Much is known about Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, yet a large-scale retrospective of the designer’s work, now making its international debut in Melbourne, takes an even deeper look at her legacy.
The influence of Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel is ubiquitous. So, when Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto debuted at Paris’s Palais Galliera in 2020, it was an overdue extensive investigation into the work and legacy of the pioneering designer. As Palais Galliera director Miren Arzalluz said during a preview of the show, “No one has ever seen so much Chanel in one place.”
Arzalluz noted that much has been said about Chanel’s life, but the exhibition aimed to focus on her work. “We understand her through all the biographies, through the photos, through the films, through the witticisms that she gave over the course of her lifetime,” says Danielle Whitfield, fashion and textiles curator at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). “So to really understand Chanel and her legacy, they wanted to look at what her design output was.”
Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto has now made its international debut at the NGV and is the first exhibition in Australia to exclusively focus on Chanel’s contribution to fashion. More than 230 garments, accessories and jewellery pieces are on display, demonstrating the scope of her oeuvre and the design codes that saw her become one of the most influential couturières of the 20th century.
“Throughout her life, Chanel was somebody who designed according to a set of very rigid principles, and they were an advocacy for simplicity in dress, for restrained elegance, for comfort, for clothing that allowed for freedom of movement,” says Whitfield, who explains that these fundamentals emerged from her own lifestyle as an independent woman. “She’s designing for similarly emancipated women at the beginning of the 20th century, who were working, who were travelling, who were driving, who were living life in a different way. And it was always that the clothing should fit the lifestyle, so it’s about being fit for purpose and that her pioneering ideas in terms of simplifying the silhouette, her radical uses of different kinds of fabrics that hadn’t been seen in haute couture before, were all about a consideration of the female form and the natural lines of the female body. That consistency was the manifesto.”
With the exhibition organised chronologically and under various themes, the immediate emergence and subsequent persistence of these design codes is easy to perceive. For instance, the iconic suit, which remains a symbol of the house today, was an early highlight of her designs. “It’s this very simplified, straight form that acknowledges the youthful body of the 20s,” says Whitfield. “The fabrics are light and supple, the palette is very monochrome. So we get that early association of Chanel with black and white and beige as a hallmark of her design language.”
The relaxed elegance of the suit was a departure from the extravagance and ornamentation associated with haute couture at the time, as was the use of common fabrics such as wool jersey and tweed. “This is taking some of the codes of menswear and sportswear and incorporating them into the language of women’s fashion,” says Whitfield. “Oppositions are always very present in Chanel’s design language – the black and the white; the sobriety, the excess; the common, the luxury.”
Also exemplifying Chanel’s success was the rise of the Little Black Dress. “She’s not the only one to be designing black dresses at the beginning of the 20th century, but what she does is she really popularises it and recasts it as a symbol of modernity,” says Whitfield. While the practice of wearing mourning dress had started to subside, black had still been associated with the likes of shop girls and servants who wore the colour for practical reasons. “What Chanel does is recast the meaning of black and it becomes flattering, it becomes chic, it becomes elegant,” says Whitfield.
A study of Chanel N°5 in Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto demonstrates that Chanel’s rejection of convention extended beyond her clothing. “Everything that Chanel designed, like the perfumes, the cosmetics, the bags, the shoes, was with the same kind of language,” says Whitfield. She explains that where the perfumes of the time were heavy and overbearing and had flowery names, N°5’s laboratory-esque clear bottle, simple typeface, straightforward name and synthesis of scents was unlike anything on the market. Her cosmetics were also innovative compared to the makeup of the day. “Even the idea that you could pop a lipstick in your purse and a compact and a beauty cream for travelling, that was quite a novel thing. Makeup wasn’t so portable; it was associated with theatre and it was heavier, it wasn’t something that the modern woman had as part of her arsenal.”
The largest gallery in the exhibition is dedicated to the theme of ‘The Expression of a Stark Luxury’, and considers how Chanel achieved “a purity of line, a purity of colour, a delicacy” with her haute couture. “In thinking about those principles of simplicity and ease of movement, restrained luxury, all of that, it’s not to say that Chanel’s clothes didn’t require the use of specialist couture techniques. She worked with embroidery workshops, she worked with fine fabrics,” says Whitfield. “The way that her works were made in the atelier were highly complex and technical and had a lot of fine finishes associated with couture dress making, but rather there is a starkness or a simplicity in the harmony of the material and the form and the execution.”
Chanel closed her fashion house at the beginning of World War II, but she made a return to couture with a collection in 1954, reaffirming her manifesto in a rejection of Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’, summed up by Chanel as favouring “waist cinchers, padded bras, heavy skirts and stiffened jackets”. Chanel called such design “illogical”, saying, “Dior doesn’t dress women, he upholsters them.”
Chanel’s comeback saw her recalibrate her codes for the modern era, which included introducing a reimagined tweed suit, creating what Whitfield calls a “beautifully designed ensemble that she can play with in endless permutations of colour and print”. It is a style that becomes particularly popular in America. “We see a lot of editorial in Vogue, in Harper’s, in Elle. They really respond to this language of dressing.”
Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto illustrates a consistency of vision; a trailblazer never straying from her own rules of design. “That’s why we still appreciate her work so much today, because of those really important design principles,” says Whitfield. “Her capacity to consistently balance the form and the function and the notion of feminine elegance makes her work so timeless.”
Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto
4 December 2021 – 25 April 2022