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“I realized that my clothing, all clothing, is a statement whether we know we are making it or not.”
Everyone seems to love a good feud, especially when it involves iconic women. In Jeanne Mackin’s latest, she enters the world of Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli in pre-World War II Paris. Both women are known for their style, but their styles (and political opinions) could not be any more different. Through the eyes of a woman named Lily who becomes unwittingly involved the rivalry, the designers’ stories collide against an explosive political backdrop.
Mackin tells us about what she learned about fashion from working on the book, how clothing connects to politics, and why this story of the past might greatly inform our future.
How did you become interested in writing?
I grew up in a family of readers, surrounded by books. If my father had an extra beer in the evening, he would read Victorian narrative poetry out loud to us. When I was about seven and reading—and loving—the Grimm fairy tales and other classics, I decided I wanted to write my own fairy tale. I think the specific story that woke me to creating story was a Norwegian folk tale, East of the Sun and West of the Moon. I also grew up with a great hunger for travel, though I’ve never been east of the moon.
Your latest novel, The Last Collection, explores the rivalry between two iconic fashion names. How much did you know about Chanel and Schiaparelli? Did you have an interest in fashion before writing the novel?
Before beginning research for The Last Collection, my interest in fashion didn’t extend much beyond love beads, hip huggers and peasant tops. I always believed I dressed to suit myself, but after I started reading about clothing and design I realized that my clothing, all clothing, is a statement whether we know we are making it or not. I was a rebellious teen and very free-spirited young adult, and that was what my clothing said about me. A suit? Not on your life. I bought one, once, when I was working as a journalist. I wore it maybe two times.
Not only do the designers have very different tastes but their politics and sensibilities also differ. With the background being on the cusp of the start of World War II, in what way do these elements of their personalities deepen the rivalry?
Paris, before World War II, was a city torn in two directions with very little ground in the middle. Some Parisians were right-leaning, wanting law and order, calmness and to some degree hoping that people would just stay in their proper place—women in traditional roles, the working class happy to be working and getting by. And then there were the left-leaning Parisians who called for general strikes to improve pay and working conditions, who wanted more freedom for everybody. Sound familiar? In some ways, the choice was between Hitler or Stalin—fascism or communism. This played out between Coco and Schiaparelli as well: Coco was right-leaning and Schiap (her nickname) was left-leaning. This gave them one more reason to really dislike each other. And they did.
The novel explores the relationship Lily has in the feud between these two women when she comes to Paris from the states. What inspired this character? Was any such person involved in the rivalry?
Lily is a complete invention, as are her brother Charlie, and his lover, Ania. In a way, they represent the outsider groups living in Paris at the time – the Americans who thought the United States could stay neutral even if war did come, and the refugees from the fascist and Nazi-run countries who were already suffering the effects of the still-undeclared war. Lily clearly favors Schiap, but does try to maintain a kind of neutrality and be friends with both designers.
Lily is given the choice between a Chanel and a Schiaparelli dress and chooses the latter, but which would you have chosen yourself?
Depends. If it was a garment I was going to wear often it would be a Chanel…one of her little tweed jackets with braid trim. You could live in one of those, day and night. Chanel’s designs were so dependable, so practical, so timeless. If it was for evening, though, I would want a Schiaparelli, the dream and fantasy and playfulness of her creations. If I could have one her capes from the “Zodiac” collection, one in shocking pink embroidered in gold sequins with a Medusa head, I would be ecstatic!
How do you think the legacies of these designers have lived on today? Can fashion still play a larger political and social role, in your opinion?
Fashion will always make political statements. Think of the white muslin and cotton calico dresses that Marie Antoinette made popular. She wanted to show a sophisticated simplicity, her own form of rebellion against the stiff, brocaded aristocracy. Unfortunately that choice of clothing also unemployed thousands of people in the French textle industry and helped lead to the French Revolution.
Today, think of the pink pussy hats that women marched in to protest misogyny, the women at the Golden Globes award who dressed in black to show a united front against sexism and inequality. Every morning, when we stand in front of our closets deciding, we are about to make a political and philosophical statement. I’m not certain I would want fashion to play a larger role than that because clothing should not become dictated; it should always be a free choice, a mark of individuality. Margaret Atwood was saying just that when she created those uniforms for her not-free handmaidens.
I do, though, wish people would buy less fast clothing. It’s very bad for the environment, buying six cheap t-shirts instead of one very good one. When I first started reading about couture I had a very working class reaction of, “Oh, those rich people!” But then I realized that couture lasts, it doesn’t end up in the landfill or the ocean like so much cheap and fast clothing. In the long run, it’s a better buy and I think we should buy the best we can afford, not just in terms of fashion but environmental consequences, as well. I avoid synthetics and look for clothing from companies that exhibit a certain type of consciousness and responsibility.
As for legacy, whenever you wear a garment that allows ease of movement and minimal restriction, thank Coco Chanel. And when you wear something arty and playful, a newsprint blouse or a jacket with oversize decorative pockets, thank Schiap for that artful playfulness!
In what ways do you believe stories of the past can help us to understand things in the present?
I firmly believe that we cannot begin to understand where we are unless we know where we have been. One of my favorite quotes is from Goethe: “ He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living hand to mouth."
Follow Jeanne Mackin on Twitter. The Last Collection is available now from Berkley.