Could there be a dopier notion than designer Karl Lagerfeld’s idea that the legacy of Coco Chanel would be best served by “ask[ing] three or four contemporary artists to contribute works of various kinds that suggested Chanel to them”? Whether or not it was this particular conceit that resulted in the recent cancellation of the Met’s Chanel show, it’s easy to understand why the museum demurred: Surely Chanel, a deeply contradictory avant-garde genius whose repellent politics make her the Ezra Pound of fashion, doesn’t need video installations, kinetic sculptures, or other “contemporary” art to prop up her oeuvre. The woman who single-handedly got people out of bustles and into little black dresses, who thought up everything from cardigan sweaters to collarless jackets to costume jewelry, is certainly capable of carrying an exhibit on her own steely shoulders.
“A bunch of old clothes in a basement doesn’t interest us,” Chanel head designer Lagerfeld sniffed, by “us” meaning himself and Alain Wertheimer, chairman of Chanel, both of whom had plenty to say about the content of the exhibit, since their company was paying for the lion’s share of it. And in fashion, when you pay you play: Just ask those junior staffers at Vogue and Glamour whose job it is to hold their noses and write puffy profiles of heavily advertising cosmetics moguls.
Of course it’s true that the Met’s costume shows aren’t usually the zippiest affairs, but that isn’t because they lack Jenny Holzer sculptures. It’s because everyone, from Lagerfeld to museum president Philippe de Montebello to the late Richard Martin, curator of the Costume Institute, seems a little queasy about how seriously museums should take fashion. (Not seriously at all over at the Guggenheim, where a pay-for-play exhibit of Armani clothes is planned for October, a mere year after the house of Armani just happened to make a $15 million contribution to the museum. Admittedly, Armani, whose star has faded significantly of late, has had a couple of good ideas, like taking the stuffing out of jackets and wearing T-shirts with suits. But a retrospective? At the Guggenheim?)
So now that Mr. de Montebello has booted Karl and his vision out the door—too bad he didn’t do the same to Tommy Hilfiger and that rock and roll fashion fiasco last year—what should be done to properly honor the sacred monster Chanel? A few modest proposals:
1. The Met could build a series of dioramas, highlighting dramatic developments in the life of the designer. The first would contain a Chanel mannequin in a little black dress, conversing with belle epoque designer Paul Poiret. The Poiret figure would be surrounded by mannequins dressed in lavish Poiret creations: a symphony of brocade bat-wing sleeves, velvet cocoon coats, hobble skirts, embroidered turbans, and other lush finery, in contrast to Chanel’s plain dark dress, unadorned straw boater, and flat shoes. (An accompanying showcase would hold row upon row of the torturous Victorian underwear that both Poiret and Chanel had a hand in banishing.) A wall placard explaining the scene would retell a famous conversation between the designers that took place when the two met on a Paris street around 80 years ago: “Who are you in mourning for, Mademoiselle Chanel?” asked Poiret, surveying Chanel’s austere ensemble. “For you, monsieur,” she replied.
2. The second tableau might show a Coco Chanel mannequin with a furious look on its face, dressed in a little black suit with a cardigan jacket and a triple-length rope of pearls (fake), just like the ones the designer was reportedly sporting when she was denied access to her own premises by striking seamstresses and saleswomen (the vendeuses in chic black dresses, the seamstresses in smocks) in June 1936. An accompanying showcase could display a ribbon-tied cardboard coffer, a reproduction of the traditional strikers’ collection box, with a slotted top for contributions from passersby, and an “Occupied” sign, both of which hung on the maison’s porte cochere the day the Chanel workers went on strike. (Chanel responded by firing 300 people but eventually was forced to settle.) A wall placard could quote what a still-boiling Chanel told a journalist decades later: “A sit-down strike. Graceful, wouldn’t you say? Attractive to think of women in such a position, on their behinds. I mean, what idiots those girls were!”
3. Instead of the famous curving Rue Cambon stairway that de Montebello planned to replicate at the Met show, why not reproduce Chanel’s room at the Paris Ritz, where she lived openly with her lover, Nazi officer Hans Gunther von Dincklage, during World War II? The Chanel mannequin, dressed in a little black kimono, might be sipping an espresso and reading Signal, the Anglophobic, anti-Semitic daily newspaper of the period that had a circulation of 420,000. (Budget permitting, an accompanying von Dincklage doll could be dressed in a stylish green Nazi uniform.) A wall placard could tell visitors Coco’s response when she was asked why she had consorted with a German: “Really, sir, a woman of my age cannot be expected to look at his passport if she has a chance of a lover.”
4. A diorama of Chanel’s workshop, circa 1954, late at night before her first fashion show since the war. (After years of exile in Switzerland, she’d decided it was safe to come back to Paris.) The mannequin would have a tiny, wizened face: Madame was well on in years when she resumed pinning and pining. A pair of scissors would dangle from a ribbon around the dummy’s neck, complementing the rest of the ensemble: tweed suit with double-C buttons, black-and-beige sling-back shoes, quilted chain-strapped handbag, etc. A case nearby could show off fake Chanel T-shirts, fake Chanel watches, and fake Chanel purses, all purchased on Canal Street, and the wall card might offer a quote from the designer, who late in her life was fond of issuing bons mots to the press: “Fashion does not exist unless it goes down into the streets. The fashion that remains in the salons has no more significance than a costume ball.”