Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto Review - A Curatorial Triumph

by Amy de la Haye on 20 September 2023

The V&A's latest show is a fine example of fashion exhibition making, says Amy de la Haye, who explores the curatorial strategies of Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto.

The V&A's latest show is a fine example of fashion exhibition making, says Amy de la Haye, who explores the curatorial strategies of Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto.

‘A dress is neither a tragedy, nor a painting; it is a charming and ephemeral creation, not an everlasting work of art.’ Coco Chanel

Chanel regarded fashion as an integral part of a woman’s everyday life. Nothing more. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she did not gift her designs to museums. In fact, she thought the museum was no place for fashion. She was not even a great fan of art displayed within museum contexts.

Edmonde Charles-Roux, author of her first major monograph, recalled, ‘She always cared less for a work of art on exhibition than those on location, still in the sites they were designed for.’ (Chanel:196). Thankfully, her clients, friends, successive generations of curators and the House of Chanel, did not agree. They have systematically collected and preserved her creative output and histories. And nor do Chanel aficionados today - this stunning exhibition had sold out until January before it even opened on Saturday.

Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto (2020) was conceived and curated by Miren Arzalluz, Director, and curator Véronique Belloir from Palais Galliera, with the support of the House of Chanel. From the outset, it was conceived as a touring show and has already travelled to Melbourne and Tokyo. Surprisingly (very surprisingly), this was the first Chanel retrospective exhibition staged in Paris when it premiered in 2020.

The focus is upon the 20th century haute couturière’s work, whilst recognising how often her creative output was entwined with her biography and, the lifestyle of her latest lover.

Gabrielle Chanel, 31 rue Cambon, Paris, 1937. Photograph Roger Schall. Courtesy V&A

The curators identified ten core exhibition themes: 'Towards a New Elegance', 'The Emergence of a Style', 'The Invisible Accessory' - (perfume, beauty products and cosmetics), 'Luxury and Line', 'Closing the House', 'The Suit', 'Chanel Codes', 'Into the Evening', 'Costume Jewellery' and, 'A Timeless Allure'.

Whilst contractually bound to retain these, curators at subsequent venues have introduced items from their own collections and adapted narratives for local visitors. At the V&A, Senior Fashion Curator Oriole Cullen, working with fashion curator Connie Karol Burks and project curator Stephanie Wood, has introduced a British component, which includes fascinating new research on Chanel’s manufacturing and use of British textiles. This (obviously!) includes tweed. Also featured are her textile factory in Huddersfield and brief collaboration with a cluster of manufacturers called British Chanel Ltd. (1932-33).

Altogether there are some 400 new objects in this iteration of the exhibition, which include 30 new dressed mannequins, making a total of 191.

Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto at the V&A Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Courtesy V&A

Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto at the V&A is designed by Storey Studio, who have created a suitably elegant and minimal exhibition that foregrounds the objects and echoes the haute couturière’s own aesthetic.

The beginning of the exhibition comprises a large illustrated timeline. The first garment displayed is a long, cream-coloured knitted silk jersey waisted blouse with a sailor-style collar, dating from Spring/Summer 1916. It is possibly the earliest surviving Chanel garment.

The designer’s appropriation of menswear components, workwear and uniform was not unprecedented, but her informality and ease were entirely radical. Further, the use of knitted jersey fabrics, even using silk yarn, for a wealthy fashion clientele was unprecedented. After all, jersey was a cloth associated with men’s undergarments - hence Karl Lagerfeld’s Y-fronts for Spring/Summer 1993. This rare blouse forms part of the House of Chanel’s outstanding private archive and could – like a great many of the exhibits – so easily be worn today.

Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto at the V&A Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Courtesy V&A
Gabrielle Chanel, Marinière Blouse, silk. Spring/Summer 1916 © CHANEL. Photograph Nicholas Alan Cope

A diminutive cream-coloured silk, knee-length skirt and sleeveless blouse exemplify the 1920s vogue for sportif garçonne styles. These loose, simple shift styles were ripe for copying, interpreted in cheaper rayon which superficially resembled the look and feel of silk. It was this simplification of style, not the advent of technology (so critical to the mass-production of menswear), that facilitated the development of the women’s ready-to-wear fashion industries. However, as this exhibition makes explicit, it is the supreme quality of materials, intricate pattern piecing and exquisitely worked ornamentation that render a Chanel model so distinctive. And, this could never be replicated for the fashion hungry mass market.

Chanel silk ensemble 1926. Photograph Nicholas Alan Cope. Courtesy V&A

Adhering to modernisms principle of truth to materials, Chanel’s decoration often involved the use of self-fabric – geometric patterned pintucking, appliqué bow motifs and flower printed silk with the petals cut out and meticulously finished. That said, and ever contrary, Chanel also rejoiced in the most exquisite embroideries using thread, sequins and beads and there are beautiful examples of day and evening wear adorned with folkloric Russian style embroidery, medieval-esque scroll work and, modern abstract designs.

My essay for the Paris exhibition catalogue explored Chanel’s lesser-known use of flowers including the wild flowers (often printed textile cut outs, some that fluttered like garlands) and wheat from her youth. The definition of a wild flower is one that grows freely and is resilient, qualities that I likened to Chanel herself. It was thrilling to see garments that I had not previously viewed because of Covid.

I was particularly struck by how meticulous the exhibits look and how skilfully they had been displayed. Highly talented V&A conservators, mannequin dressers, mount makers and lighting engineers (Studio ZNA designed the latter), whose vital contributions are so often overlooked within exhibition reviews, have worked together to ensure all exhibits can be appreciated to their absolute finest advantage.

Perhaps more than any other 20th century fashion designer, jewellery was central to Chanel’s style. Masses of it, worn in abundance to decorate an otherwise plain ensemble including beach wear. Within fashion exhibitions jewellery is rarely shown with the garments it was designed to accessorise, as it can damage fabric. And, many visitors want to be able to view it up close.

Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto includes a large section devoted to Chanel’s stunning costume jewellery – faux pearls that defy nature; poured glass camelias crafted Maison Gripoix; jewel encrusted baked enamel bangles by Fulco di Verdura and rock crystal and gold pendants by Robert Goossens. Other accessories are also, not unpleasingly, similarly displayed rather than shown as part of a head-to-toe look. But, handbag obsessives be warned, there are only about seven bags in this show. A single pair of beige and black kidskin slingback shoes by Massaro from 1961 are suspended like jewels.

Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto at the V&A Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Courtesy V&A

Curatorial strategies and interventions intrigue me and actively inform how I experience and read an exhibition. In recent years garments shown in two or more tiers have become popular within fashion exhibition making. In the 'Suits' gallery this is especially effective, facilitating a view of the template and its infinite variations. 54 suits are displayed to mark the year 1954, when the suit was launched. Although few will notice, it is a nice touch.

Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto at the V&A Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Courtesy V&A

The curators wrestled with how to show the luxury and finish of the garment interior, whilst showing them on mannequins. This perspective permits viewers to appreciate this with regards to the skirt. In order to avoid unsightly up-skirting, each mannequin has been fitted with a plate that fits perfectly the circumference of the skirt, painted to match precisely the colour of these beautifully finished linings.

Mannequins consume a huge chunk of an exhibition budget and generate much debate. The figures used in this show could so easily be overlooked, but that is the intention. Arzalluz chose standard headless sculpted torsos with height adjustable leg poles. The torsos were customised to feature an elongated neck and more pronounced clavicle; the hips are thrust further forward than is customary and there are a variety of arm gestures. Combining both ease and assertion (hands on hip), they reflect Chanel’s own utterly modern fashion postures. In Paris the figures were painted a cream colour; in London many of these have been painted grey for greater diversity. Par one male figure wearing a performative costume for Ballet Russes modernist production Le Train Bleu (1924), the exhibits were designed for female bodies. Even today, unlike many other fashion houses and brands, Chanel does not design for men.

Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto at the V&A Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Courtesy V&A

The lack of movement in fashion exhibitions is insurmountable for conservation reasons. Here we experience the animate body via extended and newly added film footage of fashion shows, skilled workers in Chanel’s atelier and sections of the Hollywood films she costumed in the early 1930s. A sense of movement is also achieved by historical film footage which becomes abstracted when projected onto fabric back drops.

A musical soundtrack was composed especially for this show by Coda to Coda. It provides a contemporaneous feel, without being distracting. Cosmetics and perfume contribute to our dressed appearance – they are worn. 'The Invisible Accessory' gallery showcases a large selection of perfumes, cosmetics, and beauty products, including Chanel’s early sun tan products.

Extensive use of glass in this gallery is redolent of Chanel’s pharmaceutical style flacon designed for the world-famous, top selling, Chanel No 5. Fragrance cannot be released into gallery spaces, (it was for the 1971 Cecil Beaton show at the V&A), for health and safety, as well as conservation reasons.

Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto at the V&A Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Courtesy V&A

Amidst so much elegance and beauty, we are brought to an abrupt halt by the inclusion of documents from the Paris archives that corroborate Chanel’s wartime collaboration with the occupying Nazi regime. At the outbreak of war, she closed her house and dismissed her employees claiming this was no time for fashion. However, she did keep her lucrative perfume business open and tried - unsuccessfully - to reclaim this section of her business that she had sold to the Wertheimer Brothers (owners of the business since the 1950s) who were not permitted to own a business under Nazi race laws. Chanel spent the duration living in the Paris Ritz hotel with her Nazi lover. In recent years there has been much debate about whether we should showcase work by artists who have demonstrated transgressive behaviours. I agree with the V&A’s stance which brings this to the audience’s attention with a fact-based statement and display of documents from the Paris archives. Very interestingly, new research by Justine Picardie suggests that Chanel was also involved with the resistance.

Chanel worked up to the final days before her death in 1971. Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto closes with a reproduction of the famous facetted glass circular stairwell at the rue Cambon, where Chanel so often stood alone and out of sight observing how her shows were received. In an era when museums are so dependent upon income from fashion houses to stage such lavish shows, it is refreshing that - demonstrating elegant restraint - the House did not impose pressures for visitors to exit via a display of vibrant designs from Virginie Viard’s latest collections for Chanel.

Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto at the V&A Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Courtesy V&A

Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto

Victoria & Albert Museum

16 September – 25 February 2024

Gabrielle Chanel edited by Oriole Cullen and Connie Karol Burks (V&A Publishing) has been published to coincide with this iteration of the exhibition.

Amy de la Haye’s book Chanel: Couture & Industry (V&A publishing) has been significantly revised, to coincide with the opening of this exhibition.

Amy de la Haye's essay ‘Fashioning Flowers’ appears in the exhibition catalogue edited by Miren Arzalluz and Véronique Belloir, Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto (published in English by Thames &Hudson).



Interview: Amy de la Haye on Coco Chanel

04 September 2013
Curator Amy de la Haye discusses the story behind Marion Pike and Coco Chanel's friendship and the process of curating the exhibition – Coco Chanel: A new Portrait by Marion Pike, Paris 1967-1971.

Interview: Jeffie Pike Durham on Coco Chanel

12 September 2013
Jeffie Pike Durham discusses her mother – artist Marion Pike's – relationship with Coco Chanel, and her own personal memories of the fashion designer.

Essay: Haute Couture Under Occupation

01 July 2020
Fashion and dress historian Professor Amy de la Haye explores how the heights of Parisian haute couture fared under Nazi occupation during WWII when workers were persecuted, resources were scarce and exports were forbidden.
Back to top