'Imagination will take you everywhere'
Upon arrival at the Coco Chanel exhibition in the Gemeente Museum, Den Haag (a city just outside Amsterdam) it’s obvious that this is no ordinary exhibition. It felt as if I had walked through a large (and rather expensive) wardrobe and discovered fashion Narnia, where everything dripped with glamour and oozed luxury. An army of mannequins dressed head to toe in classic Chanel outfits pervaded the whole display, as well as special rooms dedicated to Chanel’s trademark ‘Little Black Dress’ and another full of her elaborate costume jewellery. This was truly an exposition for the ultimate fashionista.
But what I found fascinating was learning that Chanel was far more than just a fashion designer. She undoubtedly revolutionised womenswear in an age when women were beginning to feel more independent and liberated. The 1920’s was a time when women’s rights were rapidly developing and Chanel stood up for her sex – not by chaining herself to Parliament or throwing herself in front of a racehorse, but by designing clothes for modern, dynamic and strong women. She made clothes that were inspired by the flexibility and practicality of menswear, thus allowing ease of movement for women – an abrupt change from the restrictive corsets and long gowns that were in vogue during the 19th century. Her designs echoed the plight that women were going through, by presenting us as equals to men. Yet she led a free and modern life that was highly forward-thinking for a woman during those uncertain times; starting out as a singer where she coined the nickname Coco (her birth name was Gabrielle), she then became a mistress to a textile heir, before starting a relationship with a wealthy English Industrialist, who financed her first shop. She even reputedly romanced the Duke of Westminster, which is how her lifelong love affair with Scotland began – she would join the Duke on shooting sojourns, wearing her tweed jacket, a string of pearls and the Duke’s leather belt slung around her narrow hips. Chanel believed that “Luxury is liberty”; she was indeed the embodiment of the ‘new’ and emancipated woman of the roaring twenties.
Walking through the rows of immaculately dressed mannequins it’s easy to see how appealing these outfits were to the women of the 1920’s – however it is testament to the timeless quality of the design which makes them still so appealing today. There’s an array of beautiful tweed skirts; knee-length with knife pleats, a preppy A-line creation and a smart pencil skirt, all of which exude simplicity and elegance. As current Chanel Creative Director, Karl Lagerfeld once said “Chanel is Chanel. I’ll update her style but otherwise maintain and respect it”. Chanel was also a visionary in her use of materials; inspired by her time in the Scottish Highlands, woollen tweed became a prominent feature within her designs, as did supple jersey, due to her belief that “A dress isn’t right if it is uncomfortable”. So true.
Most impressive was Chanel’s dramatic comeback into fashion as a 70-year-old in 1954. She resolutely opposed Dior’s ‘New Look’ with it’s cinched in waists and full skirts, which once again restricted women’s ease of movement. It also presented a stark juxtaposition against the style she favoured; boyish and simple, rather than ultra-feminine and overt. Chanel’s long-standing motto was always “Elegance in clothes means freedom to move freely.” The Chanel jacket is certainly the epitome of elegance – a world-renowned fashion statement that subtly declares the fashion credentials of the wearer. I loved the interactive element of the exhibition, in which viewers are allowed to try on the famed Chanel jacket and partake in a photo-shoot within a professional studio setting – so even if you can’t afford it you can still experience the pure hedonistic glamour of wearing Chanel’s most prized possession.
The last room contains a congregation of mannequins all dressed in different variations of the ‘Little Black Dress’ – there’s a floor-length gown, a short cropped version and a whimsical midi style, plus many more, yet all revel in the dark (supposedly flattering) quality of the ebony tone. This was also a revolutionary fashion statement as black was traditionally reserved for funerals, but Chanel put a fresh spin on it and transformed the black dress into a timeless classic that has become a staple in wardrobes around the globe. American Vogue described the LBD as ‘The frock that all the world will wear”. How right they were.