Tapestry and Chanel

Last night we went to see Beautiful, the musical based on Carol King’s songs and life. It was fun, lots of fun. Our lives are marked out with popular songs, and Tapestry, the album for which King will always be best known, was released in 1971, the year after we started at university. Everybody knew that album, and most could relate to its songs of both joy and heartbreak. (It struck me that Adele’s 21 is the modern version.)

I didn’t realise that King was writing songs long before Tapestry. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow was released in 1960 by the Shirelles and was, according to Wikipedia, the first song by a black girl band. Some of the best things in the musical were renditions by Shirelles and the Drifters: they played for laughs but sang beautifully. I learnt too that Neil Sedaka was at school with King (then Klein) in Brookyln, and wrote Oh Carol for her.

The most remarkable thing about the show was the performance by Katie Brayben, a “girl from Peckham” who was almost unknown until this performance. She was convincing as King, even as a 16 year old and sang powerfully and beautifully. Early in the run Carole King was in the audience; how terrifying to have to sing her songs and depict her life in front of her?

I fear, however, that King’s work is not passing the test of time. Most of the audience was older than us. It was all white, grey, or dyed hair and loose, excess flesh.

Coco Chanel, in contrast, is doing marvellously, although she’s been dead for 44 years. We went this morning to the Mademoiselle Privé exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery. The queues are huge, and they are opening the gallery late at night to try and satisfy the crowds.

You enter through a specially designed English autumn garden with installed birdsong. Inside is a French 18th century garden, reminding us that gardens are fundamental to Chanel, to the woman who set women’s bodies free by discarding all the paraphernalia that adorned and encumbered 19th century women.

The whole gallery was transformed, so that you’d hardly recognise the building. Most rooms were black and white, and there were celebrations of Chanel’s hats (she began as a milliner), the objects that inspired her (flowers, wheatsheafs, Greek sculpture, diamonds), her best dresses, and the celebrities who have worn her dresses.

The exhibit that appealed to me the most was a short video in which Karl Lagerfeld holds a conversation, more an argument, with a resurrected Coco Chanel. Each claims all the credit for the continuing success of Chanel. I’m sure both have been essential, and that was, I think, the message that you were supposed to take away.

Why, I wondered, are there such huge queues for a fashion exhibition, far more than for any art exhibition that the Saatchi Gallery has held? Perhaps because fashion is the people’s art in that people, particularly women, express themselves more through how they dress than in any other way. Most of those in the queue were women, and most were young.

I couldn’t also help but reflect on the irony of me—one of the world’s least fashion conscious individuals—queuing for a fashion exhibition. I have come to recognise the importance of fashion and that it’s another art form and maybe one day it will be apparent in the way I dress.


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