The fashion is exquisite, but the woman herself remains as illusive as ever in the V&A’s latest high quality exhibition.
Even by Victoria and Albert Museum standards, this is a mammoth of an exhibition -in a good way as well as an overwhelming way. Taking us through Gabrielle Chanel’s career from start to finish, it is an extraordinary and fascinating journey – even if by the end you don’t quite feel as though you understand her as a person ( as the V&A constantly reiterates – she would re-invent her story to suit her) you can not deny the influence that she had and continues to have on women’s fashion today.
While her background from poverty to open her own millenary in 1910 feels a little rushed through, from there on in, the exhibition becomes increasingly enriched by examining her techniques and attention to detail that was consistently was able to adjust through the changing society. The way in which she used textiles to create flow, movement elegance that she became synonymous with is shown exquisitely through the early rooms of the exhibition, which does feel slightly camped and deserve perhaps a little more space to expand. Each piece that has been selected for the early sections showcase a simple glamour to the way in which she created, with one highlight section featuring some fabulous black dresses that many a modern woman would love to wear.
The way in which the early sections are displayed is simple and practical, making those visiting wanting to transport back to the 1920’s to wear many of these outfits thanks to their quiet understated nature, but I do have to say, it was after she came out of retirement that Chanel’s work for me really shines. A beautiful collection of evening dresses, displayed to full effect, makes you feel as though you are attending a glamorous cocktails party and left me wanting to play dress up. Her tweed suits (of which there are many to see – although difficult at times as some are way above your head, leaving you with a neck cramp) have a timelessness to them but I’m not sue that we needed to have so many of them being shown.
The exhibition throughout shows effectively just how she was able to expand as a brand from her classic perfume to make up and of course accessories – she was someone who constantly thinking forwad and never limiting herself and what she was able to achieve. However, of course there are certain aspects of her life that can not be avoided – her connections to the Nazi’s (even though she did eventually work for the French resistance) is somewhat awkwardly mentioned and again feels slightly rushed to get back to the glamour of her designs.
As you would expect, the V&A reflect Chanel’s simplistic and stunning creations in a stylish way, the soft lighting draws attention to all the details in each outfit displayed beautifully but the amount that is displayed is almost overwhelming in places and you don’t feel as though you get to fully understand the woman. But then perhaps it is that element of mystery that made her a fascinating presence in the fashion world.
Overall, this is an impressive exhibition, filled with glamour and an element of mystery with regards to the woman behind the creations that will enthral anyone who is lucky enough to visit.
By Emma Clarendon
Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto is on display until the 25th February 2024. Tickets are currently sold out.