The season is at hand when swaying on its stem
Every flower exhales perfume like a censer
Sounds and perfumes turn in the evening air;
Melancholy waltz and languid vertigo!
wrote French poet Charles Baudelaire in 1857 (1). What would a Chanel wardrobe based on these verses look like? Between 1937 and 1960, Coco Chanel worked on a Baudelaire-inspired collection and a Baudelaire-inspired fragrance, as part of her activities within the Société Baudelaire, a group aiming to perpetuate the work and aesthetics of the poet. Neither project materialised since Chanel decided not to run for the honorary presidency of the Société Baudelaire in 1960, upon learning Charles de Gaulle was about to throw his hat in the race.
A little known episode of the Chanel legend, her Baudelairian heritage is now the subject of an entire website ran by the Société Baudelaire and Isée St John Knowles, its president and a curator and theatre director. Containing never seen before material pertaining to Chanel during the Second World War, including a September 1944 interview with Punch editor Malcolm Muggeridge, the website was launched to refute Hal Vaughan’s accusations of collaboration and anti-Semitism.
“What prompted my decision to publish was the uncritical fawning by Chanel’s executioners as they impeached her for treason and anti-Semitism – two crimes of which, on the evidence, we cannot find her guilty,” explains Knowles (2).
Yet the Société Baudelaire doesn’t expect this publication to drastically change the scholarship on her character, arguing that “the media are intent on tarring her with the brush of guilt”.
Biographers have accused Chanel, with various levels of objectivity, of turning a blind eye on German activities in Paris, of leading a peace mission and of taking advantage of the Reich anti-Semite laws to take back ownership of Chanel Parfums. The Muggeridge interview is a rare occurrence of the designer discussing her role during the War, yet it’s not a mind changer. Her explanation is very prosaic: “I was on neither side, of course. I stood up for myself as I always have done. Nobody has ever told Coco Chanel what to think.”
This “self-determined, lone outsider scornful of the world decision-makers” attitude during the war is what makes Chanel the epitome of the Baudelairian dandy, defined by his behaviour rather than his wardrobe, à la Oscar Wilde. Knowles explains Chanel’s “ideals were not circumscribed by attire but encompassed a whole philosophy of life”.
A philosophy which has survived in the Chanel fashion house through Karl Lagerfeld, described by Knowles as “immensely gifted as a couturier who has retained his autonomy, unaffected by the creations of fellow-couturiers including Chanel”.
(1) Harmonie du Soir, Evening Harmony, William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)
(2) Exclusive interview with Isée St John Knowles, 17 July. With thanks to Arthur Tegetmeier at Clicky Media for facilitating
Photo from Puregreenmag.com