Tag Archive | World War I

Coco Chanel ou la Femme au Garçon

Gabriel Chanel was a French low class girl who grew up with her sister in an orphanage after her father having abandoned them there. She never intended to be neither popular not even a dress maker; her aspirations were to be able to make a living by herself without a need for a husband. Her situation was completely different from that of Ives Saint-Laurent who was a bourgeoise with very clear aims within the fashion world and whose master was Dior. The last film about his life affirms the idea that he was the most important fashion designer and changed radically women fashion, something I completely disagree with. I may advocate for Channel as being the most important and radical fashion designer for women, something these two pictures may help to clarify comparing what her contemporaries dressed and she did:

1900mccallsb               coco-chanel-3

Her fashion originated in her views on the corsican: a very useless piece of underwear that limited women’s movement, freedom and comfort. She was the one to remove it allowing the female woman to move freely under her clothes, her flesh to be less carefully controlled by the corsican’s tightness and avoiding thus the formation of the predominant silhouette. The corsican may be seen as a meaningful piece of underwear linked to a particular ideas of the function of women and the representation of her body, probably, related to the decorative idea of woman in the family house, an extreme version of which is the Victorian idea of the angel of the house. The body limitations the corsican imposed show indeed the lack of movement in a woman, that is, her static place at home, and the standing out of her body which may be beautiful, decorative. The corsican’s pressure made even eating difficult, of course strong exercises too as it hindered the breathing. The New Woman at the turn of the century needed indeed to give up corsicans: the new released woman may take upon her manly duties; but even before that, the new dress very well anticipates the female role in society. The Great War served to assert this new fashion as the absence of men made women work on their husbands’ duties.

It is significant that Chanel belonged to the low class: she needed to work and to breathe freely; she loves simplicity, her dresses are no more full of decorations as she is not a decoration but a worker. Her status together with her rejection of marriage helped her to build her ideas on fashion. In 1918, she looked like that:

chanel trousers

That is, she looked like a man. Her short hair au garçon outlining as well its practicality was another cause of criticism becoming a fashion in the 1920s. Chanel changed radically women’s fashion since then; two of her most popular dresses were the little black dress -having been a lady in black a complete unusual and distasteful idea-, and the Chanel suit, that is a work piece for ladies (being both of them reworked till today):

the-little-black-dress2                   jackie-kennedy-in-chanel-suit

Letters from Kabul

letter_ww2If there is an image one can repeatedly find in war literature and film is the reading of a letter, and if there is something especially beautiful one can remember of war literature and film is the reading of a love letter. I was wondering why one find it especially romantic, and I think again Ricoeur will give us an answer.

What characterises a war country is the difficulty of communications, one is not able to to contact the ‘outside’ world whenever one wishes to, even today, which increases the usual qualities of a love letter, mainly desire and waiting, which actually feed each other in an increasing circle of desire and waiting. The non-communication between the two worlds translates into an isolation not just for the war country but for the other one too, say, for example, Afghanistan and England. Isolation is at the end a subjective perception of being deprived of something outside your possibilities, so both the person in London and that in Kabul feel isolated regarding each other, and here comes the importance, even the magic of the letter.

The letter, in such circumstances, becomes the maximal expression of the other, of the other’s presence, acquiring a high, almost vital, importance. At the lack of the other’s body, gestures, voice, words, gaze, anything which constitutes this other, the letter means the whole of this other; it means remembrances, gestures, body, voice, gaze, and meaning. The other is displayed by the letter in the act of reading, especially when one really desires and lacks this person, so the letter as such becomes a metaphor which introduces the reader into the world of the other; thus, London is born in Kabul, whatever it does mean for the reader, every time the letter from London is read, and vice versa. Actually, one puts reality in suspense and inhabits the letter, the one who, and what, is displayed by it. But London is not just displayed in Kabul by and for the reader but it is displayed according to the properties of the one who has written it in London, the writer is completely present in a letter, especially in a love one because that is the main goal of these kind of correspondence: to embody oneself in the mind of the reader through the world displayed by the letter. A good letter, we can say, should be similar to a Barthes’ idea of the text in The Pleasure of the Text, even the body should be expressed by the words without necessity of talking about it, and it may be one of the reason why female and male letters are different, they are also sexualised letters.

That is the power of a letter fulfilling the self by embodying the desired other overcoming distance, even time. A simple letter can mark the time of a person whose source of hope, love and friendship is there: if the post arrives at 7pm, it becomes a crucial hour which one trusts knowing that the spirit is being feeder there for the next 24 hours or more. Whatever the time is between letter and letter, it works by means of hope and it brings the person forward in his or her doings because tomorrow is born from the hope of a letter.

Baroque Gaze in Woolf’s Between the Acts

Theatre-MysteryIn 1940 Virginia Woolf finished Between the Acts, a novel close to The Waves and very clearly belonging to her last years in style and narration. Indeed, Woolf’s last novels are characterised by a strong presence of symbolical meaning and language, a very intuitive perception of the world, something which brings her narrative close to Ricoeur’s understanding of the text as a world to be deciphered by means of words and images. Very symbolical and metaphorical as well as very modernist, Between the Acts is a work within a work, more exactly, a play inside a novel.

The meaning of this novel is more apprehensive by intuition than by logical thought, and the interrelation between the play and the novel belongs, I dare to say, to a metaphysical realm. The whole book describes, or re-describes -using Ricoeur’s concept- the meaning of a single day where a play takes place. The play is a historical one, and it shows the  Elizabethan England, that is, the English Golden Age -calling to some world’s conception; and it is displayed between the wars, in 1939. What is put on stage is life in a fictional realm and in the real one, where the reader finds himself. While the novel’s characters are looking at the stage, the reader is looking at them and beholding the whole scene of looking as a theatre. The sense of scenario is strongly presented to the reader, and it implies a sense of volatility, illusion, in the very least, falsehood. Woolf killed herself a year after writing this novel, and it is very interesting to see how the sense of spectacle permeates the text. In A Sketch of the Past, an autobiographical text written by Woolf during the years 1939-40, she outlines the feeling of being in the world as a spectator, as an outsider. Between the Acts expresses this feeling metaphorically presenting life as a play and making of both, the characters and the reader, spectators; she is sharing her existential experience.

Fiction becomes here the only possible world to create a pre-experience of suicide, of despair. A whole day has become a pageant, and this day is linked to the world through the historical moment represented in the play. The idea of being on the stage so properly of the Baroque epoch comes into play in 1940, where death and futileness were present again in a sense of decadence. Shakespeare and Calderon de la Barca make this point central, life is a stage, however, the difference resides in the extension of the drama: in the Golden Age it was cosmological, in Modernism it is individual. It is Virginia Woolf who is properly experimenting her existential inconsistency, and her novel involves daily characters in a normal day. It is daily life what becomes nonsensical, the individual existence is affected by a non-real experience -maybe this same feeling led Walter Benjamin to write The Origin of German Tragic Drama in 1925. But baroque authors were concerned with a world vision theory, so to say, not with a personal experience of annihilation.

Modernism? What is really all about?

tumblr_lhyqmwpHVj1qcg92oo1_400Roger Griffin, in his article “Modernity, modernism and fascism”, affirms Fascism to be a form of political modernism. To agree with this idea or not, it’s necessary, first of all, to clarify the difference between modernity and modernism. Modernity is a period of time mainly related to a highly industrialisation and use of technique; one of the most common examples of it is the First World War which became the maximum expression of a technological society through military tools and massive destruction never seen before. The highly dehumanisation of this war weapons marked, among other things, a change of mentality in the Western society. Modernism then is the reaction to modernity, to this new cultural phenomenon of highly mechanisation.

However, modernism is a quite contesting term as far as it is full of contradictions and ambiguity. Griffin explains how modernism looked for a regeneration of the Western culture in a period of important decadence especially outlined by Nietzsche. This view lead to a seeking for an elite to guide society into new values , a defence of eugenics or a protection of the pure race in different European countries. A very important example of that is the Bloomsbury Group. It should be noted how this aspect of modernism is usually kept apart. But modernism seems more a kind of cultural monstrosity, nor less interesting, where a writer such as Virginia Woolf could both defence eugenics and produce a work full of sensibility like To the Lighthouse. (It could not be forget that later on, nazis will be one of the most cultivated elite).

Griffin says fascism to be a political modernism, it means then, fascism is a reaction against modernity and its main treats such as mechanisation. But was not the whole Holocaust a very highly technical process of extermination? An extreme rational plan to renew the Western culture? Was not Nazism a new elite like the ideas of the Bloomsbury Group? But was not UK the great ideological enemy of German?  It seems we have here modernity and modernism (in its aims to “save” the European culture) at the same time.

All this casual politically incorrect connections seem to put in question the first part of the 20th century. I would suggest we need research and a lot of courage to look at things and understand them.

Europe in War

I wouldn’t recommend anyone to read Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger who was not interested in a kind of “war report”. In fact, Jünger wrote his war diary during his four years in the World War I and he gave us a piece of faithful events without space for feelings or emotions. This lack of “humanity” has been the cause of several critics,which, like Walter Benjamin, accused Jünger of complicity with the idea of “cult of the war”. The mere fact of describing war events instead of showing a personal experience or an inner-reaction lead some part of the critics to see in Jünger’s narrative a pure “war for war’s sake”.

But before going on, let us see what’s written about war in female fictions. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway shows some male consequences after being in the World War I. Woolf, as in general all women writers of this period, focuses on the consequences of war on human relations. In fact, the general is unable to react to her wife’s demands with any kind of empathy, he’s completely out of question in his returning to London. The main problem is that he can’t express himself what is going in his inner-self. And that, I guess, is the point: the lack of expressivity of the emotions. Woolf’s general, like Jünger, don’t talk about anything which is not outside themselves. The general becomes mad, but his madness is a kind of frustration because of his past experience and it’s related to the breakdown between war what he feels and what he achieve to say. The reader of Woolf knows the female side of the war and feels the destruction of the relationships between women and men. The female suffering, in contrast with Jünger’s, is narrated by an over-expression.

Therefore, I’d say both narratives are coherent with each other even if being so different in style and form. They complement both views which I find a quite interesting topic to analyse.