Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto – an expansive show of how the designer used fabric and shape to free the feminine form

The UK’s first exhibition dedicated to the work of French fashion designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel has opened at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (the V&A). It is a reworking of the original Chanel exhibition at the Palais Gallieria in Paris in 2020.

Through a dazzling display of Chanel’s creations through the years, from jersey fabric, tweed, embroidery and of course little black dresses, the exhibition gives a compelling insight into the life and work of Chanel and her lasting contribution to the world of fashion.

It’s of note that ticket sales have surpassed previous blockbuster exhibitions such as Christian Dior and Alexander McQueen, making Chanel the V&A’s fastest selling exhibition.

As an avid fan of Chanel it was great to see such a comprehensive overview of her creativity, spanning over six decades. How the work is displayed alongside photographs, films and anecdotes about Chanel herself portrays not just how she shaped a change in fashion, but a true sense of her independent and revolutionary spirit.

A pioneer of fabric

Chanel was born in 1883. Her childhood was not happy with her mother dying young and her father abandoning her soon after. Chanel grew up in Aubazine in central France under the care of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, who taught her to sew.

a cream silk blouse with a tie waste.
One of Chanel’s earliest designs, this Marinière blouse showcased how jersey could be used in fashion.
Chanel/Nicholas Alan Cope

Chanel came to her career in fashion as a milliner, creating hats for French actresses. In 1912 she opened her first Chanel boutique in Deauville, a seaside resort in France’s Normandy region, selling lines of sportswear made from jersey, a knitted fabric. Chanel’s couture house was established in 1918 at 31 rue Cambon, Paris and from here she made her mark on the world’s fashion stage.

One of the first designs you come to in the exhibition is a Marinière blouse, designed by Chanel in Spring/Summer 1916. Made from fine silk jersey this is one of the earliest surviving Chanel garments. It is a wonderful example of how Chanel disrupted the fashion world through her choice of textiles.

For example, Chanel revolutionised the use of jersey, which had previously been used only for underwear and stockings. Through her designs, Chanel was able to show how it could become appealing for fashionable clothing.

She had an affinity for fabric, creating a textile range and opening a fabric factory in Asnières-sur-Seine, in the 1920s. The work on display emphasises how through the simplicity of Chanel’s design it is the fabric that often speaks.

At the time Chanel started her house, the female form had been restrained in corsets that accentuated the feminine figure. Chanel’s use of flowing fabrics and jersey, combined with drop-waist designs, saw a wider liberation of the female form, which Chanel was credited with initiating.

Another fabric she had an affinity for was tweed. It was during her decade long affair with Hugh Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster, that Chanel fell in love with tweed, during visits to Scotland. Tweed was commonly worn for hunting pursuits at the time. Chanel’s unique take was to feminise it and, along with jersey, it become one of her signature fabrics, featuring notably in her famous skirt suits.

Changing silhouettes

The exhibition carefully charts how the evolution of her dress designs is reflective of Chanel’s response to society’s expectations of how women should dress. As standards changed, Chanel’s designs became more daring with low cut backs and exposed decolletage (neck and chest).

The day suits and dresses in the opening sections of the exhibition highlight the significant contribution that Chanel made to how femininity and elegance could be emphasised through design and fabric. She was renowned for creating evening wear including the little black dress. Vogue called it “the Ford Signed Chanel” in 1926, making reference to the mass produced, affordable car that was available in one colour.

Black and red evening dress and cape
An example of Chanel’s evening wear from the late 30s, the dress showcases Chanel’s attention to detail.
Victoria and Albert Museum London

Among an array of wonderful designs, one of the most exciting evening dresses in the exhibition for me was a black silk, satin, net and sequin dress and cape with a striking red sash and collar detailing, from Autumn/Winter 1937 worn by American Socialite Mrs Leo d’Erlanger. The dress encapsulates the attention to detail and skill of Chanel, along with her love of black with a hint of daring red.

Chanel’s final collection was shown a few weeks following her death in 1971. The garments on display here show the enduring elegance and simplicity of Chanel’s design genius.

In an exhibition full of so many wonderful designs, it is hard to reflect on what could be my one stand-out piece. I return to the Marinière blouse from 1916. Although simplistic in its aesthetic appeal it is important because it signals a change in fabric use, design and how women could present themselves socially through dress, and is testament to the great legacy of Mademoiselle Chanel.

Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto is on at the V&A till 25 February 2024

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