dramatic costume jewelry.

The always understated and chic Markova

Markova in anything-but-basic black

As a young child, Markova had felt unattractive compared to her three pretty sisters. “I didn’t even look a typically English little girl of the period,” she wrote in her personal memoirs. So after studying the most stylish women in the neighborhood, Lily Marks (as she was then called) decided basic black was quite chic, requesting that rather adult color for her first party dress at age five.

Markova © 1935

Markova circa 1935

“Everyone laughed, but I wore a little black satin dress trimmed with white lace,” Markova recalled proudly. She would still be wearing basic black with white lace accents (as in the hat seen at right) three decades later.

While at the Ballets Russes, Markova witnessed firsthand a banner year for women’s fashion. It was in 1926 that Chanel introduced her first “little black dress.” As Edmonde Charles-Roux writes in her book Chanel and her World:

Markova in a little black dress, with sister Doris

Markova in a little black dress, with sister Doris

“In 1926, the American edition of Vogue predicted that a certain black dress created by Chanel – a simple sheath in crêpe-de-chine, with long, closely fitting sleeves – would become a sort of uniform for all women of taste. But hordes of women wearing the same dress? Such a forecast seemed totally irrational.”

From then on, simply-cut black cocktail dresses that showed off her lithe figure would become Markova’s signature style, as it would be for countless chic women to this very day.