Palais Galliera, Paris

Deciphering Coco Chanel, Through Her Clothes

by Kanika Agarwal

A marinière in ivory silk jersey by Gabrielle Chanel (1916).

Photography by Julien T. Hamon.

Archives have a way of sustaining time. They exist between two tenses: keeping a comprehensive record of the past whilst also neatly tucking it away for the future. Often we ponder over what has passed, finding it hard to imagine that such an event could have ever taken place. It is on such occasions that archives present themselves to be most useful: honest, qualitative and corroborative. Such is the nature of the Palais Galliera‘s new exhibition ‘Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto’, featuring an arresting survey of Gabrielle ‘Bonheur’ Chanel’s own creations for her famed fashion house, Chanel.

With an eloquent, historical narrative, the visual journey invites visitors into an exceptional viewing of both private and institutional Chanel collections, ranging from the years 1910 up until Gabrielle’s last work in 1971. The exhibition showcases over 350 carefully-preserved garments, jewels and accessories from the house composed from the museum’s own collection, Chanel’s corporate archive, private collections and foreign institutions from the Victoria and Albert Museum of London to the De Young Museum in San Francisco, the Museo de la Moda in Santiago de Chile, and MoMu Antwerp.

The Palais Galliera garnered much attention and anticipation in the months after the first confinement in Paris, with ‘Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto’ its first exhibition after 2 years of extensive renovations. Besides the fact that the exhibition promised a never-seen-before study into Gabrielle Chanel’s extraordinary mind, it also brought with it the inauguration of the Palais Galliera’s 670sqm underground wing and ground floor renovations executed by the Parisian architect Dominique Brard.

L: A jacket in beige heather wool jersey, multicolour jacquard knit, beige silk crêpe (c. 1928-1930).
R: An early bottle of Chanel N°5 perfume (1921).

Though predominantly non-chronological, the exhibition begins with Gabrielle Chanel’s very first creations, from a historical bretonniere sailor top in silk jersey from 1916 to early examples of her classic little back dresses and the more sporty attire of the roaring twenties. Later, sophisticated gowns from the 1930s demonstrate her mastery of opulent fabrics such as lace, chiffon, silk and tulle. Upon continuing, one finds themselves drawn into a side salon dedicated to the mythology of the Chanel N°5 perfume; the room re-designed to subtly mimic the very perimeter of the perfume bottle itself. Artefacts weigh in on the evolution of its packaging as well as its universal following, underlined by Marilyn Monroe’s legendary voice-over: “What do I wear to bed? Why, Chanel No. 5, of course.”

Downstairs, the exhibit winds through the vaulted cellars of the basement, beginning with icons like the two-tone pump Gabrielle invented with Massaro in the 60s, and her 2.55 quilted leather handbag from 1955. An exhaustive survey of the tweed suit follows in myriad forms, including custom designs for Grace Kelly and Marlene Dietrich, amongst others.

L: A black chiffon dress worn by the actor Delphine Seyrig in Last Year at Marienbad, Autumn-Winter 1960-1961.
M: A black Dognin cocktail dress, Spring-Summer 1959.
R: A black lurex lamé silk crepe and black silk cordonnet tunic and skirt set, Spring-Summer 1960.

A coat, bodice and skirt set in ivory and grey pied-de-coq wool fabric, white mink and ivory tweed, Autumn Winter 1965-1966.

A beige heather tweed and pink crêpe de Chine two-piece suit, Autumn Winter 1964-1965.

An ivory wool jersey and navy blue galalithe jacket and skirt set, Spring Summer 1971.

A two piece suit in navy-printed white cloque silk, Spring Summer 1965.

An ivory wool tweed suit with fringed wool braid, Autumn Winter 1960-1961.

A two-piece suit in Lesur’s ecru and brown heather tweed worn by Gabrielle Chanel, Autumn Winter 1958-1959.


A final salon displays evening dresses, fine jewellery, and costume jewellery by Goossens for Chanel – many evoking key motifs like the wheat sheath and baroque cross that have become synonymous with the Chanel silhouette. Woven through each install, 10 photographic portraits of Coco Chanel unveil moments of her casual, even severe but always alluring personality, making it quite evident that Gabrielle’s persona extended into all of her designs, residing like a figurative metaphor of her ideas and attitudes. She was lauded in her day as a modern and pragmatic designer for women, and although Chanel is widely recognised today as brand of affluence and luxury few can afford, Gabrielle Chanel catalysed an ideology that takes from the most fundamental motivations of daily life: mixing feminine and masculine, sophisticated and simple, gold and plastic, real and fake, couture and sportswear. She introduced an idea of hidden luxury, offering a striking combination of class and comfort.

The task to assemble an exposition of this scale was no easy feat, especially considering the unprecedented effects of the first confinement period announced in France from March to May this year. Suddenly, the urgency to locate missing deliveries sent from abroad, and to address the difficulties with which they could (or could not) cross international borders was of the utmost importance. Furthermore, museum standards conventionally require all borrowed pieces to travel with an escort, a protocol waivered under the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic, though clothes from the American collections, notably the Metropolitan Museum of Art and FIT in New York never made it to Paris. Patience was demanded in the face of renegotiations and extended insurance policies. “During confinement, I came to make rounds every Tuesday with the manager to check if the dresses were okay,” reflected the Palais Galliera’s director and exhibition curator Miren Arzalluz.


A pair of evening capes, black and ivory silk with rooster feathers, Spring Summer 1925.

An evening gown in black silk tulle embroidered with steel spangles and jais pearls, gold lamé, Autumn Winter 1918-1919.

An evening dress in water green silk tulle, Spring Summer 1930.

A short evening gown in black silk crêpe embroidered with white glass pearls, 1927.

A short evening gown in blue silk crêpe embroidered with blue glass pearls, Autumn Winter 1927-1928.

A black silk tulle evening gown, c. 1938.

Ivory silk lace evening gown, Autumn Winter 1933-1934.

Dress and jacket evening set in Moroccan ivory crêpe, silk tulle, copper sequins, Autumn Winter 1934-1935.

“For the first time in Paris, an exhibition takes Gabrielle Chanel as subject. Not the woman, but the visionary designer,” stated Bruno Pavlovsky, president of the fashion activities of CHANEL.  One would agree that more has been known of Coco Chanel’s lifestyle as a jet-setting, worldly woman with her room at the Ritz, apartment on Rue Cambon, visits on board the Duke of Westminster’s yacht, and annual St. Moritz ski-trips than may be known of her delicate touch with cut lace, feathers, or Russian embroideries, perhaps. “Everything has been said and written about Gabrielle Chanel. Her style is inscribed in our collective memory. As a Fashion Museum, what could we add if not a scientific look at her work – which in the end we know much less about than her biography? What is the Chanel aesthetic?” We believe we know everything without knowing. Her work crystallises so many preconceived ideas. We don’t want to feed the legend, we want to be as precise and subtle as possible,” added Miren Arzalluz. “We were very much inspired by Gabrielle for the mannequins too: the way she would push her hips forward, the way she moved, the way she posed, the way she presented herself.”

Words by Kanika Agarwal
Photography by Julien T. Hamon

‘Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto’ is on display at the Palais Galliera Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris until March 14th, 2021.

Jewellery by Robert Goossens for CHANEL, between 1954-1970.

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