The Fashion Exhibition of the Year: Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto

Written by Chloe Hayler

All of us can agree that when you put on a good outfit, you automatically feel a million times better. You can’t help but catch a glimpse of yourself every time you walk past a mirror or reflective glass. And I am sure we can also agree that there is no better feeling than when you buy a new item of clothing —whether it be that coat you’ve been eyeing up in a shop window, or a pair of shoes you can’t stop looking at online every hour— and you’re showered with compliments when you debut your newly adored piece. Fashion holds the remarkable power to make us feel like we hold power, and I was reminded of this as I wandered through the display rooms of the Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto (2023) exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. 

The exhibition is the first in the UK dedicated to the work of Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel. It showcases the establishment of her brand with the opening of her first millinery Parisian boutique in 1910, following the evolution of her renowned designs to her last collection in 1971, and presenting how her designs continue to influence fashion today. Featuring over 200 pieces, accompanied by accessories and, of course, the famous Chanel No. 5 perfume, the installation will inevitably give you the urge to reach behind the glass and grab something to try on. With 10 themed rooms to explore, all filled with a different kind of style, fabric, or era to admire, you will find yourself recognising several iconic items such as the 2.55 handbag or the well-known two-tone slingback beige heels. There are exclusive archive pieces on display at the V&A, as well as clothing designed for, and worn by, Hollywood stars such as Lauren Bacall and Marlene Dietrich. 

Gabrielle Chanel dominated Western 20th-century fashion. She intended to introduce a new kind of femininity into the fashion world which prioritised the independence of women. After 60 years in the game, she was known as Coco Chanel and was the woman who designed clothes she wanted to wear herself, as she experimented with fabrics and shapes. She incorporated both masculine and feminine styles to create clothes that were not only comfortable and easy to move in but also beautiful and luxurious. The longevity of her career shows that her designs were intelligently planned and moved effortlessly with the evolution of fashion trends over the several decades she spent working. Without reading a single square of information, I knew I had entered the Jazz-fuelled 1920s section, as loose-fitted tasselled dresses lined up in front of me. She certainly knew how to interpret trends and adapt them to her style. Chanel grew to a global scale, embellishing her celebrity and royal fanbase. A letter from the late Queen Elizabeth II is shown in the exhibition, in which she thanks Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning: “As usual, you have discovered just the very thing I particularly wanted, and I want to thank you very much indeed for the birthday present of the Chanel scent.”

After attending the event, family and friends asked me how I found it and what my favourite part was, and my knee-jerk reaction was: everything! Since I was old enough to understand what clothes were I have loved getting dressed up, and I am known for having a huge collection of different coloured handbags to coordinate with whatever outfit I decide to wear (this is me telling you there is no such thing as having too many bags or clothes). So being able to see so many timeless fabrics sewn perfectly to shape up close felt like a dream to someone who has desired fashionista status since leaving the womb! However, I felt incredibly underdressed in my simple floral dress and black with block-heeled boots staring through the glass at the most intricately designed gowns and perfectly tailored skirt suits. 

I was particularly in awe of a 1935 Patrimonie de Chanel, Paris floral number which was displayed with the back of the dress facing towards you. It had a fishtail quality in its shape but was breathable, as the dress was open to the middle of the back, followed by buttons that traced the rest of the spine. I visited the room of suits twice as I couldn’t help but get another look at the floor-to-ceiling semi-circular display of perfectly colour-coordinated suits. The room housed several tweed pieces in striking blues, deep reds, and bold pinks. Amongst the colour and glamour, the exhibition even showed Chanel’s love of a little black dress, a fashion necessity in every wardrobe. My favourite was from the 1950s, featured in a spring/ summer collection, which had a criss-cross back, followed by a huge bow from the waist to the end of the dress, and a ruffled texture. It was interesting to look at notebooks of sketches and torn fabric samples, as it highlighted for me the rigorous artistic process that would have been carried out to produce all of what I had been looking at and wishing I could take home with me.

Every item of clothing or magnificent jewel was a delight to look at in such detail. Personally, the main takeaway from this exhibition was the inspiration it induced in me to continue pushing the boundaries of fashion as an art form and an expressive outlet. Fashion makes us feel, and that feeling is individual and unique to all of us. I know I may not have quite the same social status as someone like Gabrielle Chanel, but as a fellow fashion fanatic and religious exhibition goer, you can trust my word that this truly is the exhibition of the year. 

Written by Chloe Hayler, Edited by Anita Jergic, Photography by Chloe Hayler, Published by Paige Tamasi.