Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel’s Chic Legacy

An exhibition of elegance: ‘Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto’ is at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel’s Chic Legacy
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel in her couture house at 31 rue Cambon, Paris, in 1937. She moved here in 1918, bringing her Haute Couture ateliers, apartment, and creation studio all under one roof. (Roger Schall/Condé Nast/Shutterstock)
Lorraine Ferrier
10/7/2023
Updated:
1/26/2024
0:00

In 2020, the Palais Galliera (Fashion Museum of the City of Paris) hosted the first Paris exhibition dedicated to French national treasure couturière Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. That exhibition, “Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto,” has now been revamped, opened—and quickly sold out—at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). The museum’s fashion collection is considered the UK’s national collection of fashion.

The V&A shows the Paris exhibition in a new light, with rarely seen pieces from the museum’s Chanel collection shown alongside looks from the Palais Galliera and Patrimoine de Chanel (the House of Chanel’s heritage collection, in Paris).

Silk hat from Gabrielle Chanel’s Spring/Summer 1917. Patrimoine de Chanel (the House of Chanel’s heritage collection), Paris. (Nicholas Alan Cope/Copyright Chanel)
Silk hat from Gabrielle Chanel’s Spring/Summer 1917. Patrimoine de Chanel (the House of Chanel’s heritage collection), Paris. (Nicholas Alan Cope/Copyright Chanel)
This is the first UK exhibition dedicated to Chanel’s designs, from her first millinery boutique in 1910 to her final collection in 1971. In the press release, V&A director Tristram Hunt credits the House of Chanel’s success “to the templates first laid down by its founder Gabrielle Chanel, over a century ago.” Exhibition visitors can see over 200 of the eminent designer’s looks on display, alongside Chanel jewelry, accessories, cosmetics, and perfumes. Among the exhibits are the instantly recognizable Chanel staples such as the braided tweed suit, two-tone shoes, and the 2.55 quilted purse with its gold-chain shoulder straps.

Chanel’s Timeless Chic

In a video interview on Chanel’s website, the former creative director of Chanel—the late Karl Lagerfeld—likened Chanel to “a rural Audrey Hepburn who wore relatively simple things, almost like a governess.” But there is nothing wrong with that, he said, as “it is more elegant than the fuss and cheap frills of vulgar satins.”

“Chanel’s style was based on the principles of comfort and respect for the female anatomy, but also on the details and chic elegance of her designs,” notes the director of the Palais Galliera, Miren Arzalluz, in the Paris museum’s exhibition catalog. Chanel’s designs have a timeless appeal. “Fashion changes, but style endures,” she once said.

It’s hard to believe that many of Chanel’s early designs are over 100 years old. Made in fine-gauge silk jersey, the sleek contours and deep V-neck of Chanel’s long-sleeved marinière (sailor) blouse looks surprisingly modern. Yet the blouse is from Chanel’s Spring/Summer 1916 collection and, at over a century old, is the oldest item of clothing on display in the exhibition.

Fine-gauge silk jersey marinière (sailor’s) blouse from Gabrielle Chanel’s Spring/Summer 1916 collection. Patrimoine de Chanel (the House of Chanel’s heritage collection), Paris. (Nicholas Alan Cope/Copyright Chanel)
Fine-gauge silk jersey marinière (sailor’s) blouse from Gabrielle Chanel’s Spring/Summer 1916 collection. Patrimoine de Chanel (the House of Chanel’s heritage collection), Paris. (Nicholas Alan Cope/Copyright Chanel)
In many ways, the blouse epitomizes the key elements of Chanel’s elegant designs: lightweight fabrics in monochrome palettes, gently tailored with clever detailing, and minimal accessories.

Material Comforts

One of the fascinating things about Chanel’s designs is how she made overlooked, humble materials majestic. She pioneered luxury designs using utility fabrics, such as different gauges of jersey and tweed that were normally confined to the countryside “uniforms” of jockeys, hunters, and fishermen. Her love for the outdoors and sporting pursuits was a great and, often surprising, source of inspiration for her.
French model and actress Marie-Hélène Arnaud in a tweed suit from Gabrielle Chanel’s Autumn/Winter 1959 collection and Chanel shoes, carrying the 2.55 Chanel handbag. (Copyright Chanel/All Rights Reserved)
French model and actress Marie-Hélène Arnaud in a tweed suit from Gabrielle Chanel’s Autumn/Winter 1959 collection and Chanel shoes, carrying the 2.55 Chanel handbag. (Copyright Chanel/All Rights Reserved)

Chanel’s practical, chic designs shine through her sportswear, daywear, and evening gowns. Her design elegance came from simplicity itself, highlighting the material and female silhouette through skillful construction. She added accessories only where needed. “It is the material that makes the dress and not the ornaments that can be added to it,” she said.

In the exhibition, an ivory silk taffeta dress and jacket suit from Chanel’s Spring/Summer 1926 collection shows the designer’s exquisite eye for details. And it demonstrates a design ethos that she once linked to architecture: “It’s all a matter of proportions,” she said. The soft suit jacket appears almost like a cardigan. The dress appears like a skirt and top, a belt sits firmly on the hips, and the dress’s top hemline is crenellated (indented with squares, a pattern seen on castle battlements). The dress skirt is structured with box pleats, like columns. A large, simple black silk bow and gloves complete the outfit.

Silk taffeta dress and jacket suit from Gabrielle Chanel’s Spring/Summer 1926. Patrimoine de Chanel (the House of Chanel’s heritage collection), Paris. (Nicholas Alan Cope/Copyright Chanel)
Silk taffeta dress and jacket suit from Gabrielle Chanel’s Spring/Summer 1926. Patrimoine de Chanel (the House of Chanel’s heritage collection), Paris. (Nicholas Alan Cope/Copyright Chanel)

Often for her evening wear, she would create simple chiffon dresses inlaid with decorations such as lace, tulle, beads, sequins, and tassels—like a second skin, which would sculpt and skim the contours of the body and sometimes shimmer and shine like feathers. She favored asymmetry and uneven garment lengths that embraced the curves of the female figure.

American model Marion Morehouse, wearing a black crepe romain bolero dress with fringed and paillette embroidered skirt by Chanel. Published in Vogue US, 1926. Photograph by Luxembourgish American photographer Edward Steichen. (Edward Steichen/Condé Nast/Shutterstock)
American model Marion Morehouse, wearing a black crepe romain bolero dress with fringed and paillette embroidered skirt by Chanel. Published in Vogue US, 1926. Photograph by Luxembourgish American photographer Edward Steichen. (Edward Steichen/Condé Nast/Shutterstock)
Evening dresses line the mirrored staircase in the “Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Chanel had a similar staircase in her couture house, and for each showing of her collection she’d sit on the stairs and watch her dresses being shown below. (David Parry/V&A)
Evening dresses line the mirrored staircase in the “Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Chanel had a similar staircase in her couture house, and for each showing of her collection she’d sit on the stairs and watch her dresses being shown below. (David Parry/V&A)

One of Chanel’s most recognizable designs is her braided tweed tailleur (suit). Her very French design was inspired by a British utility design. She'd seen British ladies wearing tweed suits called “tailor mades” when hunting and shooting. Naturally thick, warm, and waterproof, tweed (spun from Cheviot sheep fleece) had been made in Scotland since the 18th century. Traditionally, the tweed was dyed with plant pigments, making the fabric disappear into the landscape.

Gabrielle Chanel made the tweed suit fashionable, reinventing the traditional sporting suit for the city. (David Parry/V&A)
Gabrielle Chanel made the tweed suit fashionable, reinventing the traditional sporting suit for the city. (David Parry/V&A)
Chanel made tweed visible and de rigueur by redefining the tailor made. Her suit consisted of a light jacket, a jersey blouse, and a practical skirt. Working with several Scottish tweed makers, she created different gauges of tweed that she dyed in myriad colors. A rainbow of suits can be seen in the exhibition, each one defined by meticulous detail such as upturned cuffs showing a flash of jacket lining that matches the color of the trim and jersey blouse and contrasts the tweed.

The Bare Accessories

Sports influenced Chanel’s 2.55 bag, too. Made in February 1955 (2/55), its quilted over-stitched design mirrors the quilted jackets of jockeys. Chanel added the jewelry chain shoulder straps as they reminded her of the keychains carried by the caretakers of the convent where she grew up.
Chanel made the 2.55 bag between 1955 and 1971. Quilted leather and metal-chain straps. (David Parry/V&A)
Chanel made the 2.55 bag between 1955 and 1971. Quilted leather and metal-chain straps. (David Parry/V&A)

Chanel’s elegant clothing designs were often offset with multiple strings of pearls or gems, or both. She popularized costume jewelry, frequently mixing fine jewels with fake ones in her opulent designs. “Over the years, the jewelry drew inspiration from many geographies and historical epochs, often in response to Chanel’s own travels abroad or the designers’ visits to various museum collections,” the exhibition book states.

Chanel had begun making her own jewelry around 1924. Parisian jeweler Maison Gripoix made her glass-paste pieces, where molten glass is shaped directly into a metal setting. Gripoix even made glass-paste pearls, and according to the exhibition book, this elevated costume jewelry from imitation to “a new form with its own techniques and aesthetic.”

Chanel’s final collection was shown in Paris two weeks after she died in 1971 at age 87. The director of the Palais Galliera, Miren Arzalluz, said in a press release that “Gabrielle Chanel devoted her long life to creating, perfecting and promoting a new kind of elegance based on freedom of movement, a natural and casual pose, a subtle elegance that shuns all extravagances, a timeless style for a new kind of woman. That was her fashion manifesto, a legacy that has never gone out of style.”

The “Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto” exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London runs through Feb. 25, 2024. To find out more, visit VAM.ac.uk
The exhibition is presented in partnership with Palais Galliera, Fashion Museum of the City of Paris, Paris Musées, and with the support of Chanel.
Lorraine Ferrier writes about fine arts and craftsmanship for The Epoch Times. She focuses on artists and artisans, primarily in North America and Europe, who imbue their works with beauty and traditional values. She's especially interested in giving a voice to the rare and lesser-known arts and crafts, in the hope that we can preserve our traditional art heritage. She lives and writes in a London suburb, in England.