Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto Exhibition at the V&A

Since my visit to the Dior exhibition at the V&A in 2019, I’ve been on a bit of a mission. I’ve travelled to fashion museums across the globe and shared my thoughts on the blog, all in the hope of finding another exhibition that could wow me just as much. So, you can imagine my excitement when I heard that the V&A was going to host the UK’s first exhibition dedicated to the work of Gabrielle Chanel, bringing together over 200 iconic looks for the very first time. It was a must-see for me.

True to form, the exhibition sold out quickly after opening, but luckily, the V&A extended its run by two weeks. That’s how we managed to grab tickets, at £26 each, to catch the exhibition in its final days.

If I thought the Dior exhibition was packed 5 years ago, the Chanel exhibition was on another level. There were two queues: one for V&A members, who enjoy unlimited visits even to sold-out exhibitions, and another for ticket holders. On our visit, the members’ queue stretched impressively long, winding from the entrance all the way to the back. Thankfully, the queue for ticket holders moved quicker, but it was still a busy shuffle through the first few rooms.

A little disclaimer…

Before we get into the review, I want to set the scene a bit. While I’ve long admired the iconic Chanel 2.55 bag and the classic slingback shoes, my feelings towards the founder of the fashion house, Gabrielle Chanel, have been a bit more complicated. I’ve always been aware she was a controversial person, but I didn’t realise just how much until I started reading up on her before our visit.

Despite her glamorous lifestyle and being a symbol of elegance, Chanel’s life was filled with controversies, from her problematic drug use to her actions during WWII (and eventually escaping criminal charges after quite literally sleeping with the enemy), and her association with some questionable figures.

So, when I visited the exhibition, I was curious to see if this complex side of her story would be touched upon. But I also decided to focus on enjoying the exhibition for what it was: a showcase of the incredible designs and craftsmanship that have made Chanel one of the most iconic fashion brands in the world.

So, how did it stack up to my expectations? Let’s find out…

A wall-mounted display of framed Chanel fashion sketches in monochrome with subtle colour accents

A life in fashion

The exhibition kicked off with a timeline showcasing Coco Chanel’s journey. It took us from her humble beginnings to her rise as a milliner and ultimately, her status as one of the most iconic fashion designers ever.

Among the highlights were some of the oldest surviving Chanel pieces and the materials she first used. Chanel’s game-changing move was taking jersey fabric, which was then mostly used for underwear, stockings, and sportswear, and turning it into stylish everyday wear.

This choice was partly due to the lower cost of jersey fabric, but it also resonated with the spirit of the times. The war had made traditional couture fabrics hard to come by, and as women’s roles in society evolved—many joining the war effort—they needed practical, comfortable clothes that allowed for freedom of movement and didn’t need another pair of hands to put on. Chanel’s bold use of a fabric once considered too plain for the high fashion world forever transformed the world of haute couture.

An open book showcasing various fabric swatches in different patterns and colours, with descriptive text on the left

Gabrielle Chanel, much like Christian Dior, had a deep affection for Britain. The exhibition featured a special section dedicated to her connections with the UK, including her collaborations with British manufacturers, her ties to British high society, and the British influences on her collections. Interestingly, these very connections would later be at the heart of some of the biggest controversies linked to Chanel.

The introduction of Chanel Beauty

The exhibition also dedicated a special section to Chanel’s beauty range, focusing on the iconic debut perfume, Chanel No. 5, which has become the world’s top-selling fragrance. I’ve always been a bit baffled by its legendary status. I tried it once and it wasn’t just that it didn’t suit me; honestly, I thought it was pretty overwhelming.

Chanel skincare products arranged on a clear shelf, including creams and lotions with minimalist white packaging and the iconic Chanel logo

But there’s clearly something special about it, given its fanbase includes none other than the Queen herself and Marilyn Monroe. Monroe’s cheeky answer to the question, “What do you wear to bed?” with “Chanel No. 5” has gone down in history.

A perspective shot of several Chanel No. 5 perfume bottles in different sizes and concentrations, aligned neatly on a glass shelf with a bright background

One of the most interesting items on display was a handwritten letter from Queen Elizabeth II, thanking the treasurer in the Office of the Duke of Edinburgh for a birthday gift of Chanel No. 5. It just goes to show how much this scent is treasured.

Chanel on stage

In the period between the wars, Coco Chanel branched out into designing costumes for the Ballets Russes and even Hollywood films. There’s a part of the exhibition where you can check out some of these outfits, along with photos and clips from the films.

Sadly, her designs didn’t quite hit the mark on the big screen. This, combined with the shift in fashion tastes during the 1930s and the rise of groundbreaking designers like Elsa Schiaparelli, meant Chanel’s influence began to fade. In an attempt to reclaim her top spot, she teamed up with Jean Cocteau on costumes for his theatre production, but the critics ruthlessly mocked those.

Closing the fashion house

As World War II began, Chanel made the decision to shut down her famous fashion house, marking the start of what would be the most controversial chapter in her life. She entered into a relationship with a German spy, and later, rumours swirled about Chanel becoming a spy herself, with some even suggesting she might have been a double agent.

In the exhibition’s beauty section, there’s a bit that touches on the questionable methods Chanel used to try and take back control of her perfume business. Initially, she was only entitled to 10% of the shares according to her contract, a deal she was never quite satisfied with. So, when the war led to efforts to remove Jewish influence from French businesses, Chanel saw an opportunity to claim the majority shares for herself. However, foreseeing her actions, the original owners quickly transferred their shares to another Frenchman, leaving Chanel to wait until after the war to renegotiate the terms more to her liking.

Return to fashion

This part of the exhibition was where things really started to get interesting for me. After the war, with its shift towards practical clothing and austerity, Dior’s debut collection made a splash in the fashion world. He was all about bringing back the glamour and extravagance of couture for those who could afford it, moving away from the established trends of the interwar period. His New Look, with its fitted jackets, cinched waists, and A-line skirts, was a bold return to radical femininity.

Then, in 1954, Coco Chanel decided it was time to come out of retirement and reopen her salon after a 15-year break. At 71, she had to adjust to a whole new fashion world, which was absolutely fascinating to me.

The section showcasing the Chanel suit was definitely one of the highlights of the whole exhibition for me. Displayed in two rows of glass cases were over 50 tweed suits from her first collection after the war, creating a stunning spectrum of colours that wrapped around the room.

Despite some mixed initial reactions, Chanel’s designs eventually won women over with their effortless elegance and practicality. By the end of the ’50s, these suits were everywhere in Western fashion magazines, with French Elle even sharing a pattern so readers could make their own suit.

An open book showcasing detailed sketches and patterns for Chanel garments, with descriptive text and layout designs
An open book displaying a vintage Chanel jacket and skirt, detailed with text on the left and a close-up of the jacket on the right

Chanel’s suits, designed without padding, celebrated the natural shape of the woman and offered more freedom of movement. This timeless look is still going strong today – just think of Olivia Rodrigo’s pink outfit at the White House or Margot Robbie wearing that vintage Chanel piece in the Barbie film. Personally, I couldn’t get enough of the cream and pink suits and would love to have one in my wardrobe!

Chanel eveningwear

Throughout the exhibition, the evolution of Chanel’s womenswear, especially the eveningwear, was on full display.

A glamorous pale peach Chanel dress with sequin detailing on the bodice and a voluminous tulle skirt, displayed on a mannequin

At first, some of her earliest pieces might seem a bit old-fashioned by today’s tastes, but as I moved through the exhibition, I found myself falling more and more in love with the dresses.

There’s a whole section just for the iconic Little Black Dress, dubbed the “Ford of fashion” because of its universal appeal and popularity. I also absolutely adored the cream dress that almost felt bridal, with its daring open back that dipped down to the waistline, complete with a row of fabric-covered buttons.

And then there was this stunning red silk and chiffon dress from the Spring/Summer 1939 collection, with a beautifully fitted bodice that just screamed elegance. It was also brilliant to see how Chanel brought a new level of sophistication to eveningwear without sacrificing comfort, incorporating lurex into her designs for that extra sparkle.

But it was the grand finale of the exhibition, the “Always Alluring” section, that truly took my breath away. Here, a collection of Chanel’s most stunning gowns, evening dresses, and her famous evening suit were displayed on a sweeping staircase, a nod to Chanel’s iconic mirrored studio staircase, with each step acting as a display for the mannequins.

A wide-angle view of the Chanel exhibition space, where multiple mannequins adorned in various Chanel gowns ascend a set of white steps

There was also a display of Chanel eveningwear in bold textures and rich colours, set against a backdrop of black-and-white photographs. Chanel’s ability to continually reinterpret and refine her designs right up until her last collection, just two weeks before her death in 1971, was clear to see.

It was also a powerful reminder of the timeless nature of her designs, which are just as beloved and wearable today as they were when she first introduced them.

Structure of the exhibition

Instead of offering a chronological journey through the decades of designs, the exhibition zoomed in on Chanel’s most iconic creations – from the glamorous eveningwear and classic tweed suits to the beauty products, the legendary 2.55 bag, those chic two-toned slingback shoes, and the bold jewellery line.

A display of Chanel costume jewellery, including necklaces and brooches with floral and bejewelled designs

I must admit, I found myself wishing for a clearer layout at times. It was a bit of a whirlwind, hopping between the clothing and accessories, with a quick detour into Chanel’s wartime history. However, I really appreciated that the exhibition didn’t gloss over Chanel’s more controversial chapters. Of course, those parts were as detailed as you might expect from a showcase that had backing from the House of Chanel itself, but for those keen to dig deeper, there’s plenty more to uncover online.

And if you’re really into exploring the history of fashion, you’ve got to check out this fantastic series on Apple TV+ called The New Look. It takes a deep dive into how giants like Christian Dior and Coco Chanel, along with their peers, made it through the chaos of World War II and then reshaped the fashion world afterwards. For anyone fascinated by the evolution of modern fashion, it’s definitely worth a watch!

Final thoughts

Learning about Chanel’s journey from being a poor orphan, who learned to sew from the nuns at the convent, to becoming one of the most legendary fashion designers was absolutely fascinating. Her philosophy of simple, comfortable luxury really matched the era – first moving away from the restrictive outfits of the post-war period, then embracing the social changes that allowed women to use fashion as a louder form of self-expression. However, it’s also important to note she was quite the opportunist, skilfully navigating her relationships with powerful men to climb the fashion ladder.

This exhibition didn’t quite sweep me off my feet like the Dior one did, but it definitely gave me a lot to mull over.

Chanel was a true pioneer in many ways – she made eveningwear comfortable and opened doors for other women in couture. But, while we celebrate her timeless designs, it’s easy to brush aside the more controversial aspects of her life.

The exhibition made me stop and think about some tricky questions. Can we really separate Chanel’s creative genius from the darker chapters of her history? And, despite how far we think we’ve come as a society, have we really learned from our past?

Honestly, my admiration for Chanel’s work, especially the classic 2.55 bag that’s always inspired the bags I choose, isn’t fading anytime soon. I might even treat myself to the real deal one day. But, there’s no ignoring the complex legacy she’s left behind. If there’s one thing this exhibition taught me, it’s the importance of staying curious and digging a bit deeper into the stories of those we admire. I hope it inspires you to do the same.

Looking for more fashion exhibition reviews?

If you’re looking to add more fashion museums to your must-visit list, why don’t you check out my other reviews? From exploring New York’s fashion scene completely for free to a museum covering the rich history of Hungary’s textile industry, there’s something for everyone!

Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams at the V&A
All You Need to Know About the Brand That “Reconstructed the Polish Woman”
Visiting the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC
Draped in Decades: Time Travelling Inside the Fashion Museum in Riga
Inside the Goldberger Textile Industry Collection in Budapest
The Dark Sides of Fashion at the Museum of European Cultures in Berlin
Captivate! Fashion Photography from the ’90s at Kunstpalast Düsseldorf

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