The Timeless Allure of Chanel

Metropolitan Museum’s retrospective honors the great modernizer

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971) is the designer who fashion editors and critics agree was the most influential in modernizing the way women dress, with revolutionary designs such as uncorseted evening and day wear. The looser silhouette allowed women more ease of movement, and it also dovetailed with an emerging prototype of the modern, liberated woman who, against the grain, sunbathed, wore trousers, drove and smoked cigarettes. Chanel was the first designer who wove fashion into the social and political changes ascendant during the early 20th century. She was also the first one whose personal style became the basis for her mystique.

Chanel was the first brand.

Today, the idea that fashion should reflect the life of the woman who wears it is all but demanded by a vocal segment of the fashion press, most notably The New York Times chief fashion critic Cathy Horyn. Without the influence of Chanel’s form-conscious designs as well as her widely known maxims on fashion and the modern woman, fashion critics would have much less to talk about.

The exhibition of Chanel fashion, accessories, perfume and ephemera that just closed at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute was the best retrospective on a single designer in recent memory. It features all the iconic Chanel design motifs from the quilted leather bag, the tweed suit with braided trim and the black cap toe sling-back of the 1950s and 60s to the little black dress in silk chiffon from 1925 and the best-selling fragrance No. 5 launched in 1921 and still incredibly successful.

Like an early day Martha Stewart, Chanel’s lasting success and image depended to an extent on the lady herself. After Chanel died in 1971, the house sputtered along, surviving on the sales of the legendary perfume, but with its couture business effectively closed. Chanel as a label would all have been forgotten after her death if Karl Lagerfeld had not been brought in as designer of the couture and ready-to-wear. His wry and trendy reinterpretations of Chanel—such as long billowing taffeta skirts paired with short quilted leather biker jackets and boots he designed for the 1992 collection and blue and yellow silk jackets covered with paillettes and paired with lycra biking shorts for the 1991 collection are credited with the house’s current influence and commercial success.

It’s hard today to imagine anyone else at the design helm of Chanel other that Lagerfeld who is fiercely committed, even more so than Mademoiselle herself, to the charge or modernism. His designs certainly belonged in this exhibition. Not only was his aesthetic on display in the designs he authored, but also in the way the curators have presented Chanel’s legacy.

Looking at old clothes on a lifeless form can be a trying and creepy experience. One is used to marveling at the way fashion moves on a live person or how the personality of the wearer imbues clothes with her own unique panache. What can the viewer come away with looking at a dress hanging on an alabaster mannequin in a dark room?

The Costume Institute’s curators have struggled along for years showing off the best of fashion and costume design in a light starved gallery located in the museum’s basement. There have been some misses—exhibitions of Versace and rock ‘n roll fashion have tried, but failed to capture the zeitgeist. The Institute came back last year with “Dangerous Liaisons”, a blockbuster exhibition of 18th century French court fashion. Part of the show’s success owed to the exhibition being mounted in the gallery of French antique furniture. The mannequins were posed in vivid tableaux vivants among the grand furniture, looking the part as sexually rapacious, and morally dubious status conscious characters. Fashion rarely looked more sinful, alive, fun and relevant.

With Lagerfeld’s input, the Institute placed this exhibition on the first floor of the museum, not too far from the galleries of Greco-Roman art. Even if such a placement were not a conscious nod to Chanel’s classical sensibility, being upstairs near the main galleries made a world of difference to how one thought of fashion and how the audience interacted with the clothes. In the same way that Chanel liberated women from binding convention, the Institute freed the exhibition from the crypt-like glass enclosures of the basement, making use of brightly lit open vetrines onto whose white back walls were projected several iconic Chanel symbols like the camellia, interlocking Cs, pearls and chains.

Chanel was a proto-minimalist. Before her success in the 1920s with paired-down suits and dresses, what was considered luxurious in fashion consisted of frilly, eye-popping embellishments. Chanel put all the expense and the craft of dressmaking in into the construction. Her vocabulary of fabrics was simple—lace, tulle, jersey, chiffon, georgette, crêpe de chine and tweed. An ultra fine black silk charmeuse jersey day suit from 1927 looked luscious and luxurious; as did the whimsical and arabesque pattern of a peach silk lace evening dress from 1937. The fabric of each dress or suit lacked boning and corsetry, Chanel ingeniously cutting and stitching them together by artful stitching and draping. She was above all a couturier, who cut and fit fabric directly onto a body or form; her deft technique is visible in each vetrine.

What most striking is how one can forget being in a museum at all, especially one that is the repository of millennia of time-bound cultural artifacts. The permanence of Chanel’s style is such that with any dress or suit from the 1920s through the 1950s, one could take it off the mannequin, slip it on and walk out of the museum onto Fifth Avenue coolly assured that her chic was contemporary and unassailable.

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