Gabrielle Chanel; Fashion Manifesto, inside the exhibit.
“To be irreplaceable, one must be different.”
Gabrielle Chanel; Fashion Manifesto
When the V&A announcement came out, that they were going to have an exhibit dedicated to just her work, I knew I had to go! I had visited the Mademoiselle Privé exhibition, at the Saatchi Gallery in London in 2015, which was amazing, but after having visited the Hollywood, Mary Quant and Frida Kahlo exhibit at the V&A (I missed out on Dior at the time), I knew this one was going to be something else. The V&A never does things lightly or rushed, whether it is their paid exhibits or the walk in ones (in lack of better words), you just feel how much care and dedication is put into every bit of the museum.
One of the most famous brands and logos we know, must be of the house of Chanel. Whether you “do fashion” or you don’t, everybody knows Chanel. The quilted pattern handbags, the suits, the perfume and the intertwined C’s.
For me personally, Chanel was the first brand pointed out to me, when it was clear this was where my interest was. I’d watch anything on TV and in magazines, about the fashions, Karl Lagerfeld (the head designer for many years) and that amazing, unforgettable logo. To then hear, that the original founder was female, for me as a little girl back then, piqued my interest! She was able to do all this, leave this legacy, maybe, just maybe, I could too one day…
Inside the exhibition
The first entry upstairs, is immediately in Chanel style. It’s just a big black opening to stairs, but yet, you do not have to wonder or ask if you’re in the right place. Through there, you go down a long set of stairs and see the entrance to the exhibit with the name, Gabrielle Chanel; Fashion Manifesto. Everything around it is bare and light, all the focus is where it is needed. And when entering, the full on experience starts. It felt like a big time ride for me, as you’re taken from her start, right to where she finished. I would advice, that if you pop your coats and bags in the cloakroom for free hands, to bring a vest with you if you tend to get cold easy. At some spots during the exhibit I could feel the air conditioners, which are needed to preserve the items.
The first item you’re met with, is the calico robe. Make sure you check the back, so you can see why it’s referred to as the “Sailors robe”. All her items, seem to have details that are easily missed if you walk past them too quickly. Some items, I did wish the V&A perhaps used mirrors, so you could take in every single detail, or as my friend mentioned who I visited it with, perhaps have the stands on a turning platform. Thinking about it though, perhaps this was done on purpose. There is still a mystery about the person Gabrielle Chanel to this day, maybe the way everything was displayed, we are left with that bit of mystery with some items too.
All in all, there is absolutely loads to see and absorb. The exhibition, mixes all kinds of media successfully. You have time line information, you see moving imagery, videos. In some rooms, there is background music playing, setting a mood that works perfectly with the items you’re viewing.
When you’re taking the garments in, it is worth remembering that back then, sewing machines as we know them now, weren’t like that then. Their use wasn’t as extensive yet, as it is now. The amount of hand sewing that must have gone into these items, is astonishing. Make sure you check the details on the hems for example, you can see the hand sewn finishing, to ensure the fabric doesn’t fray and you end up with nothing left. Most dresses look simple, but when you take your time and look closer, the more details start popping out at you. Simple shapes yes, but mixed with amazing cuts, lines and corners mixed in there. Or small details of pieces of fabric cut out and placed onto the garments, creating subtle 3D effects. Even pockets worked into garments, in very intriguing ways. The whole exhibition, I kept thinking, all these items, you could walk out with today, as they are just timeless.
One sentence in an interview with Gabrielle Chanel that stuck with me, shown in the recent BBC documentary, Gabrielle Chanel; Unbuttoned, is her saying women want practical garments . They want to look nice and feel good, of course, but they also want garments you can just throw into a suitcase and take these out ready to put on. Without first having them to hang out their creases or iron them. With that sentence in mind, you do notice this in the choice in material and construction of the garments. The materials can handle that ease of not becoming one big crease ball when packed for travel or even when worn. the construction of the items is also all about ease of moving the arms, without the sleeves and their cuffs being in your way. The sleeve hem not being cut dead straight, but at an angle for example. Or even the small chain detail in the hems of the famous Chanel jackets. It looks pretty when it’s seen, but it helps the jackets being weighed down and stay put when worn. I’m thinking this is why, the legacy is there, the garments weren’t designed and made just to look pretty on a runway, they were created to make the wearer feel amazing and unrestricted.
As you’re moving along the exhibition, you can of course see the time changing slowly. The dropped waists of the 20s and 30s slowly make way to the war time. I remember my mum once pointing out to me, that fashion responds to the times. A very simple example being, when times aren’t great (in lack of better wording) skirts go longer (the great Depression for example in the 30s) and when times are better, the skirts go shorter (for example the swinging 60s). It was very interesting to see how Chanel could use the fashion of the times, but still create timeless items and push boundaries.
I was myself, mainly there for the fashion, but to see the perfume and make-up area, showing she was one of the first to say, lets create a whole image here, shows she was what we now call an entrepreneur. Someone with a big vision and drive.
Word War 2 was a dark part in history books of course and it is touched upon lightly in the exhibition. Truth is, that as mentioned before, Gabrielle Chanel was very good at staying mysterious. And the museum of course has to display what is known about her then. What happened with Chanel at this time, I’m glad the BBC documentary and the museum touched upon what is known so far, as it is history, but truth appears to be, we just don’t know much right now.
Gabrielle Chanel went into exile after World War 2 and returned in 1953. One quote my friend and I loved, when she was asked why, was that Christian Dior according to her said that “a woman could never be a great couturier”. Well, she showed him.
The whole exhibition does feel that it keeps building up to something, it becomes greater and greater with every room. The room with all the famous Chanel suits (who doesn’t remember Jaqueline Kennedy’s pink Chanel style suit worn on that fateful day), with mirrors, creating this surround feel of tweed. Two suits there worn by old Hollywood greats Marlene Dietrich and Lauren Bacall. Benches in the middle, invite you to sit and soak it all in! The colours, the movie playing on a wall of a fashion show of the time. There is even an old magazine on display, showing patterns were sold to create your own Chanel style suit. Everybody wanted one and that way, it was accessible.
The exhibition was clearly building up to something! The room after, has the famous mirror staircase, mimicking the one in her Rue de Cambon atelier and shop. Even though the mannequins don’t have heads and legs, you can just feel them wanting to move. Twirl the items, pose, walk down the stairs to show how amazing they are and feel when worn…
To then end the exhibition with the sole figure, dressed in such simple attire. Again, recognizable as Chanel instantly. A suit, thought to have been worn by her, but no photographs have been found so far of her wearing it. That lone figure standing there, showing her legacy in one simple look. The look that says, we all know Chanel, we instantly recognize it, whether you “do fashion” or you don’t. But…how much do we really know about the woman that started it all?