by Janet I. Martineau
|Gioia Diliberto before her Horizons talk|
Women of the western world, celebrate the creativity of Coco Chanel.
And we’re not referring to her Chanel No. 5 perfume -- a bottle of which is sold every 30 seconds throughout the world.
“She revolutionized fashion,” author/journalist Gioia Diliberto told her Horizons Town Talk audience on Tuesday, at the Horizons Conference Center in Saginaw Township. “Before Chanel, fashion was torture.
“It was wide bustles; massive hats filled with the plumes of dozens of dead birds; tight corsets; hobble skirts, so named because you had to hobble in them to walk.
“Fashion before her symbolized the second class status of women. It was for the helpless, the subservient. Women could not get into a car without help. They could not think clearly because of the weight of those hats. There were even iron corsets, and some so tight women would pass out if they laughed because they could not get enough oxygen.”
And then, in the early 1900s, along came French-born Chanel, with loose sweaters containing pockets, casual but elegant flowing skirts, said Diliberto, showing slides of Chanel in her outfits that still look contemporary even today.
“She even adopted some men’s wear -- white shirts and trench coats, pants. The little black dress -- the palette she grew up with (because, from age 12 to 18 she was raised in a convent, where she learned the trade of a seamstress). She decided early on she wanted a career, her own independence, and not a life as a kept woman. The only power she could find was her clothes -- to look the opposite of all the other women around her.”
Forget the fact Chanel was chain-smoking opportunist who slept with rich and powerful men, who turned her back on Jewish friends during Hitler’s Third Reich and associated with Nazis, who mistreated her workers, said Diliberto. She created clothing freedom.
Diliberto, in her wide-ranging talk titled “Dressing for the New Age of Fashion,” took her audience on a verbal and visual tour of fashion through the ages -- from the kings and queens of British and French royalty to American first ladies Jacqueline Kennedy and Michelle Obama.
Fashion, she said, is a clue to a person’s character and personality as well as indicative of social and political upheaval. The mighty, big-name fashion houses of yore, she contends, “are crumbling now, giving way to a 13-year-old girl blogging on the Internet; young Asian immigrants to America who design appealing garments; web sites; television shows; companies which have, in the last decade, provided higher style at a lower price point.”
And, she said, while everyone agrees Francophile Jackie Kennedy set the style for first lady elegance for several years, she wonders if they realize that “a half century later an African-American woman with a working class background has become a new first lady fashion icon” -- mixing her relaxed, down-to-earth J Crew clothes, “accessible to everybody,” with $600 sneakers and $12,000 earrings.
Oh, and those frequent bare arms Michelle sports, to much critical sniping? “Jackie wore sleeveless dresses all the time,” said Diliberto, who lives in Chicago.
Diliberto has penned five books, including the novel “The Collection,” set in Chanel’s 1919 atelier.