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Haute Couture

Chanel and the art of Modernity: Paris museum captures a century of style

Coco Chanel in 1930s
Coco Chanel in 1930s © Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / André Kertész

'Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto' is a retrospective bringing together 350 examples of the French designer’s clothes and accessories, a testament to her timeless, universal appeal. Housed in the freshly renovated Palais Galliera fashion museum in Paris, the exhibition has been temporarily closed due to a new Covid-19 lockdown. RFI brings you a sneak preview illustrating what makes Chanel so modern.

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How did a young woman, who grew up in an orphanage reach the dizzy heights of high society, with her designs recognized all over the world decades later?

From the austere black and white uniforms inspired by the convent life, to the swanky dresses worn by celebrities of the silver screen, the exhibition demonstrates how the designs of Gabrielle Chanel have become synonymous with French fashion.

350 items of clothing and accessories are on display until March 2021 in the first-ever retrospective dedicated to the French designer who made her permanent mark on fashion worldwide.

France's first true entrepreneur, Chanel broke the wardrobe 'codes' which held women bound in corsets and set a course towards luxury, comfort, and above all style.

Gabrielle Chanel and Suzy Parker dressed by Chanel, Paris, January 1959, Photo: Richard Avedon.
Gabrielle Chanel and Suzy Parker dressed by Chanel, Paris, January 1959, Photo: Richard Avedon. © The Richard Avedon Foundation

The dandy

Born in 1883, at the end of the ‘Belle Epoque’, when women were ensconced in heavy, corseted clothing, Chanel was slim, angular, androgynous and sporty – not at all what was considered 'beautiful' at the time. So, in what would become her signature approach, she set out to turn fashion to her advantage.

From the 1920s she was wearing men’s trousers, ties and coats and went to the races with her male friends, when ladies generally were always accompanied. She held herself with a confident, debonair stance, already ambitious.

Edith de Belleville, a Paris-based tour guide and author explains that Chanel wanted "clothes that fit her body" and were "comfortable", especially seeing as she loved horseback riding, skiing and fast cars. So she designed them herself.

From uniforms to haute couture

She found a way to combine elegance and practicality which appealed to the women after the first world war, many of whom were used to wearing uniforms and had begun working.

She borrowed codes from the men’s wardrobes of the time – using tweed and jersey, which she turned in to suits, cravats and jackets, but gave them a feminine edge, with buttons, pockets and trim.

She put forward streamlined, simple, pared-back designs. She went against the grain and continued to do so, even when fellow designer Christian Lacroix reintroduced corsets and taffeta in the 1950s.

Evening gowns on display at the Gabrielle Chanel: Manifeste de Mode exhibition, Musée de Mode, Palais Galliera, Paris October 2020- March 2021
Evening gowns on display at the Gabrielle Chanel: Manifeste de Mode exhibition, Musée de Mode, Palais Galliera, Paris October 2020- March 2021 © RFI / Tiếng Việt

The little black dress

"Chanel was the first to make black a fashionable colour to wear during the day," Edith de Belleville explains, adding that prior to 1926, black for mourning widows and maids.

Parisians have always had a "little black dress" on hand because "you can never make a fashion faux-pas with something as simple and elegant," she says.

Dress, Autumn-Winter 1964-1965 Black cotton cloqué and black organza (L), Palais Galliera. Dress, Spring-Summer 1959, black chiffon, black silk satin, turquoise pâte de verre, rhinestones (R) Patrimoine de CHANEL
Dress, Autumn-Winter 1964-1965 Black cotton cloqué and black organza (L), Palais Galliera. Dress, Spring-Summer 1959, black chiffon, black silk satin, turquoise pâte de verre, rhinestones (R) Patrimoine de CHANEL © Julien T. Hamon

Chanel also raised the hemline, and this caught the eye of American Vogue which ran a feature which helped her designs to take off, a boost the designer never forgot to mention throughout her career.

Marketing whizz

Chanel was exceptionally modern in the way she marketed her style, explains Edith. In the early days, she wore her own designs, which quickly caught on. "Women wanted to look like her."

She modelled her own fashions, then began getting celebrities and film-stars to wear her clothes, such as in Alain Resnais’ Last year in Marienbad in 1961 with Delphine Seyrig.

"She understood that actresses were the new icons, not top models…because this is how women wanted to be, closer to a “real” woman," says Edith de Belleville, who proposes online conferences on famous French women when she’s not hosting personalised guided tours around the French capital.

The actress Alden Gay wears a Chanel dress. Published in Vogue Paris, October 15, 1924
The actress Alden Gay wears a Chanel dress. Published in Vogue Paris, October 15, 1924 © Edward Steichen / Vogue

Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve and Romy Schneider were just some of the stars who donned Chanel dresses and suits for the cinema, in a perfect example of cross-branding. Extracts of their films and paparazzi shots can be seen in the exhibition.

Chanel was also extremely open to Influences from people and places around her – be it her Russian friends, English lovers, fellow artists, and women in history. But they all carry that trademark Chanel touch: comfort mixed with elegance.

If there’s one thing we can learn from Chanel, it’s what she told her good friend Jean Cocteau: "fashion comes and goes, style: never."

Gabrielle Chanel: ‘Manifeste de Mode’ – retrospective exhibition 1883-1971 at the Musée de Mode Galliera, Paris. 1 Oct – 14 March 2020

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