After months of anticipation, the landmark Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto exhibition at the V&A Museum has finally opened its doors, and it’s just as dazzling as we’d hoped it would be. Spread across 10 different sections, the exhibition charts the evolution of Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel’s iconic design style, starting with the opening of her first millinery boutique in Paris in 1910 and ending with the showing of her final collection in 1971. With exquisite sets, fascinating new insights and a stunning finale, it’s set to be the hottest ticket in town this autumn. Read on for our first look review of the show.
It was always going to be a tall order to follow up on the sheer brilliance of their previous fashion exhibitions on Alexander McQueen and Christian Dior, but the V&A Museum has pulled it off yet again with Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto. The appetite was certainly there – it’s been the fastest selling fashion exhibition in the V&A’s history – tickets have sold out until January 2024. Little wonder, really, when you consider that this is the first ever UK exhibition dedicated to the work of the pioneering couturier.
The V&A Museum has gathered together over 400 objects from over 25 collections worldwide – including more than 170 new pieces – for the show, marking the very first time they have all been displayed together. In true Chanel style, the exhibition is set out in stark black and white and begins with an ivory silk shirt from 1916, while a small black straw hat from 1917 nods to Chanel’s early days as a milliner and sets out her manifesto: simple, chic and wearable.
Chanel’s minimalist early designs were a defiant contrast to the excessively decorative fashions of the day. Inspired by menswear and sporting clothes, her pieces were seen as a breath of fresh air and were instantly popular with the wealthy clients of Deauville and Biarritz, where she opened her first boutiques.
A key section of the Chanel exhibition is dedicated to Gabrielle’s British influences – she was a keen Anglophile and spent large periods of time in England through her relationships with the shipping merchant and polo player Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel and the Duke of Westminster, who was known to be the love of her life.
Her love of tweed comes from the time she spent with him at his properties around the UK, including Eaton Hall in Cheshire and Lochmore Lodge in Scotland. Through her relationship with the Duke of Westminster and her friendship with the socialite Vera Bate Lombardi she was accepted into British high society, where she rubbed shoulders with the Duke of Windsor and Winston Churchill, who became so fond of her he even went on to paint her portrait, which is on display in the exhibition.
As well as her love of the country itself, Chanel had a strong affinity for British fabrics and first began sourcing cloth from the UK in the early 1920s; in 1927 she opened a salon in London and went on to work directly with UK textile manufacturers to create her own fabrics. Many of the jerseys, wools and silks seen on display in the exhibition were created in collaboration with Broadhead and Graves of Huddersfield, while much of her famous tweed was sourced from Linton Tweeds in Cumbria.
Unsurprisingly, one of the show’s most spectacular displays is devoted to her iconic tweed suit, with an entire room dedicated to what would go on to become Gabrielle Chanel’s signature look. Designed as a declaration of modern femininity, Chanel’s suits did away with padding and stiff fabrics and instead focused on more supple textiles that allowed for freedom of movement.
“Always dress to make yourself feel young – this means being free and easy and unpretentious in your clothes,” Chanel once said. Described by Vogue in 1964 as ‘the world’s prettiest uniform’, the Chanel suit became revered for its elegant details, such as custom buttons and a chain stitched into the jacket’s hem to ensure it fell in the right way, and remains a timeless class.
Other Chanel staples on display include a section devoted to her little black dress, a look that the pioneering designer was responsible for turning into a fashion statement. It was Chanel who first promoted wearing the colour black as a symbol of chicness and modernity; before her, it was reserved solely for shop assistants and mourning dress. Elsewhere, there are displays showcasing Chanel’s exquisite flair for embroidery, her feather-light lace and tulle flapper dresses of the 20s and daring slip dresses of the 30s.
It’s not all about the clothes. One of the most enjoyable sections of the exhibition is one dedicated to Chanel’s phenomenally successful beauty empire, which all began with the launch of Gabrielle Chanel’s debut perfume, Chanel No. 5, in 1921. Crafted by perfumer Ernst Beaux and made of a heady blend of jasmine, ylang-ylang, sandalwood and neroli, it went on to become the house’s signature scent, adored by everyone from Marilyn Monroe to the Queen.
One of the most interesting artifacts on display is a hand-written letter from the Queen herself, written in 1955, thanking a friend for gifting her a bottle of Chanel No. 5 for her birthday. Elsewhere you’ll find products from Chanel’s 1924 make-up collection and 1927 skincare range, none of which would look out of place on a dressing table today.
There’s also an entire room dedicated to Chanel’s love of jewellery, in particular pearls and sparkly costume pieces, which she mixed in with the finest stones. Before Chanel did it, no socialite would ever have considered wearing fake jewels, but as with everything, Chanel quickly made it de rigueur. On display are pieces inspired by historical eras, botanical gems and zodiac signs, as well as Chanel’s ubiquitous pearls. The fashion house’s famous bags and shoes are also given a nod, with her 2.55 quilted bag and slingback two-tone shoes credited as two of the most enduring accessories in the world of fashion.
But of course, the real draw here are the evening dresses, the elegant silk and sequinned creations that Chanel was so adept at designing. It was impossible to resist their allure, as Loelia Ponsonby, Duchess of Westminster, discovered for herself. Loelia married the Duke towards the end of his long affair with Chanel, and naturally the two women were not the closest of friends – yet on display you’ll find a spectacular sequinned navy floor-length gown that belonged to the Duchess. Clearly, nothing was worth forgoing a Chanel evening dress for.
The show’s grand finale does not disappoint, recreating the famous faceted mirror staircase from Chanel’s couture salon at 31 Rue Cambon, where Chanel’s models famously descended the stairs in the new collections. On those famous steps you’ll find gowns in silk, velvet and tulle, worn by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Marlene Dietrich.
Elsewhere in the room are pieces from Chanel’s final collection, which was presented on 26 January 1971, two weeks after her death. Casual yet elegant, it was hailed as ‘Chanel at her best’, and felt like a fitting tribute to the woman who had spent the last 60 years redefining women’s fashion codes.
While the exhibition doesn’t shy away from Chanel’s complex and often controversial personal life, with a section that alludes to her reputation as a Nazi collaborator, as well as suggestions that she was in fact a member of the French resistance, it is her clothes that are the undisputed star of the show, as they should be.
As the journalist Prudence Glynn wrote in 1971: “It is impossible to chart pictorially the evolution of Chanel as a designer because she did not evolve. Rather fashion evolved around her. She created a look which was overwhelmingly successful when it was launched and which has left ineradicable traces in fashion.”
Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto is on show at the V&A Museum from 16 September until 25 February 2024