Keira Knightley is back on the silver screen, starring in another aesthetically pleasing period drama and doing what she does best: playing a headstrong woman pushing against the constraints of a patriarchal society. Colette, though, is different for many reasons. The first being that it isn’t a story we’re familiar with, unlike, say, Pride and Prejudice or Atonement.
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette’s story is one of autonomy and creative independence, of defying expectations of gender and sexuality. A country girl, whose family was so poor they couldn’t offer her husband a dowry, she married the well known author and publisher Henry 'Willy' Gauthier-Villars through a family connection.
Willy was an extravagant and indulgent libertine, 14 years Colette's senior, who knew everyone at Paris' glittering literary salons. He enlisted his impressionable young wife as his ghost writer but when her coming-of-age fiction series, Claudine, based on her own experiences, became widely known, Colette demanded to be acknowledged as its author. Willy refused, locking her away and forcing her to write – even when she found the process excruciating.
When Willy withheld the rights to the Claudine books, and Colette refused to continue writing them, she took to the stage, travelling around the music halls of France – a pursuit she enjoyed but which rarely earned her enough money to live on. Her creative autonomy came around the same time as her affairs with various society women, most notably the Marquise de Belbeuf, Mathilde de Morny, known as Missy and who identified as both male and female. Together they caused quite a stir; at one performance, Rêve d'Egypte, an on-stage kiss with Missy caused a riot, and their gender-bending three-piece suits and cropped hairstyles raised eyebrows in the early 1900s.
But it’s not just Colette’s literary success and radical relationships that make this film such a treat – it’s the fashion, too. "We built up every look very consciously," Colette costume designer Andrea Flesch. "She always found a way to mix femininity and masculinity. The dominant element always changed, but they were both always present in her outfits."
Mirroring her emancipation from both her husband’s and society’s stronghold, the film shows Colette go from prim and proper country girl (all floor-sweeping dresses and romantic fabrics) to glamorous Parisienne (with high necks, ruffles and sumptuous detailing), finally becoming herself with kicky nautical jackets, three-piece suits, and that infamous cropped hair. The key tenets of Colette's wardrobe? "Clean, functional items, blouses with men's collars, vests, bolero-style jackets, ties…. And of course the straw hat, the canotier. Small details such as tie pins and brooches were also indispensable parts of her outfits."
If you thought Coco Chanel was fashion's turn-of-the-century trailblazer, Colette proves that there was more than one woman defying the rules with her style. Her arrival in Paris was the catalyst for change in all areas of her life, Andrea explains, and it is here that she became something of an influencer. "She underwent a huge transformation, both internal and external. She didn't copy the dominating trends of the era, but gradually found her own unique style. She didn't care about conventions and her outfits were more puritan compared to the general style of that time."
It wasn't just personal style that made Colette a woman ahead of her time, though. In 1951 she discovered Audrey Hepburn by casting her in the stage production of her novel Gigi – way before Hubert de Givenchy claimed her as his muse. The cult Parisian boutique Colette was named after her, too.
Colette was the rule-breaker of her time, a woman who chose to defy societal and spousal expectations in pursuit of her own identity, but she transcends eras too. From her fierce creative independence to her flair for fashion, we're taking lessons in the tour-de-force writer in 2019.
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