Sep 15, 2023
London’s V&A Museum has been staging blockbuster fashion exhibitions over the past decade: The theatrical and punk “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” show broke attendance records, the museum was open overnight to accommodate demand. And “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams,” with all of its exquisite tulle, taffeta and tailoring, became the museum’s best-attended show of all-time.
”Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto,” which opens on Saturday, Sept. 16, doesn’t quite reach the dazzling heights of those two exhibitions, but it’s a stylish tribute to her work and cultural capital and will be a must-see show for fans. It’s already a box-office smash: Tickets have sold out for much of the rest of the year and are currently available only 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 outfits are displayed prominently from floor to ceiling, surrounding the viewer with tweeds in shades of pink, red and beige. There’s even a bubblegum-pink number that was worn by actress Lauren Bacall.
Very little of it feels dated. Margot Robbie wore a tweed yellow Chanel set to promote Barbie over the summer. At the V&A press preview, women wearing tweed suits, pearls and Chanel handbags—or very good knockoffs—posed for photos in front of the walls of suits.
The exhibition is expansive, set inside the V&A’s largest gallery space. It holds more than 200 looks and accessories that range from costume jewelry to Chanel’s very pricey handbags.
The show got its start at the Palais Galliera in Paris in 2020, but 100 pieces were added for the V&A, including a section on Gabrielle’s Chanel’s connections to the UK. The designer was a noted Anglophile. On display is a painting of her by Winston Churchill, and she had an affair with the Duke of Westminster. Her time spent with British aristocrats—and their love of outdoor sports—inspired her most famous designs.
The show hits all the major 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 how to sew, and she later found work as a seamstress. Arthur Capel, an English aristocrat, financed some of Chanel’s first shops, including one in the French seaside retreat town of Deauville, where she created clothes from such fabrics as jersey that were previously used in menswear. One of these creations was her twist on the marinière, the striped blue-and-white top worn by French sailors, thereby transforming a naval garment into a feminine wardrobe staple.
The first piece seen in the show dates from that period: an ivory silk-and-jersey shirt from 1916, alongside a black straw hat. From the start, it’s classy and simple, well-constructed, classic Chanel, and it shows why her early creations were wildly successful. By 1921, she was running a couturier in Paris and bringing her distinctive style of monochrome colors and minimal silhouettes to France’s fashionable set. Her creations soon influenced the world.
The “little black dress,” for one, drew renown in the 1920s. The exhibition says Chanel transformed the color black, previously seen as garb for mourning in society. She made it chic, and her black dresses became so popular they were dubbed the “Ford” of fashion.
Aside from all the tweed and little dresses, there are some fantastic pieces, particularly a sequined navy number from the 1930s that the Duchess of Westminster purchased in spite of Chanel’s liaisons with her husband. A pair of silver metallic pajamas from 1967 wouldn’t look out of place at a contemporary New York Fashion Week party.
The exhibition ends with Chanel’s final work in 1971, when she died at the age of 87 in Paris. Yves Saint Laurent, Salvador Dali and numerous fashion models attended her funeral. (The House of Chanel’s succeeding history with Karl Lagerfeld isn’t addressed.)
“Chanel was a master of her art, and one of the most influential figures of 20th century western fashion,” explained V&A director Tristram Hunt at the exhibition’s media launch. “As one of the most successful fashion houses in existence, Chanel owes much to the templates laid by its founder.”
The exhibition stumbles when it comes to Gabrielle Chanel’s wartime activities. Notes refer to collusion with the occupying Nazis such as her relationship with a German officer, Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage—while suggesting she was a member of the French Resistance. Like Chanel herself, the show seems to hedge its bets.
One of the more interesting displays focuses on the “invisible accessory” of perfume. Chanel No. 5 perfume got its start in 1921, and the exhibition features original bottles of the scent, though you’ll have to use your memory—or imagination—to smell the fragrance; it’s not interactive in any way. The many renowned fans of the fragrance ranged from Marilyn Monroe to Queen Elizabeth II. Included in the exhibit is a handwritten letter from 1955 on Windsor Castle stationery from the late queen, thanking a friend for a gift of No. 5. “As usual,” wrote the then-29-year-old monarch, “you have discovered just the very thing I particularly wanted.”“Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto” runs at the V&A until Febuary 25.