The temple of allure and freedom

Béatrice Peyrani

By Béatrice Peyrani20 octobre 2020

The Galliera Museum will be exhibiting the first major retrospective about Gabrielle Chanel until March 14th, 2021, in Paris. All controversy about the woman’s complex personality aside, the Fashion Museum offers a masterful presentation of the legendary designer’s work.

The Palais Galliera, Paris Fashion Museum: Gabrielle Chanel, Manifeste de Mode Paris, ©Laurent Vu/SIPA

Thursday 8 October, 7 pm: twenty visitors hurry behind the lecturer of the Palais Galliera. The fashion museum has just reopened in Paris, after a two-week closure. A black straw hat, a white silk sailor shirt, a sparkling copper jacket: the audience is surprised at such a modern wardrobe: “So wearable and desirable, says the guide. Contrary to her peers, mainly men like Paul Poiret or Jean Patou, Gabrielle Chanel created designs, first and foremost, for herself. She wanted to feel comfortable.” That is the « Chanel » style. A nonchalant yet chic allure for a proud and provocative amazon, a free woman that would travel through centuries, with her hands in her pockets. The tone of the Parisian exhibition is clear: “Gabrielle Chanel. Manifeste de Mode” is didactic. The retrospective intends to explain why the designer remains the luxury reference, fifty years after her death.

Coco Chanel - 1930's. © Ministère de la Culture - Médiathèque de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine,
Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / André Kertész

The Chanel style started from the early beginnings of the young designer in 1910. Gabrielle had opened a boutique in her name called Chanel Modes, 21 rue Cambon in Paris, and appeared on the cover of the publication Comœdia Illustré with one of her designs, a black hat topped with a white feather. The same journal subsequently featured upcoming actresses with elegant headwear from Mademoiselle Chanel. Sporty and independent young women, such as Lucienne Roger or Gabrielle Dorziat. Heroic inspirations for Chanel, who wanted to free women from the corset and offer a palette of fluid and functional garments!

Model walking down the stairs at 31 rue Cambon.
Photograph published in Harper's Bazaar, September 15, 1937 © Ministère de la Culture - Médiathèque de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine,
Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / François Kollar

Chanel’s Ford

As a result, Mademoiselle Chanel was right, and success was immediate. Her jersey suits or her ivory sailor shirts just like the one of 1916 exhibited in the VIP lounge of the Galliera Museum, were acclaimed.

Chanel's little black dress. ©Laurent Vu/SIPA

In 1918, it’s the end of the war and the beginning of the Roaring Twenties. Women just want to have fun. Wardrobes including six outfits a day are over. For these independent women, Chanel launches and develops her famous little black dress as of 1926, which US Vogue christens: “Chanel’s Ford” due to its success. Short and wearable all day long, the little black dress can we worn or taken off as desired and without room maid, nor husband! With 600,000 widowed Frenchwomen, it’s all about forgetting and moving on. Dancing, working out or working, women are taking their fate back into their own hands. Chanel foresees their desires.

The designer has been observing Russian ballet dancers for a long time. For her, each movement begins in the back. Nothing should obstruct movement. Proof is this dress and jacket between 1922 and 1928, in white ivory jersey, an almost enhanced version of one of the tennis player Suzanne Lenglen’s dresses. But for Chanel, luxury should not be seen. She created coats beautiful both inside and out. One model of the kind: fall-winter 1922-23, black wool chain stitch embroidered multicolor silk and gold thread; modern fur, maroon silk satin.

The first bottle of Chanel N5 perfume, 1921 ©Laurent Vu/SIPA

A year earlier, she offered her clients an invisible and indispensable accessory: a parfum that resembles no other, with no identifiable scent, but an abstract and mysterious fragrance created by the perfumer Ernest Beaux. It encompassed Jasmin from Grasse, Mai rose, as well as a very first in perfumery: an overdosage of aldehydes (synthetic matter). The first square bottle with pure and angular lines, far from the colorful flasks of the time is beautifully unveiled in the East gallery of the museum.
A star is born: Chanel n°5 (which owes its name to the formula number suggested by Beaux, as well as to the designer’s lucky number, who launched the perfume on May 5th, on the fifth month of the year) will become one of the most sold fragrances in the world and will ensure the fortune of the designer.

Coco’s demonstrations

black dress with green feathers and roses, and bust with fuchsia feathers, the last piece which would leave the atelier before the house closed on September 3rd 1939.©Laurent Vu/SIPA

Women in the 1930s are independent. They can afford to buy their own jewelry. Queen of fake jewels, Gabrielle dares an incursion in the world of High Jewelry, damaged by the 1929 crisis and which sees its workers from the most prestigious houses go out of work. In 1932, to the request of the International Diamond Corporation of London and against the French jewelry syndicate’s will (who doesn’t enjoy the audacity of a designer on their field), Gabrielle imagines a collection which she will present at her home in the salons of her townhouse, 29 rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré. Facing a mesmerized Paris thanks to the novel use of platinum, Chanel unveils modulable ornaments, wearable as brooches or bracelets. Dream-like and airy, they seem to descend from the sky: the Comète brooch, dreamy tiara of an ice queen is located in the Ouest gallery where visitors of the Galliera can view it. With the “feather” brooch that belonged to Marie Laure de Noailles, this Comète brooch, owned by the Chanel Maison, seems to be the last jewel still known and identified from this crazy adventure.

The 30s arrive more serious and austere. Mademoiselle Chanel, to escape boredom, imagines dresses more sophisticated than ever, sometimes longer, closer to the body but always avoiding excess. Just as this afternoon dress from the Spring-Summer collection of 1930, in white silk mousseline printed in light pink or brown, or this beautiful black dress with green feathers and roses, and bust with fuchsia feathers, the last piece which would leave the atelier before the house closed on September 3rd 1939.

An armure against the world

1944-1954, white years for Chanel who exiles to Switzerland and tries to forget her affair during the war with a German officer, the baron Hans-Günther von Dincklage. Not so simple… in 1946, a certain Christian Dior opens his atelier on Avenue Montaigne. He aims at celebrating femininity: round shoulders, underlined bust, tailored waist, corolla skirts… his new look causes sensation. Chanel is furious, fulminates and prepares her return. She comes back to Paris in 1953 and after fourteen years of absence, presents her new collection on February 5th, 1954.

Dorothy and Little Bara dressed as a priest. Published in Vogue,
October 1960 © William Klein

France is pouting, but America applauds her and awards her with the Fashion Oscar, honoring the most influential designer of the XX century. Mademoiselle Chanel goes back to the fundamentals that built her esthetics and completes her manifesto. She goes back to velvet, silk, lace or even synthetic little black dresses. She doesn’t fear to cast a light on serious costume jewelry inspired by medieval collections and renaissance which she so often used to admire at the Louvre. She invents an armor for women of the end of her century to face the world: an extremely lean suit, a simple cardigan, a skirt that lays on the hips.

Anouk Aimée in Chanel. Photograph published in Vogue,
September 1963. Paris Museums © Henry Clarke, Musée Galliera / Adagp, Paris 2020

The Galliera Museum presents more than fifty variations of the famous Chanel suit and retraces the tight links that Gabrielle continues to keep with the artistic world. Just as during pre-war times, the most famous actresses wear her designs in the movies as they do downtown: Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider, Dephine Seyrig…
Gabrielle Chanel dies on January 10 1971, in Paris. Her tombstone in Lausanne is topped with five lion heads. Gabrielle Chanel is dead, but the Chanel allure remains, timeless and sublime.

Iconic pieces:

  • The hat: black woven straw, black silk satin ribbon: created between 1913 and 1914, one of young Coco’s first pieces;
  • The first Chanel n°5 bottle, 1921.
  • The Comète brooch, Bijoux de Diamants collection, 1932.
  • The first bag 2.55, 1954-1971, quilted dyed lambskin, gold-tone metal, turnstile clasp. Its jewel chain allows it to be carried by hand or on the shoulder, its numerous interior pockets facilitate storage.

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