Paris’s fashion museum, the Palais Galliera, reopened last month after extensive renovations with an exhibition dedicated to the work of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. “Gabrielle Chanel, Manifeste de Mode” (“Gabrielle Chanel, Fashion Manifesto”) spans a half century of Chanel’s creative output beginning with the Twenties.1 In addition to presentations of her archetypical day and evening wear and sports and casual attire, there are side-displays of her wildly successful perfume (N° 5), as well as her jewelry and accessories.

Of all the famous names in design, Chanel stands apart because of the continuing youthfulness and practicality of her designs. Viewing only the first dozen or so outfits dating from the early Twenties, one is struck not only by their simple elegance, but also by their freshness and modernity—many of the pieces could be worn today and still be considered à la mode.

Coco Chanel, dress (between 1917-1919), Black silk tulle. Photo: James F. Penrose.

The craftsmanship is dazzling. From the simple refinement of Chanel’s 1926 “little black dress” (known in the United States as the “Ford” dress—like the Model T, it came only in black and was seen everywhere) and the white tennis shift, to the knockout virtuosity of the black fishscale evening gown and the capes in silk and cockerel feathers, the viewer is mesmerized. Chanel’s daywear from that time is impressive for a different reason: it has been copied, consciously or slavishly, by designers ever since. Without any doubt, these designs are firmly embedded in our conceptions of elegant dress almost a century after they were conceived.

The exhibition shows how the simplicity of Chanel’s clothing was complemented by her avant-garde accessories. A side display describes the creation of her 1921 perfume, N° 5. The exhibition’s wall text describes just how N° 5 was so radically different, as it was “constructed” rather than derived from a simple scent. We learn how Chanel not only commissioned and approved the perfume, but designed the bottle with its spare lines and selected the characteristic typeface of the label. Aptly, the curators have used the same Couture font for the descriptions of the items on display.

Several generations of N° 5 on display. Photo: James F. Penrose.

“Fashion Manifesto” is an excellent but all too short exhibition. At its beginning, it provides a brief timeline of the events in Chanel’s life, from the opening of her first shop (as a milliner) in 1909 through her couturier shops on the rue Cambon (she would eventually own much of this street) during the 1910s, and touches on her friendships with various powerful men, including Winston Churchill (a useful connection when she was accused of having collaborating with the Nazis during World War II). It moves on to her post-War nadir and successful return in the Fifties with her second most famous accessory, the 2.55 handbag, emblazoned with her famous back-to-back initials—the source of a million imitators. Though dedicated to the evolution of her fashion style, we see enough of Chanel in “Fashion Manifesto” to want to know a little more about Chanel’s “genius, lethal wit [and] sarcasm . . . [that] intrigued and appalled everyone,” as it  was described by her friend, the pianist Misia Sert.

  1.   “Gabrielle Chanel, Manifeste de Mode” opened at the Palais de Galliera on January 10, 2020, and remains on view until March 14, 2021.

New to The New Criterion?

Subscribe for one year to receive ten print issues, and gain immediate access to our online archive spanning more than four decades of art and cultural criticism.