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Coco Chanel and her dialogue across centuries: reflections of women’s power and royalty

The French Métiers D’Art staged at Château de Chenonceau for Chanel: feminine history is about Queens who embodied visions of their future – today, this is our present

The Loire Valley in France is home to architectural symbols of strength, which portrait Renaissance women as essential figures in the increasing power at Court. Since the sixteenth century across the Cher river, over which its contour is reflected, Château de Chenonceau witnessed the intimate moments of peak times along with empty rooms longing for silence. The history of the construction is narrated through the embellishments ordered by different women – Katherine Briconnet, Diane de Poitiers, Louise de Lorraine, and Madame Dupin –characters who made Chenonceau recognized for its landscape. Over the centuries, they managed to protect the castle from the horror of wars and emerged as modern designers of their idea of allurement. 

United through the metaphor of ambition and couture, the House of Chanel and the figure of Catherine De’ Medici come together at Château de Dames, transforming a standard sompuosité into a lifestyle. Predominantly in black and white, Virginie Viard’s second Métiers d’Art collection shows some key concepts: the black sweater with Renaissance white flowers motifs growing up the arms, the chessboard sequin miniskirt, a long coat which opens to reveal a suit-body in pale tweed, all inspired by the ancient queens and aimed at recreating the Chateau’s architecture through clothes. Chenonceau displays the combination of French opulence and elements of Italian aesthetic. The castle was not merely an example of pleasant living; it stands for a cultural heritage acquired over the centuries, a depiction of those women who were engaged in the growth of the castle by giving it all the shades of their soul. The relevance and the intensity of the surroundings, matched with Gabrielle Chanel’s admiration of Renaissance ladies, gave the creative director Virginie Viard the opportunity to play with drama while not veering into costume. 

The present late Gothic and early Renaissance architectural masterpiece is the travail constant of Catherine de’ Medici, who conceived it after her own image, as a female body handled by skilled hands, a shared vision of strong souls and entwined destinies. Catherine de’ Medici and Gabrielle Chanel are related by their ability to read the times and change them before anyone else. The modernization process was a project following the work of Diane De Poitiers, King Henry II’s official mistress and rival to Catherine, who was at the origin of the building after the King offered her the castle as a token of his affection. During the fifteenth century, as the official owner, Diane commissioned a five-arch bridge mirroring its sumptuousness across the river, as well as gardens on the opposite bank, which meet Chanel’s floral and parterre design as embroidery motifs in the Métiers d’Art show. When King Henry II died in 1559, his actual wife Catherine de’ Medici reclaimed Chenonceau from Diane de Poitiers and commissioned all those modifications and expansions, transforming the castle and its monumental dimensions into a space fit for her spirit. Through her ambition, Catherine de’ Medici worked on writing herself on the winning side of history, dressing up bridges and houses, looking after, and decorating a place symbolizing her solemnity and her well-dressed figure at Château de Chenonceau. 

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THE CASTLE OF CHENONCEAU, LOIRE

Gabrielle Chanel appreciated the Renaissance period, creating her designs likewise Catherine de’ Medici has transformed the Château into a new castle. The dialogue across centuries is expressed in the determination which lies behind Catherine de’ Medici’s lifestyle. During the sixteenth century, riding a horse was considered vulgar, and it was difficult for women to try to ride with their long skirts and dresses: sitting sideways was a solution to preserve modesty. Catherine was the first queen to put her leg on the saddletree rather than on the planchette showing off her legs. Her changing and strengthening woman’s position in the equestrian world resembles that of Chanel’s at the beginning of the twentieth century: «I gave women a sense of freedom» she used to say. Her devotion to horse riding made her adjust the traditional male outfit to fit feminine bodies, designing her breeches based on male riders she saw every day. 

From architect to designer: both are motivated in giving the body a shape and a movement. Over the years, artists managed to create a place according to the queen’s vision, aimed at the glorification of beauty, as well as the workmanship showcased in Chanel 2021 Métiers d’Art. Similarities put in contact the Queen Mother and Gabrielle Chanel: known for the ambition and determination they applied in their social life, both experienced and suffered the death of their loved ones. «Lacrymae hinc, hinc dolor»From this, come my tears and my pain –. These are the words inscribed in the broken lance Catherine took as her emblem after King Henry’s death. Henry II, an avid participant in tournaments, was wounded in the eye by a fragment of a lance in June 1559 near Place des Vosges. He died ten days later, leaving queen Catherine wearing black in his memory with that sense of impending doom. As for Gabrielle. Away from the atelier, she surrounded herself with a group of artists and English aristocrats. Among them, her lover Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel not only financed but also inspired her earliest gamble in the industry; in December 1919, Capel died in a car accident. «I lost everything when I lost Capel; he left a void in me that the years have not filled», she said later. His premature death served as the origin of Chanel’s little black dress. Even if the history of Château de Chenonceau absorbed melancholy after Catherine de’ Medici’s death in January 1589. The Château went to her daughter in law, Louise de Lorraine, wife of King Henry III. She fell into a state of depression after her husband’s death, spending the remainder of her days wandering along the corridors dressed in white mourning clothes and becoming known as the White Queen. The castle became the portrait of austerity and pain: black tapestries stitched with skulls and crossbones were few of those elements that swathed Chenonceau with Louise’s gloom. Her bedroom, installed on the second floor, was covered in black velvet with painted crowns of white thorns; the decor was somber: shovels and burial tips, cornucopia shedding tears, crosses, plunging the castle into mourning. 

Gabrielle Chanel also lived in an atmosphere of pronounced asceticism, where prayers and grief coexisted when her widowed father left her at the Aubazine orphanage, where she lived from the age of 11 to 18. Those years provided her the achievement of sewing skills, which would prove to be the means of her early employment as a seamstress. She also held the austerity of her surroundings, transforming it, in the course of her career, into her signature style. The black and white of the nuns’ habits reappear in the couture so characteristic of Chanel. Their crosses and rosary echoed the silence which envelops the Château de Chenonceau. Renaissance queens’ path crossed again Chanel’s, who had the knack for turning black, the color of suffering, into the symbol of independence, strength, and courage to keep working, even when love failed her. The black and white pattern is tangible, wandering across the corridors at Chenonceau. The combination of the two colors fits any decor, any epochs, mirroring the castle’s history over the centuries, and the same checkered motif stands out in the 2020/2021 Métiers d’Art collection. When Monsieur and Madame Dupin purchased Chenonceau from the Duke of Bourbon in the eighteenth century, the castle was subjected to modifications; Louise Dupin, a great supporter of the French Enlightenment, turned it into a Salon, entertaining philosophers such as Rousseau along with poets and writers. The women who lived in Chenonceau pursued their goals being aware of their role and trying to go beyond it. Today the walls of the castle are not the only keepers watching over the pursuit of the queens’ moral and aesthetic ideal; it is connecting with Chanel’s quest for new codes in the feminine universe.


IMAGE GALLERY

2020/2021 Métiers D’Art collection – Château des Dames
Château de Chenonceau and gardens
37150 Chenonceaux
France

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