What is luxury? It is the opposite of complication, says Karen Karbo in ‘The Gospel according to Coco Chanel’. “Luxury must remain invisible, but it must be felt… Luxury is a necessity that begins where necessity ends.”

Is it the opposite of poverty? No, it is the opposite of vulgarity, the opposite of status. “It is the ability to make a living by being oneself. It is the freedom to refuse to live by habit. Luxury is liberty. Luxury is elegance.”

The book brings together the insights of Gabrielle Chanel, known as Coco (1883-1971), who was born in a poorhouse in southern France and ‘grew up to be the woman who not only gave us the little black dress and boxy jackets, but also bequeathed women with a freedom that helped usher them into easy, practical yet chic clothes.’

She gave us real pockets, bell-bottoms, twin sets, drop waists, belted cardigans, short dresses for evening, sportswear including riding breeches, and the need to accessorise madly at all times, Karbo describes. “Anything that’s got simple lines, skims the body, is easy to move in, and affords the loading on of a lot of jewellery is Chanel.”

The first guidance in ‘style à la Chanel’ is that it’s always better to be slightly underdressed. “Overdressing is the first cousin of trying too hard,” the author explains. “It is to advertise to the world that you don’t trust yourself or your clothes to rise to the occasion.”

All you have to do is subtract, reads another instruction. “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory,” is Chanelian wisdom. “Think: Do you really need that chain belt? The tri-layered tank tops? Everything from the bottom tier of your jewellery box (where all the necklaces and bracelets doze in a snake-like tangle) slung around your neck? The patterned purple stockings beneath the thigh-high fringed boots?”

One shouldn’t spend all one’s time dressing, advises Chanel. All one needs are two or three suits, as long as they and everything to go with them, are perfect, she adds. The idea of assembling a few perfect go-to outfits, the pieces of which can be bought in off the bench, is both elegant and chic, Karbo elaborates.

“We’re talking mix and match. We’re saying that every beautiful piece you own should go with every other beautiful piece. Because you have better things to do than think endlessly about your clothes. Right?”

It is not luxury, but squalor, if women went to dinner in dirty pants and a man’s shirt, she rues. “Fashion is always a reflection of its own time, but we forget this when it is stupid.” Comfort has its forms, Chanel counsels. “A skirt is made for crossing the legs and an armhole is made for crossing the arms, therefore tear from your body any garment that does not allow you to walk, to run, to lift your arms, for it is inelegant.”

Similarly, banish any dress that is ‘shaped like a bubble, a barrel, or any other form that does not conform to your body,’ and any dress that ‘brings to mind a bed-sheet, a linen napkin…’

Karbo captures Chanel’s admonition, thus: “A bandana is not a top, a long shirt is not a dress, a short dress is not a shirt, and shorts worn over tights are reason to banish you from the kingdom of style forever.”

Instructive read.



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