Gabrielle Chanel made clothes for women – not just for their bodies but for their lives. Great emphasis is placed, at the V&A’s exhibition about the couturier, on their comfort, simplicity and ease of movement, as well as on their beauty. So among the almost 200 garments on display there are lots of dropped waists, pleats and tennis-style dresses, many in fabrics not previously used in couture: jersey, tweed, the humble cotton velvet. Women’s roles were changing in the wake of the Great War, and so were their clothes. The display is loosely chronological, and so you see sensibilities shift – a little more décolleté, a bias cut that hints at the body beneath. Chanel was a master of balance: the garments are luxuriously embellished but there is restraint too.
Considering the exhibition uses the name of the woman, Gabrielle Chanel, rather than of the fashion house, little of her character is elucidated. Much has been lost to her own self-mythologising, particularly the circumstances of her childhood: Chanel was born to a poor family in the Loire Valley of western France in 1883. Though she had affairs with many influential men, including the Duke of Westminster, she never married. Her possible Nazi sympathies, covered briefly, are similarly hazy. In 1940, with Paris under Nazi control, she rekindled a relationship with a German spy, and three years later was part of Operation Modelhut, an attempt to get a peace offer to Churchill.
After the war she retired from fashion and moved to Switzerland, but reopened her couture house in 1954, aged 71. “Why did I return?” she said. “One night at dinner Christian Dior said a woman could never be a great couturier.” The suit was the defining garment of Chanel’s postwar period, though she continued to focus on evening wear too, producing the cocktail suit. These years provide the set-piece rooms of the exhibition: a curved gallery of suits – two mannequins high – and a sweeping staircase of sumptuous gowns. The volume of chatter audibly dropped on entering them, for here, Gabrielle Chanel demands your fullest attention.
Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto
V&A, London SW7, until 25 February 2024
This article appears in the 20 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers