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From the orphanage to the fashion heights: New exhibition explores Chanel's history

Iconic more than a century after its inception: Chanel pieces to go on display at the V&A
Iconic more than a century after its inception: Chanel pieces to go on display at the V&A Copyright V&A
Copyright V&A
By Saskia O'Donoghue
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Visitors to London's V&A museum will be taken on a trip through the beginnings of the fashion house'at the turn of the 20th century, with a particular focus on the legendary Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel's role in the building of the style behemoth.


Chanel is as popular as ever, with A listers and fashionistas alike clamouring to carry one of the French fashion label’s iconic handbags or don one of their famed tweed suits, over 100 years since its inception. 

This year alone has been huge for the luxury brand, with the Met Gala in May paying tribute to Chanel’s late, long-time creative director Karl Lagerfeld and film-of-the-year Barbie featuring countless archive pieces throughout.

Roger Schall/Conde Nast/Shutterstock
Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel photographed in her office on Paris' Rue Cambon in 1937Roger Schall/Conde Nast/Shutterstock

The label has certainly stood the test of time and, appropriately, an upcoming exhibition in London is set to take a look back to the very beginning of the much celebrated house.

The Victoria & Albert museum (V&A) are playing host to the first ever UK exhibition dedicated to the work of couturière, Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, from 16 September.

1960 William Klein
A Chanel suit, photographed by William Klein, featured on the pages of Vogue, 19601960 William Klein

Visitors will be taken on a journey from the opening of Chanel’s first millinery boutique in Paris in 1910 all the way up until the showing of her final collection in 1971, shown two weeks after her death.

Called ‘Fashion Manifesto’, the show is set to feature over 200 looks seen together for the first time, alongside accessories, perfumes and jewellery.

“As one of the most successful fashion houses in existence, Chanel owes much to the templates first laid down by its founder Gabrielle Chanel, over a century ago.”
Tristram Hunt
Director of the V&A

Chanel’s approach to fashion design has long been seen as pioneering, paving the way for a new approach to a new sporty, casual chic as the feminine standard of style.

Particularly in post-First World War society, her designs replaced the previously popular corseted silhouette and influenced countless members of the fashion world.

Edward Steichen/Conde Nast/Shutterstock
An escape from corsets: Model Marion Morehouse, photographed by Edward Steichen, wearing Chanel in a 1926 edition of VogueEdward Steichen/Conde Nast/Shutterstock

Her impact was such that she was the only fashion designer listed on Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.

Based on the Fashion Manifesto 2020 exhibition held at the Palais Galliera Fashion Museum, the show will also feature rarely seen pieces from the V&A’s own collection.

Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Sasha/Getty Images
Dancers pictured wearing Chanel after the first performance of 'Le Train Bleu' in Britain, at London's Coliseum Theatre, 1924Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Sasha/Getty Images

They’ll include one of the earliest surviving Chanel garments from 1916 alongside original costumes designed for the Ballets Russes production of Le Train Bleu, put on in 1924.

Coco Chanel is also famous for her line of perfumes - still popular today. In particular, Chanel No.5 is as iconic as a fragrance can be thanks in part to a question from a journalist put to screen legend Marilyn Monroe about what she wore to bed. Her answer? “Chanel No.5”.

Ed Feingersh/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Marilyn Monroe applying Chanel N°5 at the Ambassador Hotel, New York, 24 March 1955Ed Feingersh/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
“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.”
Miren Arzalluz
Director of the Palais Galliera

The exhibition will be divided into ten separate themed sections, putting on show the physical proof that Chanel managed to anticipate the needs and desires of the modern woman time after time.

Appropriately for its new home in London, the display will also highlight some of Chanel’s British inspirations, including her wide use of tweed - still a huge part of the brand’s look - as well as partnerships with British textile firms and the fashion house’s textile factory in Huddersfield.

Roger Viollet/Musée Carnavalet
A lithograph of the Chanel No.5 fragrance, published in the The New York Times, 1927Roger Viollet/Musée Carnavalet

'Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto' will run at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 16 September 2023 – 25 February 2024. Presented in partnership with Palais Galliera, Fashion Museum of the City of Paris, Paris Musées. With the support of CHANEL.

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