First in the new “3 lessons in personal style” series, we’ll be taking a look at Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (better known simply as ‘Colette’).
Keira Knightley’s dazzling performance as the proto-feminist fin-de-siècle author and performer Colette may spell a revived interest in her legendary personal style.
In Colette, we see the author’s novels, and particularly the mesmerising character of Claudine, take Paris by storm. Colette’s own life experiences did much to inspire her writing, so too, her formidable fashion sense influenced and inspired the women who read her novels. In the film there are mini Claudines seen dotted about Paris, all sporting a pseudo-demure school girl black dress with a white collar. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see a few Claudines roaming the streets of Paris, London or New York today. A more likely source of inspiration, though, may be the dreamy country girl dresses of Colette’s youth, or the chic ensembles and masculine suits she favours in her Paris years.
Costume designer Andrea Flesch’s incredible attention to detail and commitment to period authenticity lends an air of grace to the production. Flesch points out that Colette’s style choices mirror her own personal evolution, but equally importantly, the shifting fashions and public thought in society at the turn of the century. “This period changed quite often; the shapes changed every two or three years…It was a very interesting time in fashion, the 1890s-1910s.” Colette, however, had her own style. “She was as free [with clothes] as she was in everything.”
Colette’s legacy still looms large over Hollywood and fashion houses today. The legendary Paris boutique Colette (which closed only in 2017), of course, was named for her. Colette can even be credited with discovering Givenchy star and eventual fellow fashion icon Audrey Hepburn, having cast the virtually unknown actress in a theatre adaptation of her novel Gigi in 1951. Colette, and Wash Westmoreland’s cinematic representation of her, can still offer some valuable lessons to us in the 21st Century in terms of using fashion as a vehicle for our own self expression and self realisation. As Lauren Cochrane points out in her article for The Guardian, “Style isn’t a footnote of Colette’s legacy, it’s a central part of it. Sixty-five years after her death, her influence extends beyond your bookshelf, Instagram captions and cinema: Colette’s free spirit is inspiring our wardrobes, too.”
Here are 3 lessons in personal style from Colette to live by
1. Priortise comfort and personal style over trends
Colette wears what makes her feel comfortable. She dislikes the garish red dress that Willy bought her and is uncomfortable in a corset. So she doesn’t wear it. The decision to not wear a corset is actually ideologically significant. The corset in 18th and 19th century Europe was not simply something to wear to make the waist look smaller and the breasts look bigger, but a complicated and often contradictory symbol of culture and society. It was representative of both the sexuality and sensuality of the female form but also of virginal obedience and patriarchal control of women’s bodies. Society closely associated a tightly-laced waist with a tightly controlled mind. Usually women and pubescent girls were simply not allowed to opt out of wearing the corset. Colette’s rejection of the corset therefore is not just a mere fashion choice, its a rebellion against society itself and its expectations of her as a woman.
Clothing should be about enjoyment and expression of personal style. It should be about you, what you like, what you think and what represents who you are. If other people don’t like it – and Parisian high society certainly didn’t – who cares? The people who have confidence in their own style and what they like to wear don’t follow the trends, they set them.
2. Don’t be afraid to experiment
Sticking to clothes or a look that make you feel like you, shouldn’t mean a wardrobe and style that never changes. Your personal style should evolve with you, it should represent who you are at that point in time, even on that day. We see Colette evolve in the film from a self-proclaimed country girl hailing from rural Burgundy, to elegant Parisienne de la mode. Her style reflects that personal transformation. Things you cling to as a personal signature don’t actually have to be permanent. At the beginning of the film, Colette has extraordinarily long hair, which she claims she would “never” cut. But when she does, she inadvertently creates a look that becomes iconic and flies in the face of traditional expectations of femininity.
3. Fearlessly be yourself
Fashion and style should be an outward expression of who you are on the inside. The most immediately apparent manifestation of this for Colette is in her mixing of masculine and feminine. Her clothes come to represent her sexual identity. Colette could probably be identified as bisexual or pansexual in today’s terms. In the film we see three overlapping romantic and sexual relationships, with Willy, then Belle and finally with Missy. At first her style is quite traditionally feminine with soft light colours, flowing fabrics and frills aplenty. Later, as she starts to explore her attraction to women and engages in an affair with Belle, her clothing starts to reflect a more nuanced version of herself that encompasses both masculine and feminine traits.
This was Flesch’s vision for Colette. As she tells Vogue; rather than adhering to the binding, rigid fashion of her peers, Colette creates her own signature style made up of simple blouses, cravats, cropped jackets. “I made my costumes simple and chic, but a little tomboyish…This balance of masculine and feminine was exactly my aim with the costumes.” Colette gets even more radical later in the film, flouting gender norms with Missy as a gender-defying influence and source of inspiration, she gets even more daring with her fashion choices and wears a man’s three-piece suit. Like Missy, she wanted to break the rules, she wanted to shock. Despite this, Colette remains steadfastly her own person.
Colette-inspired fashion for the 21st Century
The Country Girl
Sézane, Jules Blouse, (€105)
Almost identical to the lacy high-neck blouses Colette has, but still chic and wearable.
The Claudine Dress
The Boater Hat
ASOS, natural straw easy boater, (£12)
Forever 21, Contrast-Trim Straw Boater Hat, (£12)
The Sailor Dress
Yes Style, Sailor Elbow-Sleeve Top, (£15.88)
White Shirts and Blouses (worn with a dark cravat)
Shirt: Sézane, Pierre shirt (£80)
Black Necktie: Yes Style, Plain Ribbon Bow Tie (£4.72)
Blue Necktie: Yes Style, Ribbon Bow Tie (£5.25)
The contrasting monochrome colours are both simple and classic, feminine and masculine.
Left, ASOS, Tailored Mix & Match Suit in Black, (from £45)
Right, Debenhams, The Collection – Grey pinstripe suit jacket (£24.50)
Wearing a suit in 2019 doesn’t have quite the same shock factor as it did in 1909 but it can still give you a sexy masculine edge.
&Other Stories, Hourglass Herringbone Blazer, (£80)
UNIQLO, Women Satin Smart Ankle Length Trousers, (£24.90)
Incorporating individual tailored pieces such as a sharp blazer with jeans, or suit trousers with a casual T-shirt is an understated way of elevating an outfit.
Lessons in personal style we can learn from Colette
1. Prioritise comfort and personal style over trends
2. Don’t be afraid to experiment
3. Fearlessly be yourself
And a bonus: 4. “Don’t ever wear artistic jewelry; it wrecks a woman’s reputation.”
Even rule-breakers have rules.
*Images are not my own. All images were sourced from the websites mentioned or stills from Colette, Lionsgate, 2018. No copyright infringement intended.