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Fashion Rebels: From Marie Antoinette to Coco Chanel

Getting in touch with the fashion world’s rebels and icons, Part I

Who are the fashion rebels? What are they against? Or if they’re not contra, maybe they are pro?

It is all about being an individual and refusing to follow a crowd, as my favourite quote says. Rebels should be strong and self-motivated. She should be truly original, create something special, and be steel-hearted so she can show up even though there is always the risk of falling on her face. Our ego is our weakest point, regardless of whether we want it or not. And sometimes our social status makes this weakest point even weaker.

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” So said Mahatma Gandhi. Who are the winners in the small and enormous world of fashion? They have different stories that, due to the era, sound like fairy tales invented by writers. Anyway, because of their creations, lifestyle or some other thing, they are still idols and rebels at the same time. Nobody, not even Her Royal Highness Fashion with her magazines, rumours, hot cuts and new face, can do anything about the veterans and bad boys of the fashion world.

Rose Bertin was a dressmaker, ironically called Minister of Fashion, and her dresses were to help Marie Antoinette combat her enemies with style. The Austrian princess rebelled against the rigorous rules of Versailles from the very beginning. When she first arrived at court, she refused to wear her corset, an absolute must-have of the time, and wore masculine riding breeches, an extraordinary caprice even for a future queen. Then she suppressed the ritual of not dressing oneself: Once awake, the royal person was to choose the countess who would have the honour of giving a chemise to the queen. Aristocracy did not take to her ideas, but then she went further. Together with her dressmaker, she created fantasy dresses and hairstyles, such as 90-centimetre-high poufs with panache. Moreover, she and her court returned to dresses made of indienne (a material that had been illegal in France for 73 years), as well as persale and muslin, the latter particularly liked by the Queen of Haute Couture.

After she forbade heavy make-up and the popular wide-hooped panniers at court, the old generation was furious. Nonetheless, the queen did not listen to rumours and critics; she continued spending millions on fashion and launching new trends. The newest was a simple, feminine look presented by the luminous muslin dress, which Marie Antoinette wore in the portrait by Vigee-Le Brun (1783).

The gown was the cause of a big scandal – a simple maid’s dress was not proper for a queen, but the dress was so popular that people called it “the Queen’s Shirt”. It’s no wonder that at that time all Versailles wanted to look like her. Many aristocrats paid a high price for dressing-up glamorously. The queen herself paid the highest one. Her dressmaker was so grateful for the business that during the French Revolution, weeks before the queen’s execution, she delivered underwear and dresses to the jailed Marie Antoinette free of charge. The queen’s life ended tragically, but her baroque style was the example to follow for monarchs and is still a source of inspiration for most famous modern designers.

My next heroine wasn’t born in a luxurious palace with a staff and nanny, but just the opposite, in poverty, almost 133 years ago. She wasn’t pampered in her early days like a gifted child either. On the contrary, her mother died when she was 12 and she was sent to a home for orphaned girls. It was not the finest place on Earth, but she was able to flee and survived. Later, in Deauville, with the help of her lover, Mademoiselle opened her first boutique with casual clothes. The next one she opened in Biarritz. By 1919, Coco Chanel established her maison de couture at 31 rue Cambon in one of the most fashionable districts of Paris. Some years later, the number of her employees reached 4,000.

It’s hard to believe that almost 90 years ago, US Vogue featured a drawing of a simple black dress decorated with a few diagonal lines and signed by Coco Chanel. They called it “Chanel’s Ford” and it is still very timely. It was not just the model in a new style; it was the symbol of a new un-corseted lifestyle, something comfortable and elegant. The quality of materials can be different, but the design was accessible for every woman and suitable for a million occasions.