The recent release of the new Coco Avant Chanel film inspired me to revisit the Museum’s very own collection of Chanel fashion to see just how much we hold which dates before the designer’s death in 1971.
From humble beginnings, Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel started her career in fashion by designing and selling hats to French aristocrats, opening her own millinery shop in 1910 and combined millinery and fashion house in Paris in 1913. Her initial clothing designs were fashioned from low cost materials, such as jersey (used in men’s underwear!), including her trademark tailored suits, which had a prepossessing boyish look about them. In the years that followed, Coco had also introduced her signature No.5 perfume (1922), woollen cardigan jacket (1925) and ‘little black dress’ (1926) – classic and timeless additions to any woman’s wardrobe.
The earliest item in the Museum’s collection therefore comes at least a decade after this – a c.1938 full-length evening dress with cape. The dress echoes the atmosphere of Paris in the 1930s and was probably made not long before Coco closed the doors of her salon when France declared war on Germany in 1939. Jumping a further few decades, the Museum also houses two tweed suits (comprising a long sleeved jacket and knee length skirt) made from wool, dating to c.1965.
Unfortunately, the film did not cover much of Coco’s later fashions – in fact, it never even made it to WWII – but the whirlwind catwalk display at the end at least foreshadows many of the styles later adopted by Karl Lagerfeld when he took over as chief designer of the fashion house in 1983. The Museum’s collection from this point in time includes one of Lagerfeld’s very first creations for Chanel, or should I say “dinky-dye creations“! It is a black and white houndstooth jacket and skirt lined in Jenny Kee’s ‘Black Opal’ print with a matching print shirt. Jenny Kee met Karl Lagerfeld through some friends in the early 1980s and he was suitably impressed by what she was wearing. Not long after, he requested to use the print, which Kee allowed at no cost.
Another stunning Lagerfeld design in the Museum’s collection is the ensemble showcased as part of the 1991 Spring-Summer prêt-à-porter collection, which comprises a fluorescent pink suit (jacket and skirt) with matching hat, shoes, handbag and earrings, all with their own individual protective packaging boxes and bags. This suit, if only accompanied by an extra bottle of Bollinger, just yells “Patsy” from Absolutely Fabulous each time I look at it! Or, perhaps, if you are a Simpsons fan, you will recall the episode in which Marge buys the suit at a marked down price and finds it nets her and the family an invitation to the swish Springfield Country Club!
I often wonder what Coco would make of the whole Chanel Empire today? Would she approve of Karl Lagerfeld’s designs and the interlocking ‘CC’ logo? What would she think of today’s fashion culture and stick-thin models parading her clothes? How would she do things differently?