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Rags, to Glad-Rags, to Riches: A Study Day on Coco Chanel

February 19th 2020 Hemingford Abbots

Given by U3A lecturer and AS member Carole Pook


Carole is wearing a Coco Chanel inspired outfit of black dress and pearls and modelling one of Sharon Paul’s hats

In the morning….We listened with fascination to the story of Coco Chanel’s sad and difficult early life and her emergence as a beautiful and talented young woman. Taught by nuns in her orphanage how to sew, she was able to make a living as a seamstress. However, ambition drove her to learn skills in tailoring. Subsequent relationships with wealthy men helped to launch her career as a fashion designer in Paris. She was an astute businesswoman and her brand name was a huge success in her lifetime and has been thereafter.

Carole drew attention to the difficulties of pinning down facts about Coco’s life, as she so often altered her “story”. There were also uncomfortable truths about her opinions and her role as a collaborator in Nazi-occupied Paris.

Clearly, she was a survivor, using her wits and charm to make her way. One example is her use of cotton jersey for her collections when luxury fabrics were unavailable in The Great War. Another is her perfume Chanel Number 5, given free to customers ensuring the brand name travelled.

Carole’s talk was excellently researched and presented with many intriguing anecdotes and photographs of Coco and her circle. It was easy to be seduced by the glamour of the world she inhabited and the fairy-tale story of her transformation from orphanage to global fame.

In the afternoon…We welcomed the originator of Simply Hats from Market Deeping, just outside Peterborough.

There was a nice connection between our morning and afternoon session: both Coco Chanel and Sharon Paul had started by buying simple straw hats and decorating them fabulously, gaining instant recognition for their creative talents. Sharon had a great number of hats to show from her collection, inviting members of the audience to model them. Her people skills were evident, and she clearly derives huge satisfaction from meeting her clients and tailoring her hats to their needs. Part of her service is preparing women for great occasions and we were shown the correct way to hold a clutch bag (it’s more than just clutching!!). Not surprisingly, her website shows a large number of satisfied customers looking relaxed and confident even in the largest of hats.

This was the third Study Day Carole has organised and presented and was greatly enjoyed by all who attended. There was an excellent lunch master-minded by Carole and served by committee members. The light-hearted fashion parade in the afternoon was a very good way to end a day of interest and relaxed fellowship.

Coco Chanel memorably said: “The best things in life are free. The second-best things are very, very expensive.” However, we interpret her comments, £17.00 pounds a head for our Study Day was remarkably good value!

The AGM and exhibition on the A14

Thanks to the creative talents of our members and friends, we were able to mount a display on the walls of the Village Hall in Hemingford Abbotts, showing various responses to the roadworks on the A14 corridor and the impact construction work has had on our environment.

  • A collage of images taken from a hot air balloon flight over the site
  • An amazing kite made of re-cycled materials
  • Several photographs of the changed landscape, including lopped and uprooted trees
  • Poems lamenting the devastation
  • A professional artist, Michael Murfin brought in several of his artworks which closed in on workers and materials, showing the massiveness of the scale and the materials.
  • Sammy the Snail (pictured below) brought up the rear (of course) keeping to the slow lane and reflecting the ambivalence we all feel towards “progress”

After the business of the AGM, we listened to our guest speaker, Tony Walsh, who has been the Project Manager of the A14 excavations. He explained what has been found during the painstaking excavation of sites opened by construction works.

What did we learn?

It has been such a large-scale project that archaeologists have had to be recruited from all over Europe.

A great number of animal bones were found, specifically domestic animals i.e. sheep, goats and cows, showing the prevalence of farming in the Ouse valley area.

Saxon finds were predominant.

Burial sites were discovered and some puzzling circles or ‘henges’. No clues have been found to explain their usage. Were they for animals? Were they used for religious rites? Opinion leans to the latter because they were so carefully made.

Detailed reports on what has been discovered will be published. Members will be able to research finds in their own villages in due course.

Further learning….?

  • We must have a sound system if we are to continue to use a Village Hall for our AGM!
  •  Cake and bellinis make a very nice way of ending the year

Thank you to all who came and supported the event; special thanks to all contributors, organisers and chair movers.

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