PRINT November 1992


Glamour Wounds

RICH AS HELL, BUT OLD and alone, Coco Chanel spent her final years at the Ritz, wheezing, increasingly cranky, and sensitized to other people’s odors. When she got really old, she wouldn’t die. At night she used to sleepwalk through the Ritz, where staff people would find her wandering in the hallway. They said she always looked impeccable.

While Chanel seems to stand for the ultimate in “Modernist” values: good design, originality, and signature style, in fact she also undermined the cliches of high-Modernist fetish practice by inventing expensive costume jewelry, which put in question the difference between real and fake fetishes. She openly enjoyed other people’s rip-offs of her designs, because they were free advertising. Late this century, street knock-offs of Chanel items have proliferated in major urban centers, trading on the senseless but effective fetish power of the Chanel logo and secondary style characteristics such as gold chains, pearls and quilting. Karl Lagerfeld, Coco’s successor, now vampirizes the street vampirizations of his hi-end pastiches, knocking-off his own knock-offs, at couture prices, closing the circle of stylistic cannibalism around this baroque self-referential void.

To go to the Chanel boutique was as traumatic for me as seeing Madonna in person. I was commanded to expel myself as a symbolic turd: constitutionally flawed, a heterogeneous element that had to be pressed out of my reality because it couldn’t coexist with all that senseless plenitude. No one noticed this. In what is taken for objective reality, my body was in a boutique on Michigan Avenue. Why did my head feel like it was going to explode? Those people are salespeople, I observed. They were also the vehicles of mocking superegoic thought-voices, expanding in my mind into an endopsychic broadcast of deafening volume. Harmful voices were projected throughout the boutique, dizzying me with statements of my foreclosure from Chanel: my symbolic turdiness.

I scanned the objects with a wild and vacant stare: like the Man of the Crowd. I totally couldn’t focus on anything, priced nothing, spoke no word. My friend picked up some kind of weird-shaped oblong quilted bag to show me. I recollect it as a blur. I felt like a strange fleshy mass with no command of my faculties—like Jonah in the belly of the Chanel big Other, dodging the persecutory blows of its signifiers in the form of bags, pumps, and suits. The Chanel boutique is the world of yum-yum: a shop full of dazzling absurd phalluses fully equipped to beam you up and save you. . . .

Some petty operative held the door as I left: I needed air. Forces in my mind squeezed me in an obscene pincer action between what I had obviously internalized as the hotline to cultural salvation—to have (and/or be) the hot glistening commodity—and my now and future failure to have any satisfying intercourse with it whatsoever. I came back to the real: my nonencounter with the commodity signifier. As the site of trauma, the site of the lost thing, it is impossible to symbolize; you can only circle around it in interpretative impotence. Or buy it, if possible.


My vertigo was not affected by the knowledge that none of the salespeople could afford anything in the store either. In my delirium, they played the part of fabulously rich royalty slash geniuses who sold accessories as a hobby, in between jetting off to sumptuous beach homes or villas, having one-person shows at MoMA, and chatting with Liz Taylor on the phone. The symbolic efficacy of the staff and products as mocking accusers was such that I couldn’t have felt worse if Coco or Karl Lagerfeld himself were there looking at me. I was shocked that I could be so viscerally besieged by mere products and functionaries, who were in fact ignoring me. But as superegoic agencies they were more efficient: sadism always takes the form of bureaucratic neutrality, or “mischievous neutrality,” according to the theorist Slavoj Žižek. As dumb objects, these products and employees represented capital’s total indifference to me, its lack of appreciation, respect—its inability to recognize me as a person except through cash or credit. According to Freud, masochistic symptoms are often relieved when something really lousy happens in your life, e.g. you enter a rotten marriage, or lose all your money in business. To reap therapeutic gain, the masochist maintains a steady state of degradation, or low-grade pain; when life gets too pleasant, misery has to be organized with more exertion (in this case by shopping).

In his recent book For They Know Not What They Do, Žižek distinguishes between enjoyment and pleasure: when you enjoy yourself, obscene superegoic agencies command you to enjoy by organizing your failure to live up to its impossible demands. You enjoy yourself when you fail to obey the command to enjoy, while pleasure has the more “pathological” function, i.e. self-preservation in the interest of the ego. . . . I enjoyed myself in the Chanel boutique: charged with superegoic voices, getting off.


According to Madame, “When fake jewelry is well made and attractive (and I believe mine is), it’s meant to demolish real jewelry. Because I’ve set out to destroy certain people. . . . Those who make fools of themselves by going out covered in diamonds. . . .” By mixing fake jewelry with real, and supposedly deconfusing wealth with chic, Chanel made a fortune “liberating” people from the fetish power of “real” jewels. Her fakes weren’t cheap and still aren’t. For example, I recently saw a plastic bangle for $400. It was really cute. And Karl Lagerfeld is like a little Chanel warrior possessed by Madame’s healthy sense of destruction and irreverence: “In fashion you cannot respect anything. . . . You have to be rough and tough. . . . In the moment I enter the building, I feel Chanel. You know I’m a kind of computer programmed for Chanel.” Smart.

Chanel, who functions culturally as the big Other of glamour and scene of imaginary plenitude, in fact, had her own private glamour wound. She didn’t nurse it. She cauterized it with style. She pronounced: “Youth must be replaced with mystery,” and to ensure this she paid off her decidedly unaristocratic relations to live “quietly” and well in the country. As we read in the flowery tome of her “official memoirist” Edmonde Charles-Roux, along with real jewelry and “certain people,” Coco wanted to blow up the judgmental gaze (the memory within herself and others) that would see her always as the irreguliére of her early days, when she gained entrée into the sporty set as the penniless but sassy mistress of a playboy named Boy (Capel). By all accounts a trouper, she built her empire on the scar tissue of this social wound. While recreating herself as a one-woman institution and achieving the highest grade of wealth and fabulousness, she couldn’t literally re-birth (or even marry) herself into the ultimate scene of yumyum for her: blue blood. While the most intractable fabric yielded to Madame’s masterful hands, biology defied her. Plus her own die-hard snobbery. She harbored a lifelong resentment against high-born people (which did not prevent her from going out with them). While Chanel functions as big Other aggravating other people’s narcissistic glamour wounds, she herself was not replete.

“Luxury is the necessity that begins where necessity ends.” Madame was fond of making pronouncements in the style of bon mots, in a tone peculiar to fashionspeak in which remarks about hems are pronounced with the gravity of the theory of relativity and the definitiveness of someone divulging the winner of an Emmy. In fashionspeak, style is the sentence that can free or condemn a serial killer, or even someone guilty of pettier crimes. In the implicit rules of the fashion world, style can replace biography with the appropriate “mystery,” which effectively turns into some kind of truth. I agree with Madame: “I can’t understand how a woman can leave the house without fixing herself up a little—if only out of politeness.”

Rhonda Lieberman is a writer and critic. She teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.