One of the most revered designers of the twentieth century, Coco Chanel (1883–1971) made an enduring impact on the fashion world. It is the authority and mastery of her work, the resonance of her image of the modern woman as articulated in her designs, and the autobiographical infusion of influences in her collections that confirm her iconic stature. In this exhibition, the spirit of the House of Chanel echoes vibrantly with an unprecedented presentation of more than fifty designs and accessories from the Museum’s Costume Institute collection, Chanel Archives, and other international institutions such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The exhibition examines the history of the House of Chanel thematically, revealing ideas and elements of biography as they were expressed in Chanel’s work. Period examples are juxtaposed with the work of Karl Lagerfeld, who joined the House of Chanel in 1983, revitalizing its spirit and identity. Through Lagerfeld’s interpretations and refinements, the historic importance of Chanel is both defined and asserted for the modern woman.
The exhibition begins with a presentation of Chanel’s groundbreaking designs from the 1920s, including a jersey dress and cardigan coat, an early example of the sportswear principle of separates dressing. Her audacious use of jersey, at the time more commonly applied to men’s undergarments and swimwear, allowed for greater ease and comfort, the hallmarks of the Chanel style. By employing the virtuoso hand-sewn details of the couture, Chanel transformed this humble material into a luxurious fashion statement. Jersey was just one element borrowed from menswear—others included the use of the color black with contrasting white cuffs and collar, a reference to dandy fashions. In a 1920s suit that is featured in the exhibition, the white lining of the black jacket extends to the revers, or lapel facings, a typical Chanel detail that was taken from men’s military uniforms.
A modernist in the true sense of the word, Chanel ascribed primacy to function and materials. While a straight, linear silhouette characterizes her designs of the 1920s, her dresses of the 1930s appear more feminine and romantic. Also on display is a series of works that reference Chanel’s inspirations, such as her famous “Gypsy” dress, with details borrowed from lingerie and underwear. Even in these languid gowns, however, Chanel asserted her modernism by revealing their construction—exposing the seams and other “mechanics” of the garments.
Chanel not only established the canon of modern dress, but she determined a typology of clothing styles, such as beach and evening pajamas, the chemise dress, the little black dress, the two- or three-piece suit, and evening dress that combined both tailoring and dressmaking practices. A wide array of these “icons” of design is on display, as well as such signature accessories as the quilted bag, the two-tone pump, the gilt chain belt, pearl necklaces, and crystal Maltese and Byzantine crosses. The exhibition also focuses on the iconography of the Chanel style that, over time, have come to include bows, stars, camellias, and lion heads. (The lion was Coco Chanel’s astrological symbol; she was born on August 19.) Just as much as in her fashions, these motifs asserted Chanel’s creativity and individuality, promoting a design vocabulary that is both instantly distinguishable and instantly recognizable.
The exhibition is comprised of a series of architectonic modules in a strict modernist grid, as devised by the creative consultant Olivier Saillard. Each module addresses iconic Chanel designs, iconographic details that have become indelibly associated with the House of Chanel, or materials and techniques that are Chanel signature elements. Video wallpaper projections by the artist Marie Maillard give a poetic vision to the presentation of mannequins in several modules, underscoring their conceptual presentation. More assertively, video cubes in the same dimensions as the modules are interspersed in the grid: their walls appear dematerialized with projections that introduce design details and concepts that have come to characterize the House.
CHANEL, the book accompanying the exhibition, will be edited by Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton, will include a foreword by Karl Lagerfeld, and essays by Rhonda Garelick, Caroline Milbank, Nancy Troy, and others.
Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art