Photograph courtesy of Chanel.

The Coolest Jazz Age Princess Wrote an Amazing Tribute to Coco Chanel’s Handbags

And compared the way Coco used handkerchiefs to Cleopatra.

by Rachel Tashjian
Mar 5 2018, 7:46pm

Photograph courtesy of Chanel.

Chanel just released its stunner of a Spring handbag campaign, featuring Kaia Gerber reclining on Coco Chanel’s magnificent suede couch—which Chanel herself famously designed; this interview from the late ‘60s shows her perched on it—with a few choice pieces from the new collection. Along with the images, Chanel also shared with the press an excerpt from Princess Elizabeth Bibesco’s 1928 out-of-print book Noblesse de Robe, an ode to the designer’s accessorizing skills titled “Gabrielle or the Genius of Accessories,” which you may want to make your new style manifesto.

Princess Bibesco, an Englishwoman who married a Hungarian prince, was a fascinating figure herself: she charmed George Bernard Shaw into writing a play for her to direct at age 12; she was lifelong pals with Marcel Proust; and she wrote a number of witty and surreal novels, short stories, plays, and poems. Her essay on Chanel is one of the most delightful and thoughtful assessments of a woman’s personal style you will ever read: “She excels in fine details, letting all her whim and fancy and imagination shine out, cautiously and controlled however, as Gabrielle is too classical to allow anything that would affect the purity of her outline.”

Chanel is a legendarily elusive figure—countless biographies have been written about her, and women worldwide covet her clothing, but it can be difficult, still, to understand her temperament and personality, and the bewitching effect she and her appearance had on others. Writing on Chanel’s casual dress, Princess Bibesco gives us a sense of the radical nature of Chanel’s style, which can be difficult to understand given how ubiquitous the look she invented now is. “Here she is dressed in a clean-cut and sober outfit, her ‘morning wear’ that would appear poor to anyone who didn’t know how to distinguish between richness and preciousness,” Princess Bibesco writes. “But to accompany this ‘convent habit’ she takes a handbag, a large handbag that she carries under her arm. Its soft leather, gold clasp and tender and hermetic aspect, all suggest some kind of hidden luxury, of invisible jewels that Perrault’s ‘Donkeyskin’ might have taken off with her in her flight.”

When Princess Bibesco gets to Chanel’s handbags—which would go on to become, of course, the most famous in the world—things really get interesting. Her observations how Chanel held, carried, and displayed her bag are vital for any woman who thinks that it-bags are just for showing off under your arm (or that tote bags are totally fine). “Usually, Gabrielle clutches a small hexagonal gold box in her left hand,” she writes. “She poses it on the restaurant table at lunch, and here, poses a question of elegance, as this personal possession changes the white tablecloth into conquered territory.” Later, she adds, “Sometimes a powder box hangs from her wrist by chains. She opens and shuts it like a reliquary. It helps her to recreate her own image and at the same time cover her forehead in ash that shares the same consistency but not the taste of liturgical dust.”

Princess Bibesco also relates a fascinating detail about how Chanel styled a handkerchief. “It was she, who launched the fashion of wearing a silk handkerchief tied firmly around the wrist to staunch the flow of blood from a bite so as to continue on dancing.

It’s nothing really, but it had to be done.

The handkerchief was red so the blood wouldn’t stain it, or green in reference to the asp’s venom—O Cleopatra!”

Princess Bibesco ends this tribute with a line of poesy that will make you think about accessorizing as a totally holy act: “She knows that in accessories lies personality, this indefinable force that is all that’s love and of which the foreseen loss makes the idea of death unbearable.”

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Coco Chanel