Illustration by Juliette Borda

Chanel at Home Plate

This is the story of my Chanel suit, and how it has changed my life (so far)

I bought the suit secondhand, at a little shop near the Los Angeles Farmers Market, for $125. It had the classic cardigan jacket, in a red-cream-and-blue bouclé, with braid trim and patch pockets. I was the suit’s third owner, the shopkeeper told me. The Beverly Hills woman who had owned it last inherited it from an opera singer, who bought it in the early ‘80s at Bergdorf’s in New York. At the time, it retailed for the price of a good used luxury car.

The conceptual artist Charles Ray has an early work titled “All My Clothes.” It’s a series of photographs of Ray in…all his clothes: flannel shirts, corduroy pants, two jackets, boots, sneakers—basic ‘70s artistwear.

It’s a portrait of a life. You can see from the clothes how he lives, where he does and doesn’t go. His appears to be a focused, intense, productive life of action, with no loose ends, no unwanted obligations. There are no shirts for Sunday dinner with Mom, no goofy black outfits for white-wine gallery openings, no beach trunks. His clothes are fully committed, the sign of a man present at every moment in his skin’s skin.

Were I to make a collage of the contents of my closet, it would look like the debris collected after the crash of a big commuter plane. As biography, my dental records would be more revealing. Only my shoes are beginning to acquire moral weight: brown and cream colored Gucci and Ferragamo loafers, a pair of two-tone Delman pumps; conservative, expensive, tasteful shoes of the kind that gets you excellent service in car dealerships and restaurants with executive chefs. They’re well-worn. And I am prepared to die in any pair of them.

How many things in life can one say that about? A house, a marriage, a job, a car, a body? What is it like to have a wardrobe that fits the soul so well that one travels through life in it utterly unafraid?

The first time I wore my Chanel suit was to a party marking a friend’s death. The day was hotter than hell, but I wore the damned suit, as Donald had been its intended audience when I bought it.

Donald Rawley gave me my first Chanel: a pair of clip-on earrings that had been his mother’s—interlocking C’s in pearls and rhinestones. When I tried on the suit in the store, I thought of wearing it for him, to his next party, playing the cool, suited Hitchcock blond in pearls and slingbacks for his amusement. But he died before I saw him again, a 40 year-old glamour boy playing an 80 year-old *grande dame * to the end, expiring among his dogs and treasures and friends and lover in his mirrored and feathered party nest.

Donald and I were both writers, but we almost never talked about writing. Instead, we spoke fashion, trading gossip and observations about the appearance of people and things. Both of us naturally assumed the quickest way to parse the soul of a man was through the way he wore his collar and the crease in his pants, his posture sitting on a couch.

From Donald I learned that every image you see with your eyes can also be fully imagined. Women in the stories he told always walked into rooms dripping with description. From him I learned that dressing the part is one way of giving the ordinary moments in life the heft of fiction.

Oh, God! Let life not be a raveling, mismatched, colorless, missing-button affair!

So I wore the suit in 90-degree Valley heat, with tons of junk jewelry and too much makeup. Never have I been so miserable in an outfit.

But it was a party, the last Donald party, and his parties were always about a tottering hairdo or heels or scratchy crinolines or binding bodices or earrings that wore like the tongs of Hephaestus. If you didn’t dress for it, you weren’t really at the party.

When I close my eyes and picture myself sitting on a divan in Donald’s library, there’s a blind greyhound at my feet, a weak martini in my hand, a man in a lemon-yellow pantsuit reminiscing about Rita and Ali in Switzerland, and I’m wearing an Adolfo gown and pearl bracelets from India. Every muscle in my body musters to the image, and I am all girl!

But I am not all girl. I’m not all anything, not very often, torn as I am between my Brooks Brothers, my board shorts, and my cowboy boots. Donald managed to be all something, in the ten-year party leading up to his death, writing books and driving Cadillacs, entertaining, making friends with a collection of people like me. All queen, all man, all writer. When you haven’t much time, it isn’t about parsing anymore. Everything is a declaration.

What does a human being with no fear look like? Very young or very old. Most of us are neither. So I buy a formidable suit at 35 and wait to see what happens.

I wear lipstick when I’m home alone. This is how I make my life my own?

I have had the Chanel suit for two years now. I’ve worn it twice. It’s not that I haven’t tried to wear the suit many times over. Shortly after the funeral it repelled my best efforts when I was dressing for a lunch in Beverly Hills—certainly a suitable enough occasion, goodness knows.

But no, said the suit with a white turtleneck. No no, said the skirt alone with a cream cashmere twinset. No way in hell, said the jacket alone with a red skirt. Not even my final ruse—the jacket thrown atop Gap jeans and a California Angels T-shirt—could make the suit wearable. Not that day.

I was tired, my sinuses ached, my hair needed a trim, and I hadn’t seen, done, or thought anything particularly wonderful in weeks. I wasn’t “on.” And neither was the world. The suit is only viable at certain times—when my neurochemical makeup conspires with the barometric pressure and odd lapses of history to make the day specifically compelling.

So instead, I wore the fallback outfit, my day pajamas: a black polyester pinstriped suit with a long, straight skirt that I bought new a couple of years ago, at Sears, for $60. That damned suite is more comfortable than the hair on my head. When I wear it I feel invisible and competent. It gets in and out of a car well, and almost to my dismay, someone with taste always says, “Hey, that’s a great suit!”

It is what future historians will consider an early example of therapeutic clothing: The polyester is snug all over, making you feel pulled together, and it’s stretchy enough to make you feel endlessly and effortlessly forgiven for all things at all times.

The Chanel suit, on the other hand, is a test. It will take your measure as a woman, and it will empower you to the extent that you pass muster. Like a military dress uniform, it is meant not to hide flaws, but to announce an achieved state of perfect readiness, a harmonic convergence of taste, honor, zeal, decorum and blood lust. For there is a marked cruelty to this state of being, one that makes some people squirm. Others call it ugly. But the cruelty latent in the suit’s design is in fact nothing but the oh-so-unfeminine detritus of power.

In 1951, Jean Cocteau wrote in his journal of his long friendship with Coco Chanel: “Some people have luck enough to meet others of a color which mixes nicely with their own, and this new color is pleasant; some people meet only colors which mix badly. And some people meet only their complementary colors. (Chanel’s case.) From which results certain friendships full of hatred. You are inseparable, and you hate each other.”

Coco Chanel, it is variously said, hated women, homosexuals, Jews. But it seems to me that Coco exercised a very masculine prerogative of finding everyone and everything inanimate until vivified by her affection. This is a common enough state of being, one of hatred marred only by unavoidable episodes of inappropriate and absolute love.

Coco grew up in an orphanage, and like so many orphans, she admired all things military. She got her nickname singing in a cabaret frequented by the regiment, and she began her career by decorating the straw boaters that her soldier boyfriend’s coterie of actresses and divas wore to the races. She made her name during World War I, selling resortwear cut from military cloth to wealthy women in Deauville. She invented the little black dress. During World War II, she dated a Nazi and seriously dreamed of being a secret agent negotiating peace with Churchill. She was also a peasant, a liar, and a snob. That’s the problem with being self-made: It’s so easy to stray into the ridiculous.

There’s a photograph of Coco climbing a tree. She’s wearing pants and her trademark jewelry. I find this picture incredibly touching; in it, she’s neither masculine nor feminine, just an odd, self-made creature up a tree.

A male friend asked me one night at dinner, “What is the whole Chanel thing about? I just don’t get it.” By the “Chanel thing” he meant the suit, the junk jewelry, the quilted purse, the Look.

The “Chanel thing” is masculine, and feminine, and gay, and scary. The classic Chanel suit, with its dour lines, its shiny buttons and ribbon trim, is an underground uniform. This is why the Chanel suit endures, why it lies outside the range of fashion per se—a static phenomenon, like black tie or the gray flannel suit, enduring minor variations but always surviving as the thing-in-itself. I tried to look at my suit and judge it on its aesthetic appeal, but it can’t be done. Is it flattering? Wrong question. A military dress uniform “cuts a figure” that is recognizable as dashing and gallant. But are these qualities intrinsic to the uniform, or have they merely been ascribed, as in stone, over time?

Whom would I ask? T. E. Lawrence, perhaps.

The second wearing of my Chanel suit requires some history:

My aunt Marilyn was the prettiest girl in Klamath Falls, Oregon, a rodeo princess. My grandparents owned a grocery store. The whole family was crazy for baseball. When Marilyn dinged the car downtown, she told her father it had happened because she was reading the box scores when the light turned red, and he naturally forgave her right away. It was 1949, the summer of her senior year, and Marilyn fell in love with a minor-league ballplayer from Seattle, and he with her. Every Friday evening he came to the house to play canasta, and on game days, Marilyn watched him from the family box right over home plate. Then one day a girl from Seattle showed up on the coach’s doorstep, very pregnant.

Marilyn’s beau didn’t show up for canasta that Friday. That Sunday, Marilyn sat in the family box and watched her boyfriend get married at home plate—while the whole town of Klamath Falls watched her.

Many years later, many times divorced, still very young and pretty, my Aunt Marilyn was in a boating accident. The gas engine exploded, and she literally burst into flames. She stood on the deck of the boat, her whole body on fire. If my father hadn’t reached up and pulled her into the water, she would not have survived.

My aunt is in her 60s now, long and happily married. I knew about the fire, but didn’t learn about her ballplayer until just last summer. She told me the story in a sweet, hypnotic tone, as if she hadn’t thought about it in a long time but still had thought about it every day without knowing it. “I never saw him again,” she said.

Now I saw her faint, lacy scars all over again, not just as a record of what had happened to her, of the fire to be sure, but as scars of what didn’t happen. And it hit me like a big, soft hammer: How could a young girl stand in that box and watch that wedding and not eventually, someday, simply burst into flames?

Marilyn’s stories took up residence in me. I dreamed of myself naked and covered in a flickering sheet of blue flame, glowing like Lord Krishna. By day I felt hot, dry and enervated; a feeling that, without those stories, I might have called anxiety. Then one day I was reading an item about bone marrow transplants for cancer patients, and the feeling seized up in me, like a fist squeezing a lump of clay so hard it turns into a smooth stone. The elements cooled and fell into order.

In order to receive a bone marrow transplant, patients are bombarded by enough chemicals to kill them, literally burning their bodies up from the inside out. Only at the point of death is the donor marrow introduced, a dousing, quelling injection. A fake-throw-to-second cure.

Becoming a bone marrow donor, I thought, would quell the heat my aunt’s story had set off in me. And the bone marrow transplant procedure was invented in Cooperstown, New York, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

To register as a marrow donor, you must first go and have your tissue typed. I made an appointment at the Red Cross, and a week later, I was driving my pickup truck down the 10 freeway, listening to sports radio and wearing my Chanel suit for the second time.

The suit was what I wore instead of scar tissue.

Do you smoke? Have you ever been to Africa? Have you ever slept with anyone who has slept with anyone who has slept with an IV-drug user? Have you ever paid for sex? Have you ever worn brown shoes with a black suit? Has anyone in your immediate family ever died of heartbreak?

When they jammed the needle into my arm, a radio came on behind my head, loud, playing Bobby Darin. Not “Beyond the Sea,” but “Clementine”: That old bridge trembled, and disassembled, and dumped her into the foamy brine.

I have had my donor card for five years, but no one has called to ask for my marrow, and the story has no ending, and may never, and it threatens to collapse in on itself and die, as unfinished stories do.

I saw a woman walking toward me down the street the other day, at eight in the morning. From two blocks away I watched her approach, a silhouette only, but a peculiarly arresting one. As she shimmered in and out of view against the bright pavement, I waffled:

Was it dignity or insanity that made her gait? Was she a crazy old bat in a getup or a great old dame? I still didn’t know as she passed by me and I saw the silver interlocking C’s on the toes of her shoes. I shivered.

By owning the suit, do I create this future for myself? What we want for ourselves—our desires, the exact degree of faith present at any given time—is measured each morning standing in front of the closet. What to wear? Which pair of shoes? Small, cumulative decisions, daily sorties into identity.

My aunt called me up one day, fairly bursting. She had booked a trip the Kentucky Derby, a lifelong dream. Right away I wanted to buy her a big straw boater to wear to the race, and this seemed like a good reason to hit the Chanel store on Rodeo Drive. My aunt must have a Chanel hat to wear to the derby, I thought. So I went.

Climbing the stairs to the ready-to-wear department, I saw my reflection in the wall of mirrors: a woman with blond curls and a bright red handbag, buying her aunt a hat to wear to the races. All in all, this seemed as good a way of life as any I could think of.

Except they didn’t have any hats.

I fingered cashmere sweaters as light as a layer of dew, soft buttercup-linen summer suits, indiscernible silk shifts—all of them pale, fragile things you could wear only if you already knew how to fly by thinking happy thoughts. Then I found a rack of sturdier weights, among them a navy-blue, sleeveless frock made of panels of featherweight neoprene—like a wet suit, only as gentle as heresy. There were no hems, just the few up-and-down seams and two tiny interlocking C’s embroidered at the neck; a girl’s uniform for land, sea and space travel, and I fell.

I signed my name and number in the book, reserving the dress in my size, and some weeks later I got a call saying that my dress has arrived from Paris.

This was the first time I had ever spent serious money on a piece of clothing. But hope is very, very expensive, and oh, to be immortal, even for one good week. Wouldn’t that render all the other off-the-rack manifestations of self, both past and future, at least a little obsolete?

My aunt went off to the races with a nice Hermes scarf. And I know for a fact that when I’m 80 I’ll be off to Mars in my little Chanel space suit.

This piece originally appeared in Equity Magazine, Fall 1999. Hillary Louise Johnson is the author of Physical Culture, a novel, and founder of the publishing company Dymaxicon.

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