In Focus

Coco Chanel: Nazi collaborator AND brave resistance fighter in wartime Paris?

At a sensational new show at the V&A exhibition, Katie Rosseinsky investigates the 20th century’s greatest innovator, who changed how women dress

Friday 15 September 2023 06:32 BST
Coco Chanel through the years
Coco Chanel through the years (Granger/Shutterstock/Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Paris Musées/Musée Carnavalet/iStock/Getty)

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was a revolutionary, blazing through the stuffy world of early 20th-century fashion to free women from their corsets and change their wardrobes forever. But her fascinating, complicated story goes far beyond her influential style, encompassing alleged Nazism, thwarted secret operations and ties to some of the major figures in the Second World War. On one hand, it’s surprising that Chanel’s intrigue-laden war has never made it onto the big screen; on the other, it’s not so shocking – why would one of the world’s biggest fashion houses want to play up their founder’s links to the Nazis?

The V&A’s new exhibition, Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto, cleverly captures the contradictions of the woman who was born to a travelling street vendor and a laundrywoman in small-town France in 1883, but rose to become one of fashion’s great innovators. The show intrigues from the start. As you enter, you wind your way down a partially mirrored staircase; towards the end, you will see a staggering array of evening gowns, displayed along a similar flight of stairs, also panelled with mirrors. Both are a nod to the famous escalier at Chanel’s premises on Rue Cambon in Paris, which took the legendary designer up to her private apartment. The effect is disorientating: you’re confronted with various fragmented versions of yourself, and of the dresses on display, as if you’re in a very fashionable fairground fun house.

Your reflection appears at a slightly different angle in each panel. It’s an appropriate trick for a show exploring a woman who remains extremely hard to pin down more than 50 years after her death. There are many possible versions of Chanel’s life. Some of them she fabricated herself, attempting to rewrite her origin story; some play up various angles, some conveniently elide her prejudices and her links with hardline nationalists like her lover Paul Iribe, the founder of a far-right journal; some turn her into a jumble of witticisms and pithy sayings in a coffee table book.

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