MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA: There is a beautiful silver, silk evening dress – one with a low back and embroidered with paillettes – in part four of the Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto exhibition, now showing at the National Gallery Of Victoria. Made in 1926, this design was worn by young American actor Ina Claire, an influential client of Chanel’s, who also wore a version of this dress inside the May 1926 edition of US Vogue (it was imported by Fifth Avenue store Henri Bendel in New York).
The glittering beadwork was a characteristic of Chanel’s evening wear in the 20s and 30s, a period typified by exquisite gowns, with many showing off the embellishment techniques associated with haute couture (read: bead work and feathering).
“By the end of the 20s, Gabrielle Chanel had an enormous workforce,” says Danielle Whitfield, a fashion and textiles curator at the NGV. “That included the seamstresses inside her atelier, but it also included the women who would do the embroidery – and within that, the people who did the beadwork, the sequinning, and the thread work.”
“As you walk through the exhibition, you get to see all those technical aspects which make up couture. Even when you look at the panelling and the construction of a garment, it’s not simple,” she continues. “It’s a simplified line and that’s because Chanel had this quest for simplified elegance, but the actual construction of the garments feature all of these wonderful techniques.”
As you’re admiring the pieces, take in the inlay panelling, particularly in the elegant, romantic, lace gowns. “You have these great panels which allow for a certain kind of transparency which is about revealing the body. It’s incredibly complex,” says Whitfield. “They use techniques like incorporating crinoline to the underside of fabric so you get these beautiful soft folds and volume that kind of circle the body, rather than hanging limply down from the hip line.”
There’s feathered evening capes, beaded dance dresses, and garments with degrade fringing. (Editor’s note: Stop to marvel at the ruby, silk-velvet evening cape, lined and subtly trimmed with lustrous marabou feathers, and made between 1924 and 1926. Chanel signalled her love of colour by presenting a red garment in each of her collections from the 20s onwards, usually the fifth work to appear).
“It’s only when you’re looking closely that you can understand the level of detail that goes into the applique flowers and feathers,” says Whitfield.
Indeed, with 250+ pieces, you must experience this exhibition twice, to truly see it once.
“We’ve got a suite of very beautiful, pale apricot pink 30s dresses which are exclusive to Melbourne,” notes Whitfield. “We worked with private collectors in New York to bring some key works from the first part of Chanel’s career: We’ve got this fantastic afternoon dress which is comprised of piecework panels of printed green and printed pink, kind of chiffon in this great leaf design. This is a really great example of a piece that didn’t appear in Paris.”
Explore how such garments were sourced and stored before arriving in Australia in Part Three.
Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto is the first retrospective exhibition devoted to the work of Gabrielle Chanel in Australia after it premiered at the Palais Galliera, Fashion Museum of the City of Paris in 2020. Now showing at the National Gallery of Victoria until April 25, 2022. For tickets, see here.
Videographer: Harry Glassborow
Fashion Director: Kim Payne
Art Director: Kimberlee Kessler
Editorial Director: Jessica Bailey
Hair and Makeup Artist: Julie Provis / Hart and Co
Model: Victoria Lee / Priscillas
With thanks to CHANEL
FASHION CREDITS: Lee wears CHANEL Resort 2022. BEAUTY CREDITS: CHANEL Vitalumière 07 Ivoire SHOP NOW CHANEL Le Crayon Lévres 174 Rouge Tendre SHOP NOW; CHANEL rouge allure 98 coromandel SHOP NOW CHANEL Ombre Première Laque, 39 Lamé Ivoire SHOP NOW CHANEL Dimensions De Chanel, 10 Noir SHOP NOW