Chanel at the NGV: A Class Act (Without the Controversy)

Melbourne has long been revered as one of Australia’s most stylish cities.  The repeated lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, therefore, were especially cruel for the many fashionistas who reside there. But at long last, they (as well as fashion lovers further afield) have been rewarded with an unrivalled spectacle: a stunning exhibition at the NGV, Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto. The retrospective, which features more than 230 pieces by the esteemed French designer, was first staged at Paris’ preeminent fashion museum, the Palais Galliera, in 2020. After Melbourne’s incredibly long COVID winter, therefore, it seems entirely fitting (pun intended) that it has become the first international city to host the exhibition after its Parisian debut.

The exhibition provides a deep dive into Chanel’s incredible artistic vision and output, and spotlights her pioneering genius in a number of different arenas. Centrally, it correctly identifies Chanel’s overriding objective as a fashion designer – to create a style of dress that would facilitate feminine independence – and recognises that this was her revolutionary contribution to the field of design. Above all, as Chanel repeatedly emphasised throughout her life, she wanted her creations to secure the comfort, functionality, and movement of her female clientele – an obsession that generated an entirely new, streamlined, and modernist approach to self-presentation which remains coveted to this day.

Particularly noteworthy in the exhibition, therefore, is the inclusion of some of Chanel’s earliest garments from the late 1910s, which were made from jersey. Inspired by her formative experiences designing comfortable leisurewear for the moneyed elite in the fashionable seaside towns of Biarritz and Deauville, Chanel reappropriated the textile (which until then, had only been used for undergarments) to achieve the utilitarian modernism that would become her trademark.

Equally impressive is the incredible display of daywear and eveningwear that Chanel designed during the 1920s, which provides a multidimensional exploration of the trademark “Chanel Look” during its heyday. For most viewers, a real highlight is undoubtedly the collection of Chanel’s Little Black Dresses (or LBDs) from this influential period. When it was first launched in 1926, Chanel’s LBD was a radical proposition for eveningwear: not only was black traditionally the colour of mourning, but the simplicity of the garment’s construction and decoration was also strikingly Spartan. Nonetheless, American Vogue immediately decreed that Chanel’s LBD would be “the frock that all the world would wear” – and the timeless appeal of these dresses, some 100 years later, clarifies that world’s fashion bible was certainly clairvoyant.

It is not just clothes, however, that impress in this in this exhibition. Chanel has long been revered in the fashion world for her holistic approach to style. Unlike other designers, she did not just stop at clothes, and her pioneering “spin-off lines” (as those in the industry would now call them) were incredibly successful. Chanel’s jewellery – which was first launched in 1924 – popularised costume jewellery, making it a coveted accessory even for the very rich. A glorious bijoux box featuring countless examples from Chanel’s dazzling line has a starring place in this exhibition, and its contents beautifully chart Chanel’s increasing fixation with the designs of ancient and faraway cultures.  By contrast, an equally captivating collection of Chanel No.5 bottles underlines the perfume’s timeless status from its 1926 launch.

With that said, the Chanel exhibition at the NGV endeavours to separate the more unfashionable – and indeed, outright controversial – aspects of Coco Chanel’s life from her spectacular work. Having closed her stores as soon as war broke out in 1939 (Chanel claimed “it was not a time for fashion”), rumours abounded about her activities during the German occupation of Paris. By this point, she had become a committed anti-Semite, and her decision to relocate to the luxe Ritz Hotel – where the Nazis simultaneously established their Parisian headquarters – raised eyebrows. Recent declassification of archival documents, and new research by historians and biographers, has established that there were numerous connections between Chanel and the Nazi occupiers (including a lengthy wartime romance with the German “diplomat”, Baron Hans von Dincklage). As a result, after Paris was liberated, Chanel was recalled to France from her self-imposed exile in Switzerland, and interrogated as a wartime collaborator.

Whilst ultimately Chanel was cleared of any charges and released (reportedly at Winston Churchill’s behest), this dark chapter in Chanel’s life leaves a complicated legacy for one of France’s most esteemed fashion designers.  The fact that Chanel only reached her true zenith as a designer after her questionable activities during World War II has been particularly problematic. Horrified by the rise of Christian Dior and his heavily corseted “New Look” in 1947, which Chanel felt undid all the work she had done to free the female form, in 1954 Chanel reopened her fashion house in Paris. She quickly rehabilitated her reputation and shored up her legacy by developing the triumvirate that would constitute the classic Chanel uniform: the Chanel Suit, which was launched in 1954, the iconic 2.55 bag, which was released in 1955, and the famous two-tone Chanel sling-backs, which debuted in 1957.

All three items sought to secure freedom of movement for women via comfort of fit and quality of fabric, and thus were immediately understood as a culmination, or manifesto, of Chanel’s life work. It is particularly gratifying, therefore, to retrace the birth and evolution of these items in the latter part of the NGV’s Chanel exhibition, and make comparisons with the designer’s earlier work and the astonishing second act of her career.

Nonetheless, while the clothes and objects in the NGV’s exhibition are – without question – a masterclass in how to construct and create a unique, and utterly modern approach to fashion and style, the storm clouds of controversy still hover and linger (albeit ever so carefully just out of view).

If you want to experience this NGV exhibition for yourself, join Dr Anna Lebovic on her upcoming four-day tour this month, Chanel in Melbourne: Fashion, Art & Design >

Exhibition details
Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto
Location: Ground Level, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Website: www.ngv.vic.gov.au
Date: Until 25 April 2022
Time: 10am–5pm daily

 

Dr Anna Lebovic

Anna has a strong personal interest in literature, the arts and food (the good things in life!), and a particular expertise in the United States and the history of fashion. Anna was awarded a BA and PhD in History from the University of Sydney, and her doctorate was the first academic history of America’s pre-eminent fashion magazine, Vogue. Her research has been supported by a number of prestigious institutions, including the Institute Francais de la Mode in Paris, and she has presented at numerous conferences internationally, including meetings of the Association of Dress Historians in London and the Organization of American Historians in New Orleans. She is currently at work on her first book on Vogue, which draws on previously unseen material from the Conde Nast archive in New York. Her research has also been published (or is forthcoming) in leading academic journals, including The Journal of Women’s History and Gender & History.

Upcoming tours led by Dr Anna Lebovic

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