Eliza Wyke / Fashion History & Exhibitions  / Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto

Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto

Last week I had the opportunity to visit the V&A’s exhibition detailing the career of Gabrielle Chanel (I felt as though I had a Golden Ticket when I discovered it was a sell-out).  Much has been written about this exhibition and indeed Gabrielle Chanel; her upbringing (abandoned by her father, raised by nuns) her early years as a milliner, her wealthy lovers (of which there were several) and the opportunities they offered, how she liberated women, freeing them from confines of corsetry, her early use of black for the everyday (albeit evening in the form of the LBD) rather than merely mourning attire and, of course, her revolutionary adoption of trousers as an acceptable mode of dress for women.

I’m a huge Chanel fan – devour every word written about her and like Gabrielle always wear my own designs – but I always think of her career as one of two halves.  The early years where she established her name, emancipating women with her modern, relaxed outfits and the post-war years after a lengthy exile in Switzerland, when she re-established her rightful place in fashion with the famous boucle suit.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this exhibition but I was exceedingly impressed by the depth of the early examples of her work.  Beautifully preserved and remarkedly modern – I could have stepped out in so many of the outfits I lost count, as they felt completely relevant today.  However, when I think of early Chanel, I recall images of her wearing trousers and relaxed jersey garments, nothing too formal.  I was struck by how many delicate evening dresses and beautiful flapper dresses she’d designed and were on display.  These delicate dresses were fascinating in themselves but I was amazed by how few trousers were on display.  I wondered whether she may have adopted slacks and tops for her own wardrobe, but perhaps like most designers she needed her public to be brave to follow suit, or whether the trousers her customers had bought had been so well worn they had simply not survived.

The post-war and the iconic Chanel skirt suit are also well represented (poorly recorded by me – see below) and wonderfully displayed in maisonette style display cabinets.  Again, whilst the styles are simple and often repetitive, it is the details such as a pocket trims using the silk from the blouse, or a contrasting braiding that makes each suit simply pop and look strikingly different from its neighbour.

My photos were numerous (sadly the black outfits photographed poorly so are not included here) and don’t properly capture the exquisite garments on display.  All in all a magnificent exhibition and well worth my two-hour online queue for tickets last summer!

Early silk blouse worn by Gabrielle Chanel

Up close the petals of the print have been delicately cut out to give a scalloped finish

Early examples of wool suits

Feathered evening coats – I want one!

Classic ivory and black

I thought I’d fallen in love in the suit room then I walked into this room and fell in love again!

Exquisite fabrics

Recreation of the famous mirrored staircase – and at last we have trousers!

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