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Simply Chanel

On the red carpet, in the thicket of cocktail-hour revelers and during dinnertime table-hopping, it was possible to see the sort of spectacularly adorned women and handsomely dressed men that so often seem on the verge of extinction in this era of jeans and a good pair of heels. When did looking good become such a chore? We now find more pleasure in watching the poorly dressed than in the magic generated by those who have gotten it right. A sure explanation must be those long nights in bed with the Oscars, Joan Rivers, a bowl of popcorn and our share of cultural malaise.

But Chanel inspired people Monday night -- at least most people -- to dress their best as a matter of courtesy and pride. (Could anything short of a lashing persuade party guest Marilyn Manson to wash his face? Russell Simmons to take off his baseball cap and sneakers?) Chanel night was not the appropriate time for silliness and wry humor or for stubbornly indulging in Peter Pan informality. The average man seemed to know that he looked handsome in his traditional tuxedo with no need for novelty or brightly colored ties. Kevin Costner in a tuxedo; Richard Gere in a tuxedo. Isn't that dreamy enough?

No, no, Mr. Costner, don't speak and reveal that you are not rife with charm. Just stand there, blond and handsome with your 5 o'clock shadow. The socialites were there, women such as Houston's Lynn Wyatt, who always know how to look so right and make young women who rely on high slits and plunging necklines, think, well so that's what chic looks like. Marcia Cross looked so pretty with her hair pulled back and her smoky eyes. She didn't look Hollywood in that fake tan, plastic way. Chanel makes people want to be chic and soignée, nibbling on miniature cheese puffs and sipping champagne. More, please. And that chocolate cake for dessert topped with a white chocolate camellia -- oh, the spirit of Chanel brings joy in such surprising ways.

Chanel made people elevate their look. And as you move around the exhibition, which was curated by Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton, you will want to dress better, too. You will be impressed by the iconic suits with their contrasting trim. You will be mesmerized by the beautiful cocktail dresses in spiraling satin and the elegant evening gowns in lace or in jet sequins. And you will be taken with the way in which Lagerfeld has been able to keep the essence of Chanel's style intact without letting it get old and dusty. Mostly, you will marvel at how relevant these clothes are because they look so fresh that they could have been pulled off the rack at any Chanel boutique.

"My worry is that people will go through the show and not get a sense of history," says Bolton.

It is astounding that so many of these clothes were designed more than 50 years ago. Walking through this exhibition, the garments displayed in 23 stark white modules inspired by the work of modernist architect Le Corbusier, it is difficult to imagine a time when Chanel did not exist, because so much of what she created has become part of the basic building blocks of the fashion industry.

She sought out comfort in her clothes, emphatically easing women out of constricting corsets and boning and anything else that sought to forcefully alter the shape of the body. She was enamored with the grace and sinew of the back rather than the voluptuousness of the chest. Many of her clothes fall teasingly over the body, shun cleavage and offer a tantalizing rear view.

She found inspiration in the clothes of workmen, in athletic apparel, in menswear. Jersey, one of her favorite fabrics, had long been associated with men's underwear. Sweeping trousers, sailor collars and mannish tweeds all became part of her lexicon, which was beginning to take form as early as the 1930s. She branched out into beauty products and fragrances, naming her most famous and lucrative one "No. 5" because she was superstitious and believed that was her lucky number. She used symbols such as the lion's head on her buttons because she was born under the astrological sign of Leo. She fashioned herself as the most convincing and enticing representative of her own work. She turned herself into a celebrity.

Chanel espoused the "democratization of elegance," says Koda, the Costume Institute's chief curator. "She played with the notion of the rich dressing down." And so her ideas -- created in an haute couture salon -- easily trickled down. She considered imitation a sign of her success. Her clothes were particularly popular with Americans, who were arguably her greatest champions. "Americans love the idea of function, of multiplicity of purposes," Koda says. "The little black dress was not so aggressively ornamented. Despite the faux jewelry, the braided chains, her clothes were very spare."

There is little biographical information in this exhibition. A conscious decision. So much has been written about Chanel that she has become more myth than woman. She was born a social outsider to poor, unmarried parents. She spent much of her childhood in an orphanage after her mother died and her father deserted her. She never married but had an array of wealthy, powerful and socially prominent lovers, including the Duke of Westminster. During World War II she was shunned as a Nazi sympathizer -- the result of having taken an ill-advised lover. She performed in cabarets and her nickname, Coco, came from several songs she used to sing, according to "Chanel and Her World," by Edmonde Charles-Roux.

It was through the patronage of one of her early love interests -- a sugar daddy -- that a designer who represented independence and freedom gathered the seed money to start her business.

"Chanel would probably never claim to be a feminist," Bolton says. "She often talked about designing clothes to attract men. Her clothes gave women ease and comfort, but they also had deep plunging necklines. The jersey drifted over the body, asserting the natural contours of the body."

"She certainly was an independent, professional woman. She lived life as a feminist," Bolton says. "But she built her business on affairs she had with men. . . . She was financially independent after originally borrowing from her lover."

The curators' decision to exclude the beguiling life story is admirable but frustrating. The exhibition focuses on the garments. And it takes time to explore the way in which Chanel embraced modernist principles -- most notably an emphasis on the present, on symbols and the relationship between form and function.

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