Tuesday 7 December 2021

A New Chanel Exhibition Opens at the National Gallery of Victoria

Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel, circa 1930s, photograph by André Kertész. Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine. Photo © Ministère de la Culture – Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / André Kertész. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria

A major new exhibition about Gabrielle Chanel has opened at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. This is the first show in Australia about the renowned French designer and her contribution to 20th century fashion. More than 230 garments, accessories and jewellery are on display, drawn from major public and private collections, reports Antonio Visconti 

Anne Sainte-Marie in a Chanel suit,
photograph by Henry Clarke,
published in Vogue US,1955, 
retouched by ARCP. Paris Musées
© Henry Clarke, Paris Musées /
Palais Galliera / ADAGP. 
Copyright Agency, 2021

ONE of the most influential designers of the twentieth century, Gabrielle Chanel introduced a sense of modernity into fashion that is still relevant today. Chanel began to reform women’s wardrobes by creating a new way of dressing, many pieces inspired by men's clothing. Her designs focused on comfort and function, a complete departure from the tight corsets and heavy skirts of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. 

Chanel was also responding to the zeitgeist of the first decades of the 20th century when woman were advocating for greater social and economic independence. Gabrielle Chanel herself had escaped an extremely impoverished and provincial childhood to create a career that would lead to the highest echelons of both society and fashion.

"There is no bigger name in twentieth century fashion design than Gabrielle Chanel. Her originality, timelessness and elegance forged a radically modern vision of fashion and a singular style," says Tony Ellwood, director of the National Gallery of Victoria. "Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto is expansive, visually sumptuous and reveals the achievements and enduring legacy of the extraordinary French fashion designer."

This exhibition was first presented in Paris last year, created by the Palais Galliera, with loans from the Direction du Patrimoine de Chanel, the fashion house's heritage department. There are also loans from major public museums and private collections and designs from the NGV's own collection. This includes recent acquisitions such as a white lace evening dress, from Spring/Summer 1933 and a shirred red-silk velvet and marabou-lined evening cape from 1924–26.

"There is no bigger name in 20th century fashion than Gabrielle Chanel. Her originality, timelessness and elegance forged a radically modern vision."

Installation view of Gabrielle Chanel
at NGV International, Melbourne
Photo: Sean Fennessy.
Chanel’s impact on the development of women's wear throughout the 20th century, the role of her designs in contemporary culture and her remarkable career are traced through more than 100 garments, organised both chronologically and thematically. 

The clothes are combined with Chanel's other innovative creations including perfume, jewellery and accessory designs. Some of the most iconic pieces include black dresses, considered very modern tat the time, lace gowns, tailored wool jersey and tweed suits, beaded gowns and striking costume jewellery. 

Chanel opened her first fashion boutique in Deauville in 1912. Six years later she was able to open her couture house at 31 Rue Cambon in Paris in 1918 (where the fashion house's headquarters are still located). Her designs were all about a minimalist kind of luxury that was free of heavy decoration and tailored so women could be both active and comfortable. She pioneered the use of jersey and tweed, drawing inspiration from menswear and sportswear, introduced the ‘little black dress’ and the well-cut suit as liberating ways for women to dress. 

"From the beginning of her career, in the early years of the 20th century, right up to her death in 1971, Gabrielle Chanel defied the prevailing fashions of her time," comments Miren Arzalluz, director of the Palais Galliera. "Chanel’s style was based on the principles of comfort and respect for the female anatomy, but also on the details and chic elegance of her designs.

"Chanel avoided unnecessary decoration, and her choice of colors, materials and techniques was always judicious and bold, with an emphasis on balance and a harmonious overall effect. Her garments had a sophisticated restraint that acted as a contrast to the opulence of her jewellery, which was inspired by ancient or distant civilizations and also her way of wearing an abundance of it."

Chanel's designs offered a minimalist luxury that was free of heavy decoration and well-cut so women could be active and feel comfortable 

Installation view of Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto
at NGV International, Melbourne. 
Photo: Sean Fennessy

The clothes and accessories in the NGV exhibition date from 1910 to 1971 and show how Chanel's brought about changes in what women wear. 

"All of her life, Gabrielle Chanel was at the crossroads of fashion and the artistic avant-garde," explains Bruno Pavlovsky,  president of  Chanel Fashion. 

"By placing her own needs, her own desires and her own lifestyle at the heart of her creative work, she was a pioneer in the advancement of women and their place in society. 

"Right from the beginning, in 1910, her take on fashion became a manifesto for liberating women’s bodies from the physical constraints of the prevailing fashions, giving women the freedom at last to wear clothes in which they could move about easily, whether in sports or at work ~ clothes in which a woman could now feel truly independent. "

Highlights of the exhibition include rare examples of Chanel’s early daywear and her wool jersey suits, which marked a radical departure from the elaborate fashions of the Belle Epoque and Edwardian periods in France and England. Equally captivating are the gowns associated with Chanel’s so-called ‘romantic’ period in the 1930s. Dedicated sections of the exhibition showcase Chanel’s love and use of floral motifs, printed as textiles or as appliqued florets, and her lace eveningwear.

"All of her life, Gabrielle Chanel was at the crossroads of fashion and the artistic avant-garde."

Behind the scenes: garments being prepared
for the Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto
exhibition at the NGV International.
Photo: Eddie Jim
Chanel’s innovations also included the  perfume, Chanel N°5, created in 1921, cosmetics and highly decorative costume jewellery that combined precious and semi-precious materials. 

The exhibition explores the design motifs Chanel introduced in the 1950s, including the quilted 2.55 bag and two-tone sling back that remain closely associated with Chanel as Parisian fashion house.

A further highlight of the exhibition is a display of iconic Chanel suits. Debuted by Chanel in the 1910s and reintroduced after the re-opening of her haute couture house in 1954, the two and three- piece suits, in lightweight woven tweed or wool bouclé, remains a feature of the house’s collections to this day. 

In the latter part of her career, Chanel's suits were worn by high profile women such as First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and Princess Grace of Monaco. Even earlier, actresses such as Marlene Dietrich, and Lauren Bacall had begun to wear her designs. Eventually, the Chanel suit became a symbol of sophistication and one of the most identifiable designs of the label. Today, the suits are still defined by their exquisite tailoring allowing a great freedom of movement, the signature double "C" gilt buttons and the contrasting braiding along the cuffs and lapels.

Timeline of key events in Gabrielle Chanel's life and career:

‘Coco’ Chanel at the Ritz Hotel
(drawings by Christian Bérardand 
Jean Cocteau),1937, photograph
by François Kollar. Médiathèque de
l’architecture et du patrimoine.
© Jean Cocteau / ADAGP. 
Copyright Agency, 2021.
Photo © Ministère de la Culture
Médiathèque de l’architecture et du
patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais
/ François Kollar. 
Courtesy of the 
National Gallery of Victoria

1883 ~ Gabrielle Chanel is born at the charity hospital in Saumur (Maine-et-Loire), on 19 August.

1903 ~ She begins working as an assistant, alongside her aunt Adrienne, in a draper’s shop in Moulins (Allier).

1909 ~ Chanel opens a milliner’s shop at 160, boulevard Malesherbes in Paris, with the assistance of experienced milliner Lucienne Rabaté.

1910 ~ The millinery boutique ‘Chanel – Modes’ opens in Paris at 21, rue Cambon.

1912 ~ Chanel opens another milliner’s shop in Deauville. She soon branches out, adding a sportswear range, including sailor-collar tops, jackets and blouses.

1915 ~ During the war, Chanel opens her first couture house, in Biarritz, in a townhouse located opposite the casino. At the time, the Basque Coast attracts a rich cosmopolitan clientele.

1916 ~ Gabrielle Chanel creates a collection of garments in knitted jersey, sourced from Rodier.

1918 ~ Gabrielle Chanel opens a couture house at 31, rue Cambon in Paris, the iconic address that will forever be associated with her name.

1921 ~ The perfume Chanel N°5 is created in Grasse with Ernest Beaux, a Russian-born French perfumer.

1923 ~ Chanel buys the building at 29, rue Cambon. A Chanel boutique opens in Cannes.

1924 ~ Chanel meets Pierre and Paul Wertheimer. On 4 April, they enter into a partnership and form the Société des Parfums Chanel. Chanel creates her first makeup range. In the same year, Chanel opens a costume jewellery department in her Paris couture house. The jewellery is made by Comte Étienne de Beaumont. She designs the costumes for the ballet Le Train Bleu, which has a libretto by Jean Cocteau.

1926 ~ Chanel’s ‘little black dress’ is nicknamed the ‘Ford’ dress by Vogue US.

1927 ~ A Chanel fashion house opens in London. The perfume Cuir de Russie is launched. Launch of the first Chanel skincare range, which includes 15 products.

1928 ~ Chanel opens a textile factory in Asnières-sur-Seine, near Paris, under the brand name Tissus Chanel, incorporating Tricots Chanel. The perfume Bois des Îles is launched.

1931 ~ Chanel signs a contract worth a million dollars a year with American film producer Samuel Goldwyn. She is contracted to create costumes for his Hollywood films.

1932 ~ Launch of the ‘Bijoux de Diamants’ fine jewellery collection. It is exhibited from 7~19 November at Chanel’s apartment at 29, rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré.

1936 ~ During a general strike in France, Chanel workers go on strike and occupy the rue Cambon premises.

1939 ~ When France declares war, the Maison Chanel closes its doors. The weavers are called up and the Tissus Chanel factory is forced to close; but the boutique selling perfumes and accessories (31, rue Cambon) remains open throughout the war.

1944 ~ Gabrielle Chanel is arrested at the Ritz by the French Forces of the Interior because of her relationship with a German officer, Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage. She is released after a brief interrogation. For the next ten years, Chanel lives away from the world of fashion, dividing her time between Lausanne, Paris, and La Pausa (her villa on the French Côte d’Azur), with trips to Italy and the USA.

Gabrielle Chanel, photograph by Henry Clarke,
published in Vogue France, 1954.
Paris Musées. © Henry Clarke, 
Paris Musées /Palais Galliera/ADAGP. 
Copyright Agency, 2021
1952 ~ On 7 April, Life magazine interviews Marilyn Monroe, who responds to the question ‘What do you wear to bed?’ with the answer ‘I only wear Chanel N°5.’

1953 ~ The couture house reopens after fourteen years.

1954 ~ Chanel unveils her new couture collection on 5 February. She is seventy-one years old.

1955 ~ In February, Chanel creates a quilted lamb’s leather handbag with a chain shoulder strap, and names it the 2.55 bag.

1957 ~ The first two-tone shoe is produced by Chanel in collaboration with the shoemaker Massaro. Chanel receives the Neiman Marcus Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Fashion, an award created by American businessman Stanley Marcus, proprietor of luxury store Neiman Marcus in Dallas. Chanel is honoured as ‘the most influential female designer of the 20th century’.

1961 ~ Chanel creates the costumes worn by French actress Delphine Seyrig in Alain Resnais’s film Last Year in Marienbad.

1963 ~ On 22 November, the day that US president John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Jackie Kennedy wears a pink Chanel suit from the Autumn–Winter 1961 collection.

1969 ~ On 18 December, the musical Coco opens at the Mark Hellinger Theatre in New York. Katharine Hepburn plays the role of Gabrielle Chanel.

1971 ~ On 10 January, Gabrielle Chanel dies in Paris, in her suite at the Ritz. She is buried in Bois-de-Vaux Cemetery, in Lausanne.

Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto is on at the NGV International, Melbourne, from 4 December 2021 ~ 25 April 2022. 

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