By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 20, 2010; E09
Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel understood the rich language of style. She knew that it could speak elegantly and eloquently on a woman's behalf. She also recognized its capacity for trash talk.
One of the most striking moments in the new film "Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky" comes when Chanel, in the midst of a sweaty affair with the very married Stravinsky, approaches the composer's beleaguered wife, Katarina, with a gift. The designer hands the scorned woman a bottle of her freshly realized Chanel No. 5 fragrance. This is a film that delivers a nearly two-hour-long, vicious assault on the sanctity of marriage and the dignity of a wife who stubbornly adheres to her vows. Yet, that little expression of largess stands out as a particularly brutal moment.
Call it style bullying. And it is not limited to history, Hollywood or high school.
To understand how style can be deployed to deliver such bloodless wounds, it's important to remember that style encompasses far more than good looks. In fact, it trumps beauty because it's rooted in deep cultural knowledge and self-confidence. Style is an expression of choices -- a declaration of individuality. And thus, the lack of it is not a matter of poor genetic luck. It is, a particularly judgmental soul could argue, your fault.
Style rises above trends and the fashion industry's abundance of cliches. A woman who dresses with both self-awareness and panache has, in essence, the ability to construct a public persona that speaks with power and precision.
In the film, which opens July 9, Chanel cuts a striking figure. She is tall and lithe, with dark hair. It would be fair to say that rival Katarina also has a certain delicate beauty, with her ivory skin and fiery red hair. But Chanel has a powerful weapon that she uses to chip away at Katarina's confidence; she has style. Indeed, she built an entire empire on it.
Style at Chanel's level turns heads; it swaggers. But even at more modest degrees, it can make others feel terribly old-fashioned and parochial by comparison. Having conquered wardrobe insecurities -- that sense of uneasiness that perhaps you're not appropriately attired or simply not quite pulled together -- suggests that a woman knows something that others do not. Even if her audience doesn't favor her aesthetic sensibility, it still recognizes her certainty. What is her secret?
When Chanel makes a gift of her fragrance, the gesture is at best condescending and at worst taunting. Chanel stands over Katarina. The designer wears her usual controlled black-and-white wardrobe. Her haircut perfectly complements her face. Hers is an impeccable look that seems untouched by any of the day-to-day frustrations of life. She seems unflappable. The wife, poor dear, almost disappears into her chair. And when she stands, her clothes swaddle her in a chaotic storm of color and pattern.
Chanel's gift to Katarina is highly personal. Is there anything that touches the body in a more intimate way? The fragrance is a potion Chanel dedicated months to perfecting. On the marketplace, it will be a pure expression of who and what she is. It is an expression of her independence and success. But as a gift, it isn't offered as a get-to-know-me gesture. It isn't given out of friendship and respect. The move is a power play. Has Katarina already smelled Chanel's scent on her husband's clothes? On his skin? The gift is a quiet obliteration of the wife -- a hand grenade in an elegant glass flask.
Such fashion bombs are dropped every day in real life. Women -- and men -- use style as a tool of intimidation, self-promotion and belittlement all the time. U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina's off-topic remark about Sen. Barbara Boxer's hair caused quite the explosion when it was captured by a live microphone. Fiorina quipped that Boxer's hair was "so yesterday." Fiorina has said she was quoting a friend, but her tone oozed delight in the observation as she happily repeated it.
The comment was quickly categorized by political observers as catty; it was an example of "mean girl" behavior. But those designations imply that the remark should be dismissed as wholly superficial and petty -- pure nonsense. In fact, the comment was loaded. The words weren't a negative judgment about Boxer's beauty. Looking "so yesterday" doesn't necessarily mean that one looks unattractive. (See: Sophia Loren, Raquel Welch and Catherine Deneuve, with their heavily layered, set and fluffed -- and, thus, dated -- hairstyles.) Instead, the phrase was an assessment of Boxer's cultural knowledge, of her connection to the here and now. It suggested that she didn't understand what it meant to be in sync with the times. Boxer has a social disconnect. Those were all the nuances stuffed into that derisive little dig.
That's a particularly rough characterization to make of a politician. Isn't an elected official's entire existence predicated on her ability to gauge and represent the current sensibilities of her constituency? What good is a politician who can, in any way, be labeled "so yesterday"?
Fiorina's words weren't, by any means, vulgar or angry. Indeed, she had the cutting tone of a gossipy girlfriend who knows a thing or two about hair travails. But as she gently fingered her own chic pixie, while relaying an insulting description of Boxer's hair, the polite smile never faded from her face -- until she realized her microphone was on. She bore all the earmarks of a style bully.
Many folks might argue that women are burdened by an unfair emphasis on their appearance. Certainly there is more emphasis on how they look. But unfair? With their rich style vocabulary, women can say so much more than men. On film, a mistress can make her lover's wife blanch with a single bottle of perfume.
And in real life, what man could make as nuanced and layered an assessment of a competitor with a single remark about a hairstyle? Style speaks softly, but it can deliver a cruel blow.