The latest chapter to be unveiled for Inside CHANEL reveals Gabrielle Chanel’s links to ballet and the interconnections between the dance and the CHANEL style.
TEXT: Stephen Short
IMAGE: Courtesy of CHANEL
“Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ has always been one of my most favourite pieces of music in the world.” Karl Lagerfeld declared in 2016, “It was the first classical record I bought when I was 16 years old.” The late designer was referencing a performance at the Opéra National de Paris in 2016, in which Aurélie Dupont, its director, and Diana Vishneva, prima ballerina of the Mariinsky Ballet, were performing the pas de deux from Bolero, wearing costumes Lagerfeld had specially created for Chanel.
Lagerfeld, in fact, oversaw numerous house and ballet crossover projects while working at Chanel. He created costumes for two ballets by German choreographer Uwe Scholz, in 1986 and 87; the look for Elena Glurjidze’s The Dying Swan in 2009; and in 2016, at the behest of Benjamin Millepied, he created sets and costume for the Brahms-Schönberg Quartet ballet choreographed by George Balanchine.
Beyond the more visible signs and signifiers of Chanel’s codes of couture—little black dresses, Chanel No. 5 perfume and latterly watches and high jewellery, there has always existed vibrant and long-standing links between the luxury powerhouse and dance. Gabrielle Chanel’s interest in the terpsichorean muse began more than a century ago over a chance meeting with Russian creative impresario Sergei Diaghilev of the renowned Ballet Russes, during a lunch with her great friend Misia Sert in Venice.
Diaghilev told Chanel of his ambitious ballet The Rite of Spring, and his struggle to find financial backers for it. Precocious to the last, Chanel saw opportunity and embarked on her first act of patronage with an anonymous gift to Diaghilev, said to be 300,000 francs. But there was one proviso—that details of her involvement should not be disclosed.
Diaghilev was a creative force nonpareil at this time, who invited the greatest musicians, choreographers and painters of the day to take part in his pieces: from Mussorgsky to Prokofiev, Rimski-Korsakov to Debussy, from Satie to Ravel, Braque to De Chirico, Matisse to Picasso, Utrillo to Cocteau, to name but a few. And then there was Gabrielle Chanel. In that moment, fashion and dance, two arts based on movement and the ephemeral, were combined and have since been inseparable for the house.
While working on The Rite of Spring, Diaghilev had another glamorous project up his sleeve—Le Train bleu (the blue train), a ballet which takes its name from the luxurious train that linked England and Paris with the Côte d’Azur, (a train which Gabrielle Chanel would later use to travel to La Pausa, her villa in Roquebrune-Cap Martin). With a libretto by Jean Cocteau, music score by Darius Milhaud, sets by Romanian sculptor Henri Laurens and curtain by Pablo Picasso, Le Train bleu was a ballet about the idle rich, bathing and beaching for recreation, a metaphor for 1920s society as satire, and Diaghilev wanted Chanel to create the wardrobe for it. It was a defining aesthetic moment.
Chanel, who was taking lessons with dancers of the moment Caryathis and Isadora Duncan, was already acquiring a reputation as a liberator of women and the way they dressed. This was achieved by invoking freer silhouettes, and fabrics like men’s jersey, as she created contemporary costumes that surpassed those of the time, capable of being worn in real life. In the ordinarily formal world of ballet, her innovative silhouettes for the bathers, golfers and tennis players in the ballet were nothing short of a style revolution.
The ever-attentive Chanel had noted, during final rehearsals of Le Train Bleu, that while soft and comfortable, her costumes were restricting movement. She went to the source, for complete symbiosis of body and fabric, reworking her designs directly on the dancers. Chanel found the echo of the fashion she wanted to offer women: a body freed so it mastered its movements, a new articulation of femininity. “Always remove, always take away. Never add anything… Nothing is more beautiful than the freedom of the body (…),” she said.
This “less is more” philosophy came to define the blood of the house of Chanel. This ballet, a unique experience for Chanel, allowed her to offer the very quintessence of her art. The costumes for the original ballet, with their incredible modernity—two are still visible today at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum—later inspired Lagerfeld’s swimwear pieces in Chanel’s Spring-Summer 1998 Ready-to-Wear collection.
And success flowed like a merry dance thereafter. Five years later, in April 1929, Gabrielle Chanel worked on another Diaghilev production, Apollon Musagète by Stravinsky, with choreography by Balanchine. Gabrielle created astonishingly modern togas with pleats held by tie silk. And once again, the performance was met with a standing ovation by Paris’s bon ton and Chanel hosted a memorable ball on opening night.
Diaghilev died that year, as if in tribute, on Gabrielle’s birthday. A decade later, in 1939, she collaborated with Salvador Dali to design the costumes for the ballet Bacchanale while Dali also designed the sets. When the Ballet Russes was afforded a centenary exhibition at the Paris Opera in 2009, Diaghilev’s words were used to open the event.
“In our ballet, dance is only one element of the show, and not even the most important one…the revolution we have undertaken in ballet, perhaps has less to do with the specific field of dance that it does with the sets and costumes.”
The house of Chanel is a patron of the Paris Opera, and this season, Variations, a ballet originally choreographed by Gabrielle Chanel’s friend Serge Lifar, was performed in costumes revisited by Chanel under the direction of Virginie Viard, current artistic director of Chanel fashion collections. And so the dance continues…