Some Things I Hate About Chanel

At the international airport is an office called the Tourist Refund Scheme.  Tourists can spend their money, save their receipts and upon the day of departure claim their 10% GST back.  The government in its wisdom thinks this is good for business.  But nobody likes to work there because naturally this attracts a horde of locusts all brandishing wads of receipts.  There are long delays they chafe impatiently at and they get upset if receipts are ineligible for refunds.

And the receipts all detail orgies of spending that outline in merciless detail what shallow personal priorities people can have.  I mean, why do people spend $5000 and upwards on a Chanel handbag that wouldn’t even hold half the stuff I need to survive?  My male colleagues deplore the waste.  But the Chinese students love them.  Coming from a country where cheap fake brands are easily obtainable everywhere, the distinctive and unmistakeable stamp of authenticity holds a very special cachet for these girls who are probably starving themselves to get hold of a Chanel bag.

Over the counter, hundreds of them are displayed for claims every day.  Each exquisite bag of quilted marshmallow with its signature strap of gleaming metal chain are discreetly viewed reposing on its bed of tissue paper in its neat cardboard cradle.  And oh yes, how can I forget?  There on each bag the famous silver interlocked CC logo stampthat each eager customer pays to advertise the Chanel brand.

A Chanel bag

A typical Chanel trophy bag

The Chanel receipts are always unimpeachable.  The ABN prominently displayed, a clear invoice number, the ATO requirement that receipts of over $1000 have the customer’s name and residential address always complied with, everything is easy to read.  Yes, Chanel is big business in a world where style and social stratification are the uniform code-names for success.  In the hands of a young graduate woman, the Chanel bag becomes a weapon to carve out her place in the world.

Except that this kind of conformism also breeds a multi-billion dollar industry of envy, imitation and deceit.  Fairly recently a bold, brassy, palatial new shopping centre has sprung up in the city where Chanel naturally has opened a store.  One afternoon as I was looking through one of the shops an assistant, all agog, told me that the Chanel store had just been robbed in broad daylight.  The audacious female thief had come in, ostensibly to try on bags before the mirror.  She had just got two armloads of different bags when she suddenly made a run for it, startling the security beef at the door who failed to stop her because he did not want to leave the store.  The loss? approximately $50,000.  On passing by later on I noticed the store was closed, sunk in humiliation, at a very early hour indeed.

And this brings me to mind some things that are wrong with Chanel.  What does it do for women today?  A couple of biopic movies of Coco Chanel have come and gone.  In one of them the French actor Audrey Tatou plays a woman who played the kept mistress and yet plied her unique talents in dress-making and design to brilliant success.  Scornful of the creakily inhibiting 19th century female garb of overblown frippery, trailing skirts and straight-jacket style corsets, she lived and worked to banish it, clothing women in the kind of gear they could run to catch a morning train to work in.

She brought us the collarless tweed jacket one could wear with

Coco Chanel

Sigh! I so would love to steal this jacket…

everything, the plain little black dress that was always a sensation dressed up or down, the matching jacket and skirt that never went out of fashion and always appropriate in the workplace, the now ubiquitous breton fisherman striped top, the tailored wide-legged pants, beige, linen, ropes of fake pearls, the camellia and jersey.  And of course the famous perfumes, decreeing that ‘a woman who does not wear perfume has no future’.

So what’s not to like about Chanel?  She is revered as a goddess, a legend, an inspiration.  There is an enduring and undeniable beauty in her cut and design.  But what was a strength in the early days of the 20th century, the convent inspired functionality, the plain simple elegant uniformity has perhaps drained some of the colour, individuality, spontaneity, risk taking and creativity out of the meaning of the word fashion.

Karl Lagerfeld

But these days Chanel has become rigidly conformist and impracticable…

The house of Chanel especially in latter years under that of her acolyte Karl Lagerfeld, has turned fashion instead into a conformist armageddon of expensive, intimidating style where the warrior wearer is safe on all fronts.

Toeless boots

I mean, really!

Today the Chanel style of chic functions to checkmate others into feeling envious and inadequate, overdressed or under-dressed and inferior.  It has become a fashion house steeped deep in the increasing and deplorable social stratification of our world.

I want clothes bursting with colour and fantasy in this, our only world:  reds, purples, cobalts, ochres, acqua and paisleys.  I want opulence, decadence, lusciousness and all lengths of skirts, especially long ones.  I want silk scarves fluttering like summer night breezes around my neck and anonymous but picturesque bags.  There being nothing on the racks worth buying but derivative clothes, I want to make my own clothes and be proud to wear them.  I want people everywhere to feel free to wear whatever they damn well like – as long as it goes, of course.

Isabella Blow

Isabella Blow was more my kind of gal…

Spiders

When I was a child, I would run into my grand-parents’ backyard garden in Sydney near Botany Bay and sense the soil of crumbling dark sandiness, the indomitable energy of a rising, prickle-leaf banksia, the faint salt breath of the sea.

The square patch of garden was hemmed with gray palings of dry, splintering wood.  At the back stood an old white-washed fibro tool shed with a battered, rusty, galvanised-iron roof.  Beyond that was a small grassy space where mint and nasturtiums and rosemary grew lush and disorderly in discarded cement laundry sinks.  In this space the skeletal remains of another small building (perhaps an outhouse) lay gently, slowly splintering and crumbling as it lay open to the sky.  Orderly ranks of Grandpop’s potted orchids sit beside the wall of the shed under a shade laced with cabbage tree palm leaves.  Inside there are tools and machinery for polishing gemstones on a grey, splintered, wooden table and a host of garden implements.  Inside it is dim, cool, quiet, dusty.

Spiders live secret lives there, beneath stacks of discarded wood palings, under garden tools standing unused for weeks, between bricks and stones jumbled together under shrubs, and the cool recesses of tree branches:  the Daddy Long-legs, the Wolf spider, the huge spectacular St Andrews Cross spider and skulking in the most secret places of all, the venomous Red-Back spider.  The one we rarely saw.  The one we were warned about and expressly told not to go looking under piles of wood, forgotten pot plants or old garden boots…

To Dr Geoffrey McKellar – Oral Surgeon

I was visiting my periodontist Dr Bannon today, a man of my age in his early fifties well versed in matters dental and who takes good care of me.  The appointment was a routine maintenance and inspection one to keep the periodontal inflammation of my gums at bay.  During the course of my visit, I was telling him about the oral surgery I had had nearly 30 years ago on my jaw to correct a dento-facial deformity.

‘Who did the operation?’  Dr Bannon asked, checking over my x-rays.

‘Dr Mackellar’ I told him

‘Dr Geoffrey McKellar, from Westmead Hospital?’

‘Yes’

‘He passed away not long ago, it was very sad’

I sat back in the dental chair, stunned.  Dr McKellar was a well-known and very reputable oral surgeon who had only been in his sixties.  I knew that because as a Customs Officer I had processed him a couple of years ago as he was going overseas to a conference and I had seen his passport.  That was so young and he’d seemed so healthy, an early 1960s movie-star handsome dark-haired man with a square jaw and a serious gaze, in the days before everybody went mad dancing around in cheesecloth with flowers in their hair and singing about love.  I can’t remember whether his eyes were light or dark, but that busy afternoon he had looked fine, dapper and conservatively dressed and not much changed over the decades before.

I asked Dr Bannon for more details, but there were few:  that he had died unexpectedly, that he had a daughter, that he was deeply mourned by his colleagues.  The work of a surgeon was very stressful, Dr Bannon opined, oral surgery particularly so for some reason.  He had heard of the loss of another oral surgeon in similar circumstances.

I had reason to be very grateful to Dr McKellar.  Back in 1988 I was back from the brink of a serious mental illness, but this good fortune was tempered with the difficulties of finding accommodation, getting my life back on track with education and training, getting into the workforce and off welfare and of learning to manage my medical condition.

Back then my jaw was giving me hell.  My bite for some reason had worsened considerably as my 20s progressed and so my jaw was painful, the sockets clomping and clicking every time I ate.  Often I would wake up with my jaw locked and stiff and it would take some time for it to work again.  The lower jaw was wandering, unable to find a place to rest and I was told that without an operation to correct the dento-facial deformity I would have severe arthritis in my jaw by the time I was 40.

Dr McKellar fixed all that in a major operation where he aligned my jaws to the correct position, drawing the lower jaw forward.  The recovery process was slow and painful, especially since my jaws were wired together for six months.  But throughout he was no-nonsense, supremely professional and competent and took care of my every need.

As a result, I felt comfortable at last and eating was no longer an issue.  I can’t express how much of a difference that made.  A year later I finished my TAFE courses and armed with these, got my first full-time job.  There were still problems, but I could manage them and muddle through.  I no longer felt like a freak with a painful, restless jaw.  A happy, productive life as an adult had begun.

Governments in this country pay scant regard to the necessity of resources for oral and dental health.  Good dental health is crucially important for the heart and the brain.  If they don’t want masses of people clogging up the health system and adding to costs, they would do well to make dental and oral health services refundable on Medicare.  But all we have is costly private health cover or a run-down public health system staffed with brilliant, kind but over-stressed professionals.  This needs to change.

And above it all, the silent, lightning strike of death in the midst of life shocks, frightens and bewilders just the same way the artist Hans Holbein depicted The Dance of Death more than four hundred years ago.  Now the old, old Death steps implacably into the 21st century and takes a surgeon working on the operating table.

I had sent him a letter thanking him and telling him how well I was doing after our chance encounter at the airport not that long ago.  He wrote back saying that was wonderful news.  So I mourn Dr McKellar’s tragic, untimely death and will remember his  great gift to me for the rest of my life.