The Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto exhibition at the V&A is running until the 25th of February next year and explores Madame Coco’s prolific rise to fame and perseverance to stay at the very top of the fashion world.  

Coco Chanel, real name Gabrielle, is without a doubt one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th century.  

Everything Madame Coco touched seemed to become iconic; no handbag is complete without the instantly recognisable double C logo, which she herself designed in the early 1920s, while the image of starlet Marilyn Monroe dousing herself with the Chanel No.5 fragrance is seared into every perfumer’s mind.   

In fact, Chanel is the only designer who made the cut for Time’s magazine 100 persons of the 20th century, in the category of Artists and Entertainers, alongside stars such as Picasso, Charlie Chaplin, and The Beatles.  

Born to a laundrywoman and street vendor in 1883 but being under the care of an orphanage by the age of 11 after her mother's death, it was Chanel’s resourcefulness which set her apart from the beginning. Using the sewing skills she learned during her time at the orphanage, the budding designer advanced from a seamstress to a milliner to, eventually, an established couturière.  

What is perhaps most impressive about the French designer is the sheer longevity of her impact. At the time, Chanel’s revelation of using black as a fashionable yet neutral tone set her apart from her contemporaries as she faced criticism for attempting to modernise such a gloomy colour of mourning or service. Nowadays, however, no wardrobe is complete without a ‘Little Black Dress,’ perfect to dress up or down for any occasion.  

The relaxed, straight-line, and almost sporty silhouette that the is most famous for also caused a few grumbles at the time of its design. Following the devastation of the First World War, women were desperate for more casual clothing, especially as many were beginning jobs for the first time. Chanel listened to this emerging working class of women and catered towards their needs- steering away from the previous century’s tight, corseted bodices and towards sleeker and less constrictive designs.  

A must-see highlight of this V&A exhibition is the vast display of Chanel suits. These vibrant matching skirts and jackets were described in a 1964 edition of Vogue as "the world’s prettiest uniform", showing how the designer allowed elegance to not be impeded by practicality. In breaking from the social norms, Chanel created versatile and practical clothing for a new generation of working women.  

Niamh Shieldon, who attended the exhibition within a fortnight of it opening, agrees that the Chanel suits are worth seeing, explaining that 

"Walking into the largest room in the exhibition, you really feel the grandeur of the designs."

Elaborating that "The combinations of beiges and greys and bright pinks are a bit shocking, yet the colours and patterns work so well with each other.”  

A sixth form history student, Niamh recognises the uniqueness of the silhouettes, stating that “Having studied the shifting attitudes towards working women and the need for modernisation after the Great War,"

"I can definitely imagine this new, innovative and liberating style of clothing proving to be extremely popular amongst Coco’s customers.”  

Another detail to look out for in the exhibition, which opened to the public in early September, is the use of tweed throughout the collections. Particularly prevalent in her later collections, this material was a necessity amongst the members of British high society throughout the 20th century and was noticed by Chanel during her relationship with the Duke of Westminster.  

Having visited the Duke’s estate in the Scottish Highlands, the birthplace of twill, the designer set out on a mission to adapt the stiffer and harsher fabric into a softer tweed of her liking. Chanel’s fabric choices created an additional depth to her creations; adjusting an initially masculine fabric, prized by farmers for its durability, to create more feminine skirts and fashion statements reflected the contrast of sharp and soft lines present in the suits. 

Madame Coco’s closeness to upper class British culture also played a role in creating the iconic Chanel cut. Partaking in sports such as hunting, shooting, and horse-riding heightened her desire for less constrictive clothing with all the necessary embellishments and elegance of an aristocrat’s lover. 

For jewellery lovers, a mix of fine and costume jewellery is on show. While to a modern audience, pearls may be the typical Chanel precious stone of choice, Coco and her team of talented designers found inspiration in Roman, Persian, and Baroque pieces to create chunky gold chokers with natural motifs and blazing gems.  

The display will close on Sunday, 25th of February 2024, so there is still plenty of time left to explore Madame Coco’s awe-inspiring design journey.