Ilustration by Karl Lagerfeld; Courtesy Christopher Anderson/Magnum photos


On 19th January, 1931, film producer Samuel Goldwyn announced in Paris that Coco Chanel was coming to Hollywood. “After more than three years of constant effort, I have at last persuaded Madame [sic] Gabrielle Chanel, fashion dictator, to go to Hollywood to co-operate with me on the vexing question of film fashions,” he told The New York Times.

Goldwyn’s plan was a bold one. As the Great Depression tightened its grip on America and unemployment spread to a quarter of the workforce, he still believed that millions of people would want Hollywood entertainment at its most escapist and alluring. Goldwyn was determined to sign up Chanel and ensure that his film stars were dressed in cutting-edge Paris fashions, both on screen and off.

It was not the first time that her designs had been seen on a Hollywood actress—Ina Claire wore a striking Chanel black suit trimmed with red fox fur in The Royal Family of Broadway,
released by Paramount in 1930—but the deal with Goldwyn represented a far more significant role for Chanel. According to The New York Times, “She will reorganize the dressmaking
department of United Artists studios and anticipate fashions six months ahead, solving thereby the eternal problem of keeping gowns up to date…Thus, Madame Chanel may reveal the secret of all impending changes and the American women will be enabled to see the latest Paris fashions, perhaps, at times, before Paris itself knows them.”

It was an ambitious, costly and time-consuming project. Goldwyn had been wooing Chanel ever since meeting her with the Grand Duke Dmitri in 1929. According to an American journalist, who had interviewed Goldwyn for Collier’s magazine in 1931, “It all started in Monte Carlo. The Grand Duke Dmitri, of the Romanovs, quite casually introduced Samuel Goldwyn, of the movies, to Mlle. Gabrielle Chanel of Chanel. Pleasant talk, pleasant compliments, big inspiration, big contract—and the great Chanel had agreed to come to Hollywood to design clothes for the movies. Admittedly, it’s an experiment, a gamble, but on a million-dollar scale.”

In fact, the gamble cost far more than that. Goldwyn had finally secured Chanel’s agreement to the deal, after some lengthy hesitation on her part, by guaranteeing her a contract of $1 million. But further outlay was necessary, not least for the special costume department that he set up for her at his studios, employing over a hundred workers, with facilities for cutting, fitting and dyeing fabrics. It was a bold declaration of confidence, both on Goldwyn’s part, and on Chanel’s. “This is the first time a couturière of such importance, or indeed any, has left the native heath,” observed Janet Flanner in a wry report for The New Yorker. “Considering what universal style-setting means to Paris for the maintenance of its financial and artistic pulse, the departure of Chanel for California must be more important than that of Van Dyck for the English Court of Charles I.”

As it happened, there had already been an ill-starred precedent in 1925, when Goldwyn’s rival, Louis B. Mayer, hired Erté (the Russian-born designer and illustrator who worked in Paris for Paul Poiret). Erté hated his time in Hollywood, and declared upon his return to Paris that “film stars for the most part are illiterate, crotchety, unshapely,” and that American producers lacked “the slightest conception of elegance, beauty, or taste.”

Goldwyn had come up with an offer for Chanel that looked too good to refuse. The million-dollar deal was done at a time when the deepening Depression had hit Paris couture. Previously wealthy American clients whose fortunes had been wiped out were making hurried departures, and even Chanel was forced to cut her prices in half as a consequence.

And so it was that on 25th February, 1931, the woman now deemed a fashion dictator set off for the New World aboard the steamship Europa, arriving in New York on 4th March, accompanied by her close friend Misia Sert. Chanel was immediately overwhelmed by Goldwyn’s publicity machine. A reporter from The New York Times was one of many who mobbed her hotel suite, where Chanel appeared to be “rather bewildered at the scores of interviewers and reception committee members.” Despite the crowd and the flu, Chanel held her own, wearing “a simple red jersey gown with a short skirt of the severe kind which she first made popular in wartime France,” and issuing some suitably strict diktats: a chic woman should dress well but not eccentrically; long hair would soon be back in fashion; and men who used scent were disgusting.

Ten days later, Chanel departed by train from New York to Los Angeles. Goldwyn had arranged everything for maximum effect. The train was entirely white, and stocked with large quantities of French champagne, Russian caviar and American journalists, who reported on Chanel’s triumphant arrival in Hollywood. Greta Garbo was there to greet Chanel when the white train pulled into the platform—‘TWO QUEENS MEET’ trumpeted the headlines—and they were whisked off to a party at Goldwyn’s house. There Chanel met more Hollywood royalty: Marlene Dietrich, Claudette Colbert and the directors George Cukor and Erich von Stroheim, who allegedly kissed her hand and asked, “You are a seamstress, I believe?” Chanel, somewhat uncharacteristically, did not take offense, although she later remarked, “What a ham, but he really had style.”

Soon afterwards, the seamstress set to work on her first Goldwyn film, a musical called Palmy Days starring Eddie Cantor as an assistant to a fraudulent psychic, with dance routines by Busby Berkeley. The film was notable more for its flimsily clad girls than its implausible plot, and Chanel had insufficient time to supervise all the costume design. However, her instinct for fluidity and movement manifested itself in her decision to make four versions of a dress for the ingénue Barbara Weeks; each looked identical but was cut with minute yet precise variations, to be seen at its most flattering in different scenes, whether the actress was standing, sitting or dancing.

Chanel’s next job was on The Greeks Had a Word For Them, released in February, 1932. The title (and some of the storyline) had been changed from the original stage comedy, The Greeks Had a Word For It, in order to satisfy the censors; although, as Time magazine noted in its review, “Goldwyn was guided less by a sense of decency than a sense of decoration,” expressly crediting Chanel’s involvement. She dressed the three leads—Ina Claire, Joan Blondell and Madge Evans—who were playing glamorous showgirls-turned-gold-diggers. Thirty complete outfits were designed for the actresses.

Chanel’s third and final Goldwyn project was to dress Gloria Swanson as a prima donna opera singer in Tonight or Never; and this time, the entire process was undertaken in Paris. The film star, who was herself something of a diva, described her encounter with Chanel in her memoir, Swanson on Swanson. After a week of fittings in Paris, there had been a pause in the proceedings, when it dawned upon Swanson that she was unexpectedly pregnant. “The following day Coco Chanel, tiny and fierce, approaching fifty, wearing a hat, as she always did at work, glared furiously at me when I had trouble squeezing into one of the gowns she had measured for me six weeks earlier. It was black satin to the floor, cut on the bias, a great work of art in the eyes of both of us. I said I would try it with a girdle, but when I stepped before her again, she snorted with contempt and said anyone a block away could see the line where the girdle ended halfway down my thigh.

“‘Take off the girdle and lose five pounds,’ she snapped briskly. ‘You have no right to fluctuate in the middle of fittings. Come back tomorrow and we’ll finish the evening coat with the sable collar. Five pounds!’ she cried again, unable to restrain herself. ‘No less!’”

The following day, Swanson returned to Rue Cambon with a large roll of surgical elastic, and requested that it be made into “a rubberized undergarment to the knees, or rather, two or three dozen of them.” Chanel was horrified, but Swanson prevailed, citing “reasons of health”; and eventually, couture corsets were provided, constructed with as much attention to detail as every other garment in the atelier.

Tonight or Never proved to be Chanel’s last job for Goldwyn. The film—United Artists’ big Christmas release—opened to polite reviews (The New York Times described it as an “unusually striking production,” partly thanks to Chanel’s sartorial creations), but it flopped at the box office. She departed, according to The New Yorker, “in a huff,” having been told by the movie moguls that ‘her dresses weren’t sensational enough. She made a lady look like a lady. Hollywood wants a lady to look like two ladies.’ Still, she had made her million dollars—Goldwyn paid up without an argument—and Vanity Fair, at least, was sufficiently impressed to nominate Chanel to its 1931 Hall of Fame.

If Hollywood did not take to Chanel, then neither was she impressed by the might of the movies. In Paris, she had already collaborated as a costume designer with the most celebrated of modern artists: with Picasso and Cocteau on Antigone and Le Train Bleu; with Cocteau again in 1926 for his play Orphée (in which he described the character of Death appearing as “a very beautiful young woman in a bright pink ball-gown and fur coat”); and the Ballets Russes production of Apollon Musagète in 1929, composed by Stravinsky and choreographed by George Balanchine. Such triumphs counted for nothing in Hollywood, although Chanel was swift in returning the snub. In later years, when questioned about her trip into the heart of the film business, she was dismissive: “It was the Mont Saint-Michel of tit and tail.” And to Claude Delay, she emphasized her independence from the monolithic power of the studios: “The Americans wanted to tie me down, you see, because I out-fashion fashion. But I’m not for sale or hire. In Hollywood the stars are just the producers’ servants.”

But whatever the disappointments of Chanel’s encounter with Hollywood, her journey to America was nonetheless a significant one. For this was the place that she had conjured up for herself in childhood as her father’s promised land, the New World where he would make his fortune, having left his daughters behind with the nuns. Her friend Claude Delay remembers Chanel’s wistful story of finding herself lost in Beverly Hills with Misia one day, searching for an address that they could not find. Eventually, Misia noticed the name Chanel written on one of the gateposts.

Still believing in Coco’s story of her childhood, Misia cried out in astonishment, “It’s your father. We’ll find him and take him back with us. I’ll leave Sert.” Chanel’s only response was a tart comment that Sert had already left Misia. The rest was left unsaid, although Chanel’s ambivalence about America was to crop up again in her conversations with Delay. On the one hand, it was a continent that had made her rich, through the vast sales of her perfumes, for which Americans seemed to have an insatiable appetite. (“They’ll buy every luxury,” she said to Delay, “and the first of all luxuries is perfume.”) And yet part of her, austere as a nun, resisted the seductions offered to her by America. Describing her hotel suite in Hollywood to Delay, Chanel listed its comforts with a certain amount of contempt: two bedrooms and four television sets, including one that could be watched in the bathroom. “All that’s for people who have gone soft. The English hide everything, the Americans show everything! America is dying of comfort.” •

Excerpt from Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life by Justine Picardie © 2010 It Books / HarperCollins Publishers

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