LONDON – The little black dress. The tweed dress suit. The perfume simply known as No. 5.
Those instantly-recognizable fashion classics — and many more lesser known creations by Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel — are celebrated in a major new exhibition at London's V&A Museum dedicated to the life and work of the famed French designer.
Curators have brought together nearly 200 outfits seen together for the first time, charting Chanel's long career from the opening of her millinery boutique in Paris in 1910 to her final collection in 1971.
"Of course there are many elements that we are all familiar about Gabrielle Chanel and what she contributed to fashion,” said Connie Karol Burks, one of the curators. “But in this exhibition we expand out from that, and we really look in detail at how her approach to design influenced the way we all dress.”
The exhibition begins with one of the earliest surviving Chanel garments — a simple cream blouse from 1916 made from silk jersey, a humble fabric previously used for underwear and stockings.
Chanel was the first to show the fabric's appeal for high fashion, curators said, and the blouse sets the tone for the relaxed elegance and defiance of the more rigid fashions of the day that the designer is known for.
“What's really striking about it is just how modern it looks today,” more than a century later, Karol Burks said.
Visitors at the exhibition are treated to galleries filled with Chanel's creations, including her famous little black dresses — an enduring hit that, in 1926, American Vogue magazine likened to the popular Ford car and predicted that “all the world will wear.”
The show's highlight is a mirrored room with a whole wall filled with a stunning display of Chanel's signature suits, from monochrome black and cream to more cheerful shades of rose, lilac and red.
There are also on display outfits created for Hollywood stars Lauren Bacall and Marlene Dietrich, and sections devoted to Chanel's coveted perfumes and handbags. The finale is a showstopping recreation of the mirrored staircase in Chanel's couture salon in Paris, populated with mannequins donning a collection of the designer's opulent evening gowns.
Based on a previous exhibition staged at Paris’s Palais Galliera, the V&A iteration expands on Chanel's British influences, with one section highlighting her integration into British high society partly by way of her wealthy lover Hugh Grosvenor, the second Duke of Westminster.
Curators said the designer immersed herself in outdoorsy British pursuits like hunting and fishing, and suggested that she was inspired to use British tweed in her chic Parisian designs.
The exhibition also briefly touched on Chanel's darker history as an informant for Nazi Germany during World War II, although it didn't draw conclusions. Instead, curators said research was ongoing about newer evidence suggesting the designer was also a member of the French resistance.
Tristram Hunt, the V&A's director, said the museum hoped that the new display will build on and follow the successes of previous blockbuster fashion exhibitions featuring Christian Dior and Alexander McQueen.
“Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto” opens on Saturday, and runs until Feb. 25.