September 15, 2023
London’s V&A Museum has hosted hugely successful fashion exhibitions over the past decade: the theatrical and punk show “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” broke attendance records, the museum was open overnight to meet demand. And “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams,” with all its exquisite tulle, taffeta and tailoring, became the museum’s most-attended exhibition of all time.
“Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto,” which opens Saturday, Sept. 16, doesn’t reach the dazzling heights of those two exhibitions, but it is an elegant tribute to her work and cultural capital and will be a must-see for fans. It’s already a box office success: tickets have been sold out for much of the rest of the year and will currently only be available from mid-December.
The undisputed stars of the show are the more than 50 tweed garments in a room dedicated to “the suit,” Chanel’s vision of postwar femininity. The suits are prominently displayed from floor to ceiling, surrounding the viewer with tweeds in shades of pink, red and beige. There’s even a bubblegum pink dress worn by actress Lauren Bacall.
Very little looks dated. Margot Robbie wore a yellow tweed Chanel ensemble to promote Barbie over the summer. At the V&A press launch, women dressed in tweed suits, pearls and Chanel bags (or very good imitations) posed for photographs in front of walls of suits.
The exhibition is extensive and takes place within the V&A’s largest gallery space. It has more than 200 looks and accessories ranging from jewelry to the very expensive Chanel bags.
The show began at the Palais Galliera in Paris in 2020, but 100 pieces have been added for the V&A, including a section on Gabrielle’s Chanel’s connections to the UK. The designer was a noted Anglophile. A painting of her by Winston Churchill is on display and she had an affair with the Duke of Westminster. Her time spent with British aristocrats and her love of outdoor sports inspired his most famous designs.
The show hits all the important milestones: Born in 1883 into poverty in rural France, Chanel was sent to a Catholic orphanage at age 11 when her mother died. There she learned to sew and later found work as a seamstress. Arthur Capel, an English aristocrat, financed some of Chanel’s first stores, including one in the French coastal town of Deauville, where he created clothing from fabrics such as jersey once used in men’s fashion. One of these creations was her version of the marinière, the blue and white striped blouse worn by French sailors, transforming a naval garment into a staple of the women’s wardrobe.
The first piece seen in the exhibition dates from that time: an ivory silk and knit shirt from 1916, along with a black straw hat. From the beginning, it is a classic Chanel, elegant, simple and well-constructed, and shows why her first creations were such a success. By 1921, she was running a couturier in Paris and bringing her distinctive style of monochrome colors and minimalist silhouettes to the French fashion mainstream. His creations soon influenced the world.
The “little black dress,” for example, became famous in the 1920s. The exhibition says that Chanel transformed the color black, which was previously considered a mourning garment in society. She made it elegant and her black dresses became so popular that they were nicknamed the “Ford” of fashion.
Aside from all the tweed and little dresses, there are some fantastic pieces, notably a 1930s navy blue sequined dress that the Duchess of Westminster bought despite Chanel’s affairs with her husband. A pair of metallic silver pajamas from 1967 wouldn’t be out of place at a contemporary New York Fashion Week party.
The exhibition ends with Chanel’s last work in 1971, when she died at the age of 87 in Paris. Yves Saint Laurent, Salvador Dalí and numerous models attended her funeral. (The subsequent history of the House of Chanel with Karl Lagerfeld is not addressed.)
“Chanel was a master of her art and one of the most influential figures in 20th century Western fashion,” V&A director Tristram Hunt explained at the media launch of the exhibition. “As one of the most successful fashion houses in existence, Chanel owes much to the models established by its founder.”
The exhibition stumbles when it comes to Gabrielle Chanel’s wartime activities. The notes refer to her collusion with the occupying Nazis, such as her relationship with a German officer, Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, while suggesting that she was a member of the French Resistance. Like Chanel herself, the show seems to hedge her bets.
One of the most interesting exhibits focuses on the “invisible accessory” of perfume. The Chanel No. 5 perfume began in 1921 and the exhibition features original bottles of the fragrance, although you will have to use your memory (or imagination) to smell the fragrance; It is not interactive in any way. The fragrance’s many renowned admirers ranged from Marilyn Monroe to Queen Elizabeth II. Included in the exhibit is a 1955 handwritten letter on Windsor Castle letterhead from the late queen, thanking a friend for a gift of the number 5. “As usual,” the then 29-year-old monarch wrote, “ “You have discovered just what I really wanted.” “Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto” will be on display at the V&A until February 25.