Chanel at the V and A – ReviewDecember 9, 2023
Chanel Review. A worldwide success. An innovator. A complicated woman. A survivor and thriver. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was all of those things, although at first glance, she’s mainly known for the first two. She is a household name and based on that alone this massive show is completely sold out for its entire run (although you can still enter if you are a member and I fully expect the museum to add extra dates). What is it like inside?
Really beautifully curated and staged, is the answer. And pains have been taken to find some great pieces – over 200 of them. Visitors will love wandering through and wondering which outfit would suit them best, and which they might want to wear themselves. It doesn’t say all that much about the woman herself, definitely preferring not to court controversy (apart from in just one area – the war) and so this is all about the dresses, suits, and handbags. The curators, Miren Arzalluz and Véronique Belloir, prefer to let the products speak for themselves this time.
Chanel Review – Inside the Exhibition
Very Early Pieces, Very Late Pieces.
Chanel was born in 1883, and died in 1971. The exhibition features some of her very earliest surviving pieces, like a silk jersey blouse from 1916 (her first fashion shop opened in 1910). It is a nice piece, and could be worn today. As, in fact, could most of the garments on display. They are timeless, and that’s because either Chanel set the trends which have been followed ever since, or she stuck to prevailing trends which have become so popular as to be classic. It’s hard to say, isn’t it? It closes with a severe black suit from her last collection.
The great sweeping staircase from her showroom, down which models used to step during fashion shows (and on which Chanel herself sat just out of sight, hissing instructions), has been recreated. On each step stands a gown, each in black, white, or cream. It looks like those models are descending the stairs once again. So beautiful, so elegant.
Chanel Review – It looks good, but…
I have intense reservations about this designer. There are some things it’s hard to ignore. She was said to try to take advantage of her models during fittings – Toto Koopman said she was appalled when she was groped by the designer and broke off the professional relationship. And if that was true, she can’t have been the only one. She was in a position to hire talented people to work with , but took all the credit for herself. I mean, she actually claimed to have invented Chanel no.5, but in fact the perfumier Ernest Beaux did that.
She did not say all the wonderful things she said she did, in a book of aphorisms – it was ghostwritten. She didn’t liberate women from the corset, invent casual wear for women using jersey, or the little black dress as we often hear. I’ve even read recently that she invented the modern suit. Those things all existed before she popularised them, but she did so with gusto.
Perhaps most concerning are the facts that during the war, she did several things, some of which are examined here, in a side room.When she set up her cosmetics and perfume company, she only owned a tiny share. But it became incredibly successful and she regretted that. She attempted to take full ownership of her cosmetics company for herself from its Jewish owners, while Nazi law forbade Jews from owning a business. She didn’t succeed. Chanel also spent this time holed up in the Ritz with her Nazi officer lover. Not very patriotic.
But far worse was that she was a spy for the Nazis. However, recently there have been hints that she also worked for the French Resistance – so she might have been a double agent. Or was she just hedging her bets? So that one, intriguingly, hangs in the balance. Nevertheless, I have the distinct impression that she was not a good person. It was probably great to be invited to a dinner party by her though, and see her catty self in action, watch her and wonder where all the fame and influence came from.
Chanel Review – The Legacy
And looking at the exhibition, she also wasn’t very inventive. Her legacy has been cemented by Karl Lagerfeld, who took certain of her works, like the cardigan suit, the bags with chain handles and just hammered them home. But there were a lot of them in her collections to begin with. She did explore other avenues, but was persistent with her favourites. She was lucky, her business closed shortly after the war and then re-opened, initially panned by the critics for being same-old-same-old. But the collection after that was lauded as being suddenly very modern and relevant (who did she pay off?) This boxy shape has never gone out of fashion since, and connotes a certain kind of luxury. It’s not cool, it’s never going to look cool, but it does make you look rich. (Sorry Chelsea ladies).
Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto is presented in partnership with Palais Galliera, Fashion Museum of the City of Paris, Paris Musées at the V&A South Kensington and closes on Sunday, 25 February 2024.