Cover image of the review
Installation view of CHANEL N°5 bottles dating from 1947-1960, Photo: Sean Fennessy/National Gallery of Victoria

Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto

16 Apr 2022
National Gallery of Victoria | NGV International 4 Dec - 25 Apr 2022

The blockbuster fashion exhibition is an event that people, primarily women, dress up to see. Marketed to the general public through popular fashion media in paid partnership with the luxury house of Chanel, Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto aims to draw in a fashion-conscious crowd and draw out the fashion consciousness of others. To point out that this exhibit is a branding exercise is an easy observation to make. Visiting the show I am struck by the degree to which the life and work of Gabrielle Chanel (1883–1971), who famously claimed “A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future”, still resonates with so many people. My mother, who accompanied me to the exhibition, is one such person. She wore a beige and black ensemble topped off with a faux Chanel 2.55 handbag. Mum was excited to see the original bag in the show because she had recently learnt it was designed in 1955—the year she was born. It seems fateful that she should own its copy, as if she has discovered a missing part of herself. I find her at the NGV café with my aunty, who is inspecting the burgundy interior of her purse, marvelling at how it is both convincing as a designer artefact and practical with so many compartments. The only marker of its inauthenticity is the lack of branding on its zips and leather interior, which only those permitted to case through its private contents would have the privilege of seeing. The incorporation of different-sized organisational pockets within a handbag seems a ubiquitous feature now, but it was an innovation at the time of this bag’s release, as was the gilt chain shoulder strap. “Tired of holding my bags in my hand and losing them, I added a strap and wore it over my shoulder”, Chanel remarked. One pocket is deigned to hold lipstick, another love letters. To the naked eye, this bag could be one worth $14,000. It is hard not to first consider the price tag of Chanel products before contemplating the meaning of their form when encountered on the bodies of others. The exposure of its counterfeit nature could be met with feelings of shame or amusement, depending on where your sense of pleasure lies.

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