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Based on the exhibition created by the Palais Galliera, Fashion Museum of the City of Paris, this exhibition is the first retrospective in the United Kingdom entirely devoted to the work of Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel.

Shining a light on Chanel’s artistic legacy

Featuring over 200 looks seen together for the first time, as well as accessories, perfumes and jewellery, the exhibition explores Chanel’s pioneering approach to fashion design, which paved the way for a new elegance and continues to influence the way women dress today.

Highlights include one of the earliest surviving Chanel garments from 1916; original costumes designed by a French fashion designer for the Ballets Russes production of Le Train Bleu in 1924; outfits created for Hollywood stars Lauren Bacall and Marlene Dietrich; an early example of Chanel’s ground-breaking evening trousers and ensembles from Chanel’s final collection of 1971. A touching handwritten letter by the late Queen Elizabeth II revealing her love of Chanel No. 5 perfume is also displayed at V&A.

Exquisite skill and innovation

Chanel designed first and foremost for herself. By creating clothes fit for an independent and active lifestyle, she anticipated the needs and wants of the modern woman. Through ten themed sections, the exhibition examines Chanel’s innovative approach to fabric, silhouette and construction, and will examine how she drafted a new framework for fashion in the twentieth century.

Showcasing a stunning array of some of Chanel’s most notable designs from her sixty years in fashion, the exhibition analyses her professional career, the emergence and the development of her style, and her contribution to the history of fashion. The show also highlights Chanel’s British inspirations, such as her adoption of tweed, partnerships with British textile firms and textile factory in Huddersfield.

Revolutionising handbags

The iconic Chanel 2.55 symbolising a new era for handbags, is also on display. The purse was created by Gabrielle Chanel in February 1955. The name 2.55, therefore, represents the month and year of mark its creation.

This sturdy purse is typically made of soft calfskin and comes with straps inspired by the military bags from the 1920s. The addition of straps allowed women to carry their purse hands-free, which eventually revolutionised the way bags were constructed thereafter. Coco Chanel distilled her innovation as such: “I got fed up with holding my purses in my hands and losing them, so I added a strap and carried them over my shoulder.”

The little black dress

Other Chanel staples on display include a section devoted to her little black dress, a look that the pioneering designer was responsible for turning into a fashion statement. It was Chanel who first promoted wearing the colour black as a symbol of chicness and modernity; before her, it was reserved solely for shop assistants and mourning dress. In 1926 Vogue predicted that it would become ‘a sort of uniform for all women of taste’.

Historical records

We would recommend to check out two new documents which claim that in January 1943 Chanel joined the French Resistance. While her links with the Nazis are well known, V&A provides a letter dated and signed from Paris in 1948 that features Chanel’s name as an “occasional agent” while a certificate shows her membership of the resistance forces from January 1, 1943, to April 1944. Thus, this comprehensive exhibition not only offers visually appealing eye candy but also serves as a source of intellectual nourishment, providing food for thought.

Gabrielle Chanel Fashion Manifesto runs until 25 February 2024 at V&A (South Kensington). The tickets are sold out but you can still see the show with V&A membership starting from £77 per year. Details can be found here.


Image credits: © Victoria & Albert Museum