This September, the V&A will further cement itself as the UK’s definitive fashion museum when it hosts its much-anticipated Chanel exhibition. Though it may be hard to believe, this landmark exhibition will be the first in the UK dedicated solely to the work of the pioneering French couturier, Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel. Charting the evolution of her iconic design style and the establishment of the House of Chanel, from the opening of her first millinery boutique in Paris in 1910 to the showing of her final collection in 1971, it’s set to be a must-see for fashion lovers.
Based on the Chanel exhibition organised by the Palais Galliera, Fashion Museum of the City of Paris, Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto, the show has been completely reimagined by the V&A and will feature over 200 looks seen together for the first time. Highlights will include one of the earliest surviving Chanel garments from 1916, original costumes designed by Chanel for the Ballets Russes production of Le Train Bleu in 1924, and outfits created for Hollywood stars Lauren Bacall and Marlene Dietrich.
The Chanel exhibition will feature ten themed sections, each of which will examine the designer’s innovative approach to fabric, silhouette and construction. The first of these, ‘Towards a New Elegance’, will offer an introduction to the beginning of Gabrielle Chanel’s career as a milliner, exploring how she opened her first boutique on Rue Cambon in Paris in 1910. It was her success here that led her to be able to expand her line into clothing. Visitors will be able to marvel at one of the earliest surviving Chanel garments, a 1916 marinière blouse characterised by its minimalism and simplicity. The streamlined approach Chanel used was a stark contrast to the excessively decorative fashions of the day, and laid the foundations for the design principles she would become so famous for.
‘The Emergence of Style’, meanwhile, focuses on how Chanel was able to create an immediately recognisable signature look during the 1920s and 30s. Using clean lines, fluid materials and a simple colour palette, Chanel’s pared-back designs were radical in their practicality, yet displayed a polished elegance. It’s also in this section that you’ll find Chanel’s infamous little black dress, a statement-making creation that revolutionised fashion, as well as an exploration of Chanel’s British inspirations, such as her adoption of tweed, partnerships with British textile firms and textile factory in Huddersfield.
During the 30s Chanel became as-well known for her alluring eveningwear as for her more practical staples, with her gowns demonstrating a rare mix of inventiveness and classicism which subtly accentuated the female form. The garments she created were all about elegance, freedom and simplicity, a refreshing new approach for women of the day. Alongside her eveningwear from this era the exhibition also showcases ‘Bijoux de Diamants’, her first and only 1932 collection of fine jewellery commissioned by the International Diamond Corporation of London.
But if there’s one garment in particular that the designer is defined by, it’s the suit. An entire section of the exhibition is dedicated to its creation, with over 50 ensembles on display. Seen as a declaration of her vision of modern femininity, the Chanel suit combined ease and comfort with simplicity and style. Described by Vogue in 1964 as “the world’s prettiest uniform,” the timeless classic remains a staple fashion reference to this day.
Of course, it wasn’t just clothing that Gabrielle Chanel was known for. When she launched her debut perfume N°5 in 1921, it went on to become the world’s best-selling fragrance, worn by everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Catherine Deneuve. ‘The Invisible Accessory’ section of the show is dedicated to the creation and impact of the scent, which Chanel made the signature of her fashion house and is arguably still the world’s most iconic perfume.
“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,” said Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A. “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.”
‘Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto’ will run at the V&A from 16 September 2023 – 25 February 2024; vam.ac.uk