“When it comes to comprehending the spirit of the times and responding to its demands, no one excelled quite like Chanel.” Oriole Cullen, the curator for the V&A‘s latest fashion spectacle, “Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto,” highlights that this exhibition, the UK’s inaugural showcase dedicated to the iconic fashion designer, builds upon the recent retrospective of the same name at the Palais Galliera in Paris. The exhibit now boasts an additional 120 rare artifacts that trace Chanel’s remarkable journey from her first millinery boutique on Rue Cambon in 1910 to her worldwide influence and, ultimately, her final collection, unveiled shortly after her passing in 1971.
The exhibition, however, commences several years earlier. In the initial gallery, an extensive timeline unfolds, chronicling the pivotal moments in Chanel‘s life, beginning with her birth in 1883. As we navigate the space, Oriole Cullen offers insight into this prelude, emphasising, “Many people tend to perceive her solely as a 20th-century designer, often overlooking her 19th-century origins and the context that accompanies it.” As we meander through the area, gallery staff busily install glass panels and informational plaques. Adjacent to the timeline, a framed handprint signed by Chanel herself from 1939 and a photograph captured by Horst P Horst in 1937 grab attention. The photograph portrays Chanel in an opulent black ensemble, adorned with glittering jewellery and a stylish bow atop her head, reclining on a chaise longue. It serves as a fitting introduction to an exhibition that places Chanel’s own image at the forefront, delving into how the couturière established herself as the face of her brand’s effortless and understated elegance. The exhibition underscores how her personal touch, metaphorically speaking, pervades all aspects of her work.
In a room with immersive projections that transport visitors to the bustling atmosphere of Rue Cambon, the first garment that captures our attention is one of the brand’s earliest surviving pieces: a marinière blouse dating back to 1916. Crafted from fine-gauge silk jersey, this blouse stands out for its astonishing modernity. Alongside it, you’ll encounter an early example of one of Chanel’s hats. Accompanying these artifacts is faded footage depicting one of her clients strolling down the Champs-Élysées adorned in Chanel’s creations. The footage is a striking reminder of the gentle movement of the client’s skirt and the comfort of her uncorseted, structured waistline. It serves as a poignant testament to how these style innovations must have felt truly revolutionary for women of that era.
This relaxed and streamlined sensibility continues to permeate the following series of rooms, delving into Chanel’s refinement of her distinctive style during the 1920s and 1930s. The emphasis here is on clean lines, timeless silhouettes, and fluid fabrics. In these galleries, you’ll encounter captivating early photographs featuring elegant women donning Chanel in both Paris and Biarritz. Additionally, you’ll see costumes created for renowned performers. For instance, there’s the ballerina Lydia Sokolova, who graced the stage in a pink Chanel bathing suit for the 1924 production of “Le Train Bleu.” Then there’s Gloria Swanson, who elegantly sported floor-length ball gowns, sharp skirt suits, and diamanté-encrusted cocktail dresses designed by Chanel in the 1931 comedy “Tonight or Never.” This collaboration followed Chanel’s signing of a groundbreaking $1 million Hollywood contract with the prolific producer Samuel Goldwyn.
In this section, you’ll encounter an array of little black dresses, each with its own unique charm. They range from dresses featuring delicate paper-thin lace sleeves to a strappy frock adorned with an embroidered tulle train. Oriole Cullen excitedly recalls the discovery of the latter, stating, “We found this gem in an Italian archive, and I had a hunch it was Chanel.” She points out the exquisite seaming on the dress. She continues, “Others were initially unsure, but later they called me to say, ‘We found a Chanel label inside!'”
As you explore further, you’ll stumble upon more delightful surprises in a section of the exhibition that delves into the British influence on Chanel’s designs, partly shaped by her relationships with Boy Capel and the Duke of Westminster. Cullen explains, “Chanel had a deep affinity for all things British and could frequently be spotted fishing, hunting, and wearing hiking boots and tweed.” Alongside footage from one of Chanel’s British fashion shows in 1932, where high-society figures showcased designs crafted from British textiles, you’ll find photographs of her with her British paramours. Notably, there’s a painting of her wearing a relaxed coat and hat, a piece created by her friend Winston Churchill.
´You’ll step into a striking white room meticulously designed to mirror the sleek lines of an oversized perfume bottle. At its zenith, a soft, pale pink light delicately refracts from a projector near the ceiling, paying homage to Chanel N°5, the iconic fragrance adored by luminaries ranging from Marilyn Monroe to Queen Elizabeth II. Within this space, you’ll encounter early perfume bottles and an array of Chanel beauty products from the 1920s, including lipstick cases, compacts, and tanning products.´ – Charles Daniel McDonald
However, a particularly touching highlight here is a letter from the former monarch, composed in 1955 and addressed to Frederick Browning, then the treasurer in the office of the Duke of Edinburgh. Browning had gifted her a bottle of Chanel N°5 for her birthday, and she expressed her gratitude in the note, writing, “As usual, you have discovered just the very thing I particularly wanted. I am already using it and, I hope, smelling all the better for it!!”
Beyond this room lies a vast expanse illuminated by projections of sun-drenched trees, evoking the ambiance of Chanel’s villa in the south of France. This area is adorned with lace ball gowns and dazzling showstoppers. Keep an eye out for the sequined trouser suit once worn by former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, an outfit she donned for her home entertaining. Moving past this opulent space, you’ll encounter a section that serves as the antithesis of the bright, white perfume room.
Here, you’ll find a compact, dimly lit, and fittingly somber area that chronicles Chanel’s decision to shutter her eponymous fashion house during World War II. This segment of the exhibition acknowledges the fact that the Nazis regarded Chanel as a trusted source in 1941. However, it also presents recently discovered records revealing her involvement with the French Resistance in 1943. Oriole Cullen remarks, “There’s still ongoing research in this area, and while this doesn’t offer definitive answers, it adds complexity to her legacy.”
From this point forward, the exhibition steadily builds to a triumphant crescendo, celebrating Chanel’s remarkable return to the fashion scene in 1954. Visitors are ushered into a breathtaking room that is nothing short of jaw-dropping. It is adorned from floor to ceiling with pristine, candy-colored Chanel suits, a sight to behold. Continuing on, you’ll navigate a corridor lined with the iconic 2.55 handbags and two-tone slingbacks. A showcase follows, highlighting her opulent evening wear from the 1960s, complemented by her ornate costume jewellery. A dedicated corner pays homage to her exquisite costume work in Alain Resnais‘s 1961 French New Wave classic, “Last Year at Marienbad.”
The climax of the exhibition unfolds in an epic final room adorned with a grand, mirror-lined staircase, reminiscent of Chanel’s own atelier on Rue Cambon. Upon this staircase stand mannequins draped in intricately detailed monochrome evening dresses. Notably, the silver gown at the very top was worn by Elizabeth Taylor when she met Princess Margaret in 1967. Yet, amidst this elegance, you’ll also discover dresses infused with vibrant pops of color, a testament to Chanel’s recognition of the exuberant new mood of the late 1960s in the twilight years of her life.
Oriole Cullen holds a special affection for a chiffon gown from 1968, adorned with eye-popping, rainbow-colored panels and complemented by a thrillingly dramatic matching neck scarf. For those who typically associate Chanel with refined minimalism, encountering this creation can be quite a surprise. Cullen chuckles as she recalls, “When we inquired with the Chanel archives about this dress, I believe they were rather taken aback. But I insisted, ‘No, we must celebrate this!'”
Her aspiration for the exhibition is to broaden people’s perception of the designer’s true breadth and creativity. Cullen shares, “There are so many exquisite lamé pieces on display here, alongside daring patterns and elements you might not typically associate with Chanel. People often perceive her as quite serious, but she possessed an exceptional flair for bold colors and prints. It’s an exhibition that exudes playfulness and fun.”
The exhibition’s grand finale can be found just around the corner, beckoning visitors past a cabinet filled with books and biographies featuring Chanel’s image. Here, you’ll encounter a deceptively simple yet striking black wool suit, adorned with a priest-like white collar and hat from 1969. In its structure and colours, this ensemble embodies Chanel’s quintessential design elements and is believed to have been worn by the designer herself, although no photographic evidence exists to confirm it.
For Cullen, this suit encapsulates the allure and enigma of Chanel as a subject. She reflects, “The closer you feel you’re getting to her, the further away she seems to get.” This observation underscores the essence of Chanel’s legacy. She further expounds, “Chanel, from those vibrant ’60s dresses to this outfit, created pieces that remained timeless, transcending the ebb and flow of fashion. She defied the conventions of French sophistication and became a radical, rebellious figure. It’s ironic that she’s now synonymous with classic elegance. This tension is integral to the narrative we’re conveying here.”
Exiting the exhibition, you descend via another mirrored staircase, a feature that is bound to become a popular backdrop for spontaneous photoshoots and selfies. Chanel, a woman who comprehended the influence of self-promotion and the art of endlessly refracting her own image to mirror the evolving times, would undoubtedly endorse such creative expression. “Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto” will grace the halls of the V&A until February 25, 2024.
Article: Charles Daniel McDonald
Photography: V&A Museum / CHANEL Archives