A major retrospective opens in London this weekend into “Coco” Chanel, exploring her 60-year career that transformed women’s wardrobes, and with new revelations about her troubled wartime past.
Chanel — full name Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel — died in 1971 aged 87, leaving an indelible mark on fashion with her trademark tweed suits and quilted bags.
“She’s such a pillar of Western fashion, a fascinating woman,” said Oriole Cullen, modern textiles and fashion curator at the V&A where the exhibition opens on Saturday.
“Her name is still so present in contemporary fashion.”
The showcase — “Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion manifesto”, created by the Palais Galliera, a museum of fashion and fashion history in Paris — traces the designer throughout her life.
From 1910, when she first opened a milliners in the French capital, to her last collection in 1971, the exhibition features some 200 outfits.
Chanel transformed women’s fashion, introducing comfortable, elegant yet simple clothes in which women could move with ease.
One of the earliest garments on display is a sailor blouse from 1916, made from fine silk jersey which had until then been used to make underwear and stockings.
The collar was inspired by fishermen’s clothes.
In the decade that followed, Chanel established herself as the world’s foremost couturier, with her little black dress still a timeless classic.
In 1926, American Vogue magazine described it as “the frock that all the world will wear”.
Fans of her Chanel No.5 perfume, launched in 1921, included screen siren Marilyn Monroe and the late Queen Elizabeth II, who received a bottle as a birthday gift in 1955.
It remains one of the best-selling fragrances in the world today.
– Resistance? –
Chanel, who was born into poverty and grew up in a convent, rubbed shoulders with the British aristocracy.
In the 1920s and ’30s she was photographed alongside Winston Churchill, Britain’s future wartime leader, and at the famous Ascot horse races.
World War II saw her shut her shop on the rue Cambon in central Paris, a stone’s throw from the Ritz hotel where she lived.
At the age of 57, she fell in love with a German embassy attache, Hans Gunther von Dincklage, which the exhibition also touches upon.
In July 1941, the Nazi authorities registered Chanel as a “trusted source”, although it is unclear whether she was aware of the fact.
She was given the code name “Westminster” and an ID number “F7124”.
In December 1943, the Nazis wanted to use her connections in England to get in touch with Churchill.
Her links with the enemy are well known but the V&A exhibition includes two new documents which claim that in January 1943 she joined the French Resistance.
A document dated and signed from Paris in 1948 features her name as an “occasional agent” while another, a certificate, shows her membership of the resistance forces from January 1 1943 to April 1944.
Chanel left for Switzerland after the war, making a spectacular comeback in 1954 at the age of 71 with her tweed suit that Vogue called “the world’s prettiest uniform”.
The V&A exhibition includes 54 of them, in shades of beige, grey and pink. The beige version was worn by Chanel herself in 1958.
Other highlights include Chanel evening dresses in lamé and a reproduction of the staircase at 31 rue Cambon, where she is said to have secretly observed her customers from behind mirrors.