Colette…Fantasy into flesh
On January 28th, 1873 Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was born. Who would have imagined that in twenty years time she would start a revolution with her bare breast, provoke the minds of Europe with her pen and wake up the conscience of society with a kiss?
Colette was a writer, a dancer, a stage-performer and a woman. Defining herself as all of these elements in the transient haze between the Victorian era and the Roaring Twenties could prove a daunting task for any gal. It would have been easy for her to slip into calm waters of social propriety, but Colette chose to raise a storm in the Belle Epoch and sail right through the middle of civil turbulence. Desire was her compass as she plotted her course.
Her Odyssey began when she was just a child. Under the influence of her unconventional mother, Sidonie-Gabrielle shed her identity as an innocent school girl by adopting a custom usually embraced by school boys; she had her school chums refer to her by her last name, Colette. This seems innocent enough, but Colette was already testing the waters of assigned gender roles. The corset and the smelling salts seemed like an ill fit for “Sido”, so she did what any self-respecting malcontent might do…she practiced the art of provocation.
She sharpened her skills as a provoker while appearing in Parisian drawing rooms, dressed as a salty sailor (an act that was punishable under law….cross dressing was strictly prohibited, apart from the stage) But upsetting the order of things with androgynous outfits was just the start for Colette. She would explore the uncharted limits of sexuality with her writing. Her first book, Claudine at School (1900), was penned under the name of her rakish first husband, Gauthier-Villars. The book chronicled the account of a young school girl’s lust for the alluring assistant mistress, Aimée. The story of lesbian love was a sensation, and Gauthier-Villars would exploit his wife’s desirous imagination for his own financial gain, until they divorced in 1904. Thereafter, Colette published books under her own name; her most famous work being Gigi (which was made into a fantastic feature length film in 1958.)
Writing about the taboo was just a one dimensional approach to provoking consciences… Colette was just warming up! She became a master of titillation while performing on stage in pre-World War Paris, 1906; a time when it was scandalous to flash a bit of ankle in public. Colette, being her sensible self, decided it was too easy to incense the audience with a peek of cheek or a glimpse of gam. She went for the big guns and revealed her breast to the crowd while she was on stage. Later, she immortalized this pose by modeling her bare, left breast for the camera. This rocked the conventions of turn-of-the-century-Europe. Hearing the news, matrons would undoubtedly hold their gloved hands over their satin swathed hearts and gentlemen’s monocles would pop away from their shocked eyes.
Breasts had existed for ages, but in the twentieth-century they had been tucked away, and they certainly were not up for discussion. Colette inadvertently questioned society’s tendency to hide, augment and contort the female form and she would fight to uphold women’s honor. Instead of throwing down the gauntlet, Colette had cast down her breast. It was a challenge to European society and it need only accept.
There were those traditionalists who attacked Colette’s attempt at loosening the societal shackles which defined womanhood, at the turn of the nineteenth-century, but there were also those who admired her for her scandalous bravery. Colette offered the world, and particularly women of the world, the fantasy of living out ones heart’s desire. In her most shocking embodiment of fantasy, Colette appeared on the stage of the Moulin Rouge with her lover (and financial backer), daughter of the Duc de Morny, Mathilde. Mathilde, who went by the name of Missy, dressed as a male archeologist, and Colette had herself bound in gauze to resemble a mummy. In a fifteen minute scene, which was later censored by authorities, Missy discovers a mummy, unwraps the bandages and reveals the ravishing Colette underneath. In an act which caused a riot, Missy kisses the mummy and brings Colette to life.
If the deeper symbolism of this scene was lost on the audience, they were certainly roused by the forbidden kiss.Colette had worked very hard to get under the skins of any moral champion, and her lesbian lip-lock forced them to look at that kiss for what it was; a token of love. Now, that Colette had tested the limits of love, was it up to theological debate to decide where the boundaries of love might lie, or if there were really any boundaries to love, after all?
One thing is certain. Sidonie-Gabrielle had agitated the hearts and minds of Europe and beyond, and this would be her legacy. She was a writer, dancer and an actress too, but Colette’s true talent lie in dissolving fantasy into flesh.