Exploring the “Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto” exhibition at the V&A

When I decided to visit London, I knew one of my “must-sees” would be the Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum. It did not disappoint!

Images from the Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto exhibition at V&A Museum in London.

The exhibition is currently sold out, except to V&A members. (Fortunately I was invited to attend by a friend with a membership.) It was well worth the visit, not only for the impressive curation of clothes on display, but also for the history and background of the woman and her designs.

It was quite crowded, even on a weekday afternoon. Even so, I did manage to get dozens of photos, and have shared the ones that I think are most representative of the exhibition. Many of the displays were very dimly lit to preserve the fabrics; I’ve lightened them somewhat to better show details.

“Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto” at the V&A in London

Early Chanel hat design, display from Chanel exhibition at V&A London.

Chanel began as a milliner, and soon moved on to clothing. Inspired by the fabrics and styles (especially menswear) favored by the wealthy in the English countryside, she adapted them to create women’s fashions that allowed for more ease and freedom of movement.

Chanel outside her boutique in Deauville, 1913. From the Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto exhibition.
Chanel outside her Deauville boutique, 1913.

1920’s – 1930’s

Early Chanel day dresses ad.
Chanel daywear from late 1920's

Even her most feminine dresses and gowns exemplified that ease…

Chanel floral silk dress with textured petals.
Dimensional details: 3-D petals on Chanel silk dress.
Just LOOK at the details on these raised flower petals!!
Chanel evening gowns from the 1920's-30's.
Chanel gowns for dancing, 1929.
Little black dresses from the Chanel exhibition at V&A London.
Two of the iconic “little black dresses” on display
Sketches by Chanel for gown designs. From the Chanel exhibition at the V&A


Yes, she remains a controversial figure, and the exhibition doesn’t shy away from that.

Text panels from Chanel exhibition at V&A London regarding her activities during WW2.

They also discuss her contentious relationship with her business partner, Pierre Wertheimer, who funded Chanel’s perfume business in 1922. (Chanel at one point attempted–unsuccessfully–to use the Nazi “Aryan” laws to wrest control away from him. The Wertheimer family still owns Chanel.)

Early bottle of Chanel No5 and explanation of bottle shape.
I found this explanation of the Chanel No5 bottle shape fascinating!

1950’s – 1970’s

After World War II, Chanel moved to Switzerland, returning only in 1954 to revive her business.

Photograph and text from Chanel exhibition at V&A: 1956 introduction of tweed suit.
The iconic tweed suit.

In 1956, she introduced the iconic tweed suit, again designed with the intention of giving women more freedom of movement. (While these suits may seem a bit fussy to us now, remember, at the time the prevailing style was a very corseted look, often with a cinched waist.)

An array of tweed suits at the Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto exhibition at the V&A in London.

(This one’s a little blurry, apologies! But you get the idea…)

Display of Chanel jewelry at the Chanel exhibition, V&A London.

There’s also a decent display of Chanel jewelry. My friend remarked it was a shame we couldn’t see more of it styled with the clothing, as Chanel might have done. I also felt the bags were given short shrift, as I only recall seeing one small case with the classic 2.55 styles.

A mockup of the mirrored staircase at 31 rue Cambon with Chanel evening wear.

A mock-up of the mirrored staircase in Chanel’s atelier.

While Chanel did favor a black-and-white palette, there were some lovely pieces in color….

Colorful Chanel gowns from the Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto exhibition at the V&A, London.

One of the things that really struck us was how modern many of the designs (some almost 100 years old), still look.

Vintage and modern Chanel designs.

The suits on the left are from 1929; on the right a current Chanel display from 2023.

Coco Chanel and her fashion philosophy.

No matter how you feel about the woman or her designs, it’s hard to discount the impact she had on women’s fashion in the 20th century. What I appreciate most is her philosophy quoted here:

Always dress to make yourself feel young – this means being free and easy and unpretentious in your clothes. You have to breathe and move and sit without being conscious of what you’ve got on.

Gabrielle Chanel

If you have a chance to see the “Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto” exhibition, I do recommend it!

Chanel-inspired styles

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  1. Thank you so much for the lovely coverage of the Chanel exhibit in London. I too would love to see it. I agree about the handbags and jewelry but perhaps that’s another exhibit.

  2. Hi, Susan, yes, thank you for sharing your visit of this remarkable Chanel exhibition! I finally booked a flight to London to see it during its last few days in February (with a V&A membership). Will brace myself for the crowds but know it will be worth it. And I can’t wait to see the gift shop. I’ll leave some extra room in my suitcase.

  3. Thanks for sharing this exhibit since it’s difficult to visit. Everyone seems to enjoy Chanel, whether fashion, fragrance, or leather accessories and jewelry.

  4. Thank you so much for allowing those of us not so fortunate a peek at this exhibit. How long did it take you to tour? Your pictures capture the timeline well. I also appreciated reading the information on Chanel’s personal history. Merci beaucoup!

  5. Thank you for sharing this wonderful exhibit with us. I read every description and felt as if I were right there with you. Amazingly, I feel we could step into any one of the beautiful designs, right now, and still feel very much “in style.” Timeless indeed. Thank you again.

  6. Your Chanel post was fascinating…well done! Wish I could see her exhibit at the V&A, but know I won’t get there. Thank you SO much for sharing your photos and comments on the exhibit.

  7. What a fabulous show! Many thanks for taking us there.
    Chanel was such a modern woman- clothes should be comfortable! Her style continues to be a major influence in today’s fashions.
    I have never seen the dresses for ballroom dancing and they were exquisite!
    Many contemporary interpretations fall short, especially the placement of the pockets on Chanel inspired jackets.

  8. Thank you! You have given your subscribers a wonderful feel for the Chanel exhibit!
    I visited the new Dior museum in Paris last summer and it has a similar vibe. The history of 20th century fashion is so fascinating!

  9. Thank you very much, Susan, for this very interesting feedback of Chanel exhibition in London.
    (I ignored there was one !).
    Yes, the work of Chanel is very instructive about society mentality of this period.
    Like you, I think that many of the clothes presented would be possible to wear now-a-days : that shows a spirit very in advance for her time !
    Had a good stay in London !
    Hélène (from France !)

  10. Her designs were/are so elegant! They can still be worn today. She remains my favorite designer, even though I can only, obviously, afford copies. Today, when some designers are showing such madness, her designs remind us how beautiful gowns and suits once were..

  11. Thanks for taking us along for such a fabulous exhibit. I agree with you about how modern, wearable, and not at all dated her designs remain, which is indeed remarkable after so many decades (close to 100 years for some, as you point out).

  12. Thank you for sharing this fascinating exhibit with those of us who have no chance of seeing it in person!

  13. Dear Susan, I remember many years ago my husband who at the time worked in London told me I could have a Chanel suit. I went into the store and found I was out of luck, I was a winter, I had just had my colors done and all I found was pastel colors. Oh those memories!

  14. Thanks so much for sharing your visit to the Chanel exhibit at the V&A with us. I am so very envious of your visit as I just missed it when I visited London in September. Exquisite clothing and jewellery for sure. And although we don’t dress like this anymore to the same degree the designs are timeless and elements of the Chanel influence are always in fashion. Loved your post!

  15. Thank you for posting this. I will not be able to see the exhibit, though would love to. Adore Chanel style and aesthetic. As others have mentioned I was so struck by how timeless her creations are.

  16. Thanks so much for sharing your experience. I would love to see this exhibit in person, but your post is the next best thing!

  17. Susan,

    In January 2018 I was lucky enough to catch the Christian Dior exhibit in Paris at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, two days before it closed. It was extraordinary, and I learned so much about the fashion house. Some of your photos of the beautiful colorful dresses and displays here remind me of it. Thank you so much for sharing your photos and insights from the Chanel exhibit. How wonderful for us to get a peek!

  18. Fabulous column, Susan! Thank you! You afforded me the chance through you pics to see this amazing exhibition! Loved that I could read the signs.
    Chanel’s pieces are truly timeless.

  19. Thanks for all the wonderful phots of the exhibit at V&A. I found Chanel’s earlier pieces quite fascinating, I felt that any one of them could be worn today. They looked much more comfortable than her later designs.

  20. My style is more classic, but I would wear that dress with the raised flowers now. It is absolutely gorgeous! We are heading to London in a few weeks, but won’t be able to get into that display, unfortunately, Wish I had your friends 😉 Thanks for sharing what you saw and what you wore.

  21. This is a wonderful post with photos and comments that highlight some of the extraordinary Chanel creations along with the interesting historical notes. Thank you for sharing some lovely features of that amazing exhibit!

  22. I have been having difficulty connecting with my posts… I am not considered a human by the Captcha (sp) so nothing gets through to you , Susan. Any idea why? Very frustrating.

    1. Hi Cath, when I travel I turn on comment moderation just so no “spam” gets through. Sometimes with the time difference there may be a few hours lag before I can review comments. Sorry about that!

  23. Thank you for sharing your visit, Susan. So interesting, and I appreciate your Chanel inspired timeless styles too, very inspiring!
    Merci beaucoup,
    Julie x

  24. I visited this exhibition and loved it. What struck me was that almost everything could have been worn today in more formal situations.

  25. Oh yes, she had a great influence. I think she was an opportunist and I don’t mean that in a negative way. There were little possibilities for single women in those days and she used every method that worked to get what she wanted. And successfully. I bet she didn’t harm people in the war, she just knew how to survive.

    1. Chanel was lucky she didn’t get her head shaved, tarred and feathered as many French women who had dallied with German soldiers were, which is why she stayed in Switzerland. No matter how naughty she was, it never stopped me from buying Chanel ballet flats and her bags. Susan M

  26. I loved this post! Thank you for sharing it.
    I grew up in the 50’s and the suits still look so beautiful. I remember a suit Jackie Kennedy Wore looked so much like these. I fact she was wearing on in the day her husband was shot.

  27. What an excellent and comprehensive article about the V&A Chanel exhibit.
    My Mum had a cream Chanel suit that , back in ‘99 after her death, I tried but could not see myself wearing. How short sighted of me… I could have enjoyed it after all. Enjoy your adventures in London, Susan. It was you who introduced me to Red Leopard, and my clothing choices have evolved since my visit in 2022.