Her polished eyes are of delicious metals,
And in this strange, symbolic nature
Where virgin angel meets with ancient sphinx,
Where all is only gold and steel and light and diamonds
There shines for ever, like a useless star,
The cold majesty of the sterile woman.
– Baudelaire, Fleurs du mal
Baudelaire fashions a woman made not of flesh but of the precious materials she adorns herself with, almost like her jewelry has seeped into her skin. His words, first published in 1857, would echo throughout the following decades as women really did become consumed with being consumers.
It all started with the hat. Chanel’s hats, in particular. Hers were the beginning of the end because she toppled a whole silhouette, and, with it, a whole identity.
Look at these three sisters relaxing on a June afternoon. The painter’s wife wears a red hat with a child in her lap. Her two daughters sit on either side, one on a kitchen chair dragged out into the garden. It’s 1890, just when the Gibson Girl was solidifying into the national ideal. She was born as an illustration: a woman of the upper class with a body in an s-curve that ended in a slender neck and hair piled on top of her head in loose curls. She was athletic and independent but not involved in politics and perfectly happy managing a household and socializing. Pretty dull, pretty impossible. But at least she could shop! Banish her boredom in a new hat.
Frank Benson’s Lady Trying on a Hat is like the photographs we see now of ideal homes, filling Pinterest boards that daydream of an impossibly perfect life. Except it’s 1904 and she has a Chinese vase filled with roses and a mess of pearlescent fabrics lying around. The hat is a black tornado that obscures her eyes but they’re not important. She is an object of beauty to be bought, possessed, and exhibited just like her vase, hat, and clothes. Baudelaire’s woman but cast in a softer light.
So, across the pond, what did Chanel do that placed this lady in another era? Chanel wanted to simplify what she saw as “enormous loaves” and create a more simple, streamlined look. Her hats were not that radical compared to contemporary designs. But she build the social connections that placed her hats on the heads of the right people and in the magazines the wealthy women were reading. Her own unconventional lifestyle reflected the spirit of the hats and she became a personal brand.
Even if they weren’t that original, Chanel’s hats toppled the s-curve. A less extravagant hat soon lead to proportions that didn’t require a restricted waist and skirts that covered the ankles. If all Chanel’s customer could do was shop and lunch, at least she could do so in comfort.
Side note: Long hair and big hats had their advantages. You could take out one of the hat pins needed to keep everything in place and stab the eye of your attacker. Convenient, just a little messy.