“Gabrielle Chanel Fashion Manifesto” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London has been one of the most anticipated (fashion) exhibitions of the year. In this article I share if it is worth seeing – spoiler alert: it didn’t disappoint. Let’s dive into the details.
You can also watch my video here.
What Will You See at the Exhibition?
The V&A is exhibiting about 200 garments and further objects from their own archives and from collections around the world. It starts with the very early designs – which is quite special because they are rare and they are not exhibited that often anymore due to their age. The exhibition follows a chronological approach which is also centred around certain focus areas – iconic creations such as the suit, the little black dress and accessories and jewellery. Needless to say, this exhibition’s main protagonist is Gabrielle Chanel, but the information about her (such as biographical data, her personal relationships, her political views) is rather provided as background information to understand the development of her design language and her business better.
I Have Seen “Gabrielle Chanel – Manifeste de Mode” at the Palais Galliera in Paris, Will I See Anything Different Here?
The exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum is building on the exhibition “Manifeste de Mode” at the Palais Galliera in Paris which opened on 1 October 2020 and which also involved the newly established Galleries Gabrielle Chanel. It also travelled to the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne and the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum in Tokyo in 2022. This exhibition presented two phases of Gabrielle Chanel: Firstly, her early years in the 1910s as a designer with a significant influence on fashion. Secondly, Chanel’s return to fashion in the 1950s, which was relatively unexpected after having closed her business during the war.
Similarly, the current “Gabrielle Chanel – Fashion Manifesto” follows these two phases and also ends with the designer’s death in 1971. The V&A was supported by Chanel and worked in partnership with the Palais Galliera. However, it was not a mere copy of the French exhibition. The V&A exhibits over 200 garments from the Patrimoine de Chanel and the Palais Galliera but also utilized not only their own vast collection of garments, textiles and jewellery but also objects from their archives, theatre and performance, prints, illustrations. Furthermore, there are also garments on loan from other museums and private collections from around the world, e.g. Berlin or Pickford’s House. Moreover, given the V&A’s location, the curatorial team also focused on Chanel’s relationship to Britain – from her personal relationships to the Duke of Westminster and Winston Churchill, to business partners and suppliers and her special interest in tweed.
Overall Concept and Storyline
Similar to “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty” at the Metropolitan Museum in New Yorkhttps://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/a-line-of-beauty earlier this year, the V&A did not put the person or public persona in the spotlight but rather the development of Chanel’s design language and what it meant in the greater context of history and societal change. They start with her early days running a millinery shop in Paris and how she then expanded to the French holiday destinations.
First Phase – Chanel’s Early Days as a Designer and the Development of the Business Until World War II
The exhibition starts with a “Marinière Blouse” from 1916. This blouse was made from jersey which Chanel did not invent, it had been used for underwear and stockings, but she was the one who promoted it. The style of the blouse references the pullovers of fishermen – maybe a hint to Chanel’s love for the beachside resorts. This is one of the earliest preserved Chanel garments and it may look humble and unsuspecting but getting to see this in person is very exciting.
The exhibition then moves on to explain how Chanel built her hat business and also transformed the designs of hats overall. We can already see what she was going to do later on with her garments: move away from the flamboyant and often impractical outfits and accessories and turn them into something easy yet elegant. In the 1920s and 1930s she has arrived fully in fashion and her palette was subtle with beige and little colours. However, she also sometimes included brighter colours such as a deep red or a royal blue. She did not decorate her creations too much as she did not want to distract from their simplicity. On display are also her signature skirts with tops or blouses or blazers with a low waist and accentuated with a belt. I would say we can already see the Chanel suit coming.
One of the most impressive things about this exhibition for me was her early designs. Given their age, garments like these are rarely on display. We would assume that a designer like Chanel, who ended up promoting her “total look” – which means an entirely curated outfit including accessories and jewellery – did not start out with a collection of garments. Instead she focused on one single product – hats – and used her own connections and those of her romantic liaisons to promote them amongst affluent Parisians, celebrities, actors, dancers and musicians.
There were some beautiful designs on display: a floral dress in magenta paired with a cardigan with the same pattern on the rim, another flower dress with poppies and possibly cornflowers with the matching 3D-flowers referencing the pattern on one shoulder. Even though these dresses are almost 100 years old but they still look very chic and timeless.
The exhibition also explores Gabrielle Chanel’s involvement on stage – she supplied the costumes for “Le Train Bleu”, for example – and in films. Furthermore, the visitor can learn about her hands-on approach to textiles and her partnerships with companies in Britain. It then moves on to the “little black dress” and one room is dedicated to Les Parfums Chanel, her fragrances which, until today, make up a big part of the Chanel business. After that, visitors are led into a bigger hall with different designs – I admired the different types of embroidery, the intricacy of the designs.
“Break” – Chanel During World War II
After that, there is a small part of the exhibition which covers the “break” between the two major storylines taken from the exhibition from the Palais Galliera: the time when the House of Chanel was closed during the Second World War.
Gabrielle Chanel herself is a polarising personality, especially regarding her private life but also because of some comments she made in public. It reminded me a lot of what I said about Karl Lagerfeld: we know the public persona and make assumptions about the actual person. We may think we know them but with personalities like Chanel and Lagerfeld, it is very difficult to actually get to know them. Both were masters in covering up parts of their pasts or reinventing their own history. And similar to Lagerfeld, many videos and articles online focus on her potential involvement with the Germans during World War II.
Similar to “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty”, the V&A did not put the person or public persona in the spotlight, but rather the development of Chanel’s design language and what it meant in the greater context of history and societal change.Nevertheless, there is a part of the exhibition which discusses Chanel’s attitude during the war: On the one hand, she did have a relationship with Hans Günther von Dincklage, a functionary and spy of the National Socialists. Furthermore, the Germans documented a code name for Chanel. However, there is no evidence that she herself knew about it. She was involved in two secret missions for the Germans – one of which failed.
The exhibition discusses this past and also offers new insights: there is an attestation confirming Chanel’s status as “Agent Occasionnel des Forces Francaises Combattantes” – this is a document which the French government released in the process of verifying resistance fighters. This attestation states that Chanel worked as an “occasional agent” for the French Résistance. Furthermore, there is also a list of occasional agents listing “Miss Chanel, called ‘Coco’” (“Melle Chanel, dite ‘Coco’”).
I appreciated that the exhibition discussed this fact, even though the “person” Chanel was not the main focus and only used as a way to explain her designs. Considering that other parts of her history were kept short or left out, I think it was a valid contribution. Furthermore, it cast a new light on her involvement in the war without distracting from the major storyline of the exhibition. Again, Chanel’s personal story does not get any less complicated now that we know that she may have been involved in both sides. I am planning another article and video about this part of Coco Chanel’s past – stay tuned.
Second Phase: Gabrielle Chanel Reopens Her Business in the 1950s
Probably one of the most iconic rooms is the one about Gabrielle Chanel’s iconic suits. Displayed in two rows, they cover a room with a high ceiling and are arranged like a rainbow. Chanel is mostly associated with tweed and her suits. Hence, the room itself was unexpected, but I liked how it was done. Visitors can explore the differences in design, material and use and how they changed over time. If you stand under the displays, you can see that the suits are put on stands in a way that you can also get a glimpse of the inside of the garment. Given how important her suit was as an antidote to the silhouette promoted by Dior during the late 1940s and 1950s, it was a no-brainer that the curators displayed the suits. However, I appreciated that this room exemplifies her use of colour, as she is mostly reduced to her muted colour palette and by looking at the rainbow of suits, we can see how much colour she actually used.
A corridor covering famous accessories – the 2.55 handbag, the two-toned shoes and evening bags – connects to a room dedicated to eveningwear which then leads to custom jewellery. The exhibition ends with Chanel’s last runway show.
Analysing the exhibition now, this last room with garments from different dates of her “second phase” also showed me where Chanel’s designs had ended up towards the end of her career. Two ladies stood next to me and marvelled at the gowns and one said “It isn’t very much Chanel though.” And this is exactly what I thought too – the designs were beautiful but some were very “romantic” and “playful” and it reminded me of what Madame Faction and I discussed in our Fashion Talk about Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel: in the 1970s, Chanel was considered old-fashioned, only the “wives of diplomats” wore the brand and Lagerfeld had to revamp not only the branding but also the design language.
And speaking of Lagerfeld, I found this exhibition a great complement to the retrospective “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty” at the Metropolitan Museum in New York earlier this year. It basically ends where a large portion of the American show started and both exhibitions support our understanding of the other.
Hacks for Your Visit
I definitely think that this exhibition is worth seeing. The tickets for it have long been sold out, but you can become a member of the V&A – which I also did. (Side note, this is an unsponsored post and only my personal experience and opinion.) For me, it made sense because I frequently visit their exhibitions and you also get a discount at their museum shop and online shop. I then just showed up the day I wanted to visit and did not need to pre-book a time slot.
I highly recommend that you arrive early, right at 10 am when the museum opens. I thought because it was sold out that the time would not matter because the museum only sells a certain number of tickets. I arrived at around 10.30 and considering this “blockbuster exhibition”, it was not too crowded. Needless to say, you may have to wait sometimes in front of a certain exhibit, but I sometimes was even lucky enough to be able to enjoy some exhibits on my own. When I finished, however, about 90 minutes later, the queue to enter the exhibition was quite long. Hence, start your day early.
In conclusion I would say that if you can, go visit Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto, you will not be disappointed – no matter how much you know about Chanel or fashion in general. For “Chanel beginners” it is a great introduction into her work. If you know her story and work well, it is still a rare occasion where you can see this vast range of garments and objects, and especially those from the early Chanel days. Furthermore, I am sure there are new dimensions about the designers which can be discovered during the exhibition. And even if you are not interested in fashion at all, “Fashion Manifesto” offers insights into how this woman built a fashion empire at a time when this was not at all the social norm.
Have you seen “Gabrielle Chanel – Fashion Manifesto”? What did you think about it? Or are you planning a visit and do you have any questions I may be able to answer? Let me know in the comments, send me an email or DM me on my Instagram or Facebook.
Don’t forget to check out my YouTube for more fashion-related videos.
 V&A 2023, p. 9
 ibid, p. 7.
 Information provided at the exhibition at the V&A.
 Information provided at the exhibition at the V&A, Chaney 2012, Vaughan 2013.
 Information provided at the exhibition at the V&A.
Information provided at the exhibition “Gabrielle Chanel – Fashion Manifesto” at the V&A, London 2023.
Lisa Chaney, Chanel – An Intimate Life, Audiobook via Audible, 2012.
Justine Picardie, Chanel – The Legend and the Life, London 2011.
V&A, Gabrielle Chanel – Fashion Manifesto, exhibition catalogue, London 2023.
Hal Vaughan, Coco Chanel – Der schwarze Engel: Ein Leben als Nazi-Agentin, 2nd edition (in German), Hamburg 2013.
This article is based on the personal, views, experiences and research of Elisabeth Steiger, no fees were received by the organisations and people mentioned above.