Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto at the V&A (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London
V&A Hosts Major Retrospective of Iconic Fashion Designer Coco Chanel, given that Chanel is the name most synonymous with fashion, and that Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel and her ground-breaking designs defined style and glamour in post-war Europe and continue to serve as a barometer of timeless elegance, it’s surprising that her post-humous retrospective at the V&A in London is the first UK exhibition dedicated to her since her death in 1971.
‘Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto’ was first exhibited at the Palais Galliera, Fashion Museum of the City of Paris, and opened in London on 16th September 2023 to much critical acclaim, leading to a clamour for tickets. The V&A exhibition explores Chanel’s impact during a 60 year career in Fashion, analysing the development of her designs and empire, and her contribution to the history of fashion.
The V&A retrospective dedicated to the French couturière documents the evolution of Chanel’s signature style and the establishment of the House of CHANEL, starting in 1910 with the opening of her millinery boutique in Paris, and culminating in 1971 with her final collection. ‘Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto’ features more than 200 ‘looks’ seen including clothes, accessories, perfumes and jewellery. Chanel was a pioneer as a designer and as a woman, and redefinted the accepted way of dressing for women, paving an elegant path and continuing to have an effect on contemporary style.
Rarely seen pieces from the V&A’s collection are featured in the London adaption of the original Paris retrospective, juxtaposed with looks from the Patrimoine de CHANEL and Palais Galliera, the heritage collections of the fashion House in Paris. Noteable highlights include; one of the earliest surviving Chanel garments from 1916; original costumes that Chanel designed for a 1924 Ballets Russes production of Le Train Bleu; and outfits created for Hollywood stars including Marlene Dietrich and Lauren Bacall.
Chanel’s revolutionary approach was rooted in a desire to design clothes for herself which suited her active and independent way of life. By anticipating the needs of modern women, Chanel broke away from the nipped-in 1940s silhouette pioneered by Dior’s ‘New Look’, and invented a new point of reference for 20th Century women’s fashion design. Ten themed sections of the V&A exhibition explore Chanel’s approach to construction, fabric and silhouette.
Towards A New Elegance, which introduces the beginning of Gabrielle Chanel’s career as a milliner, when she opened her first boutique on the rue Cambon in Paris in 1910, followed by boutiques in the fashionable coastal resorts of Deauville and Biarritz.
The Emergence of a Style focuses on the development of Chanel’s aesthetic of clean lines and fluid materials in a simple palette, which became her signature style in the 1920s and 1930s.
The Invisible Accessory explores the impact of Gabrielle Chanel’s debut perfume Chanel N°5, which became the world’s best-selling fragrance and was made even more famous by Marilyn Monroe when she declared that all she wore in bed was Chanel No.5.
And other sections explore the impact of the outbreak of war in 1939 on Chanel’s personal and professional life and her Return to Fashion on 5 February 1954, with the relaunch of her couture house at the age of seventy-one.
The Suit focuses on the defining garment of Chanel’s post-war fashion design, with over fifty iconic Chanel suits on display that embody her vision of modern femininity. In 1964 Vogue described the Chanel suit as: “the world’s prettiest uniform,”
The exhibition contains a link to London society in the form of three Chanel designs worn by Anne Gunning (1929-90), a model and socialite who was photographed by Norman Parkinson and featured in Vogue. Legend has it that Chanel invited Gunning to walk in one of her fashion shows, but she turned down the invitation because of shyness, going on to regret the decision. And the exhibition mentions the inspiration Chanel found in Britain, such as her adoption of tweed, partnerships with British textile firms and textile factory in Huddersfield.
Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A, said: “As one of the most successful fashion houses in existence, CHANEL owes much to the templates first laid down by its founder Gabrielle Chanel, over a century ago. We are delighted to be partnering with CHANEL and the Palais Galliera on this exhibition, which provides us with the opportunity to explore the origins and elements of this enduring style and to display little-known historic Chanel garments from the V&A collection.”
Director of the Palais Galliera, Miren Arzalluz said: “Gabrielle Chanel devoted her long life to creating, perfecting and promoting a new kind of elegance based on freedom of movement, a natural and casual pose, a subtle elegance that shuns all extravagances, a timeless style for a new kind of woman. That was her fashion manifesto, a legacy that has never gone out of style.” “Her success was based not only on the functionality, comfort and chic elegance of her designs, but also on her ability to grasp and interpret the needs and desires of the women of her time.”
Bruno Pavlovsky, President of CHANEL SAS and President of CHANEL Fashion, said: “We are happy and honored that the first exhibition dedicated to Gabrielle Chanel to be held in the UK, will be presented at the V&A, one of the most prestigious museums in the world. Gabrielle Chanel was a legend in her own lifetime. This exhibition will analyze her contribution to fashion and her radical vision of a style that created modernity and reflected the aspirations of women and the evolution of their place in society.”
‘Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto’ is at the V&A until 25 February 2024.
Exhibition presented in partnership with Palais Galliera, Fashion Museum of the City of Paris, Paris Musées