The fashion of liberation and empowerment – ArtsHub


‘What Chanel did right from the outset was create a style that actually reflects and mimics the movement of form. This is what’s radical,’ Katie Somerville, Senior Curator of Fashion and Textiles at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), told ArtsHub at the media call for the upcoming Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto.

The exhibition comes at a time when all eyes are on the global fashion empire to see where Chanel’s legacy will take them, with the passing of fashion legend Karl Lagerefeld in 2019 and this year marking the 100th Anniversary of the iconic fragrance, Chanel No. 5.

Wrapping up its time at the City of Paris Fashion Museum Palais Galliera in autumn 2020, Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto landed in Melbourne for its International debut, delving into the revolutionary ethos of its founder through more than 200 garments, accessories and jewellery pieces.

With the key collection coming from Palaise Galliera and the Patrimoine de CHANEL, visitors get a chronological walkthrough of highlights throughout Chanel’s extensive career from 1916-1971, as well as thematic sections delving into bespoke jewellery pieces and the intricate composition of fragrances.


Visitors enter through a futuristic runway transporting you in a world of fashion. Photographs of Chanel herself show the evolution and embodiment of her style alongside carefully curated pieces against infinity mirrors and vintage videos highlight an era of revolutionised elegance.

‘Throughout the exhibition there is a lot of the beautiful photographic images you’ll see on the walls that are actually portraits of Gabrielle Chanel herself,’ Somerville said.

‘And I think it is important to remember how much she was an embodiment of the style that she was designing for other women as well.’

Katie Somerville

Timelessly wearable pieces as well as delicate extravaganzas pepper the echoing halls of the NGV, amplifying their dazzling presence. The garments present a lived experience and as a special treat, visitors can tap into the soothing and sophisticated voice of Tilda Swinton in a free audio guide.

Two new pieces gifted to the NGV by philanthropist and fashion collector Krystyna Campbell-Pretty AM complement the collection that transformed women’s wardrobes with timeless but functional pieces.

Collection of Chanel Suits. Exhibition view. Photo: Tom Ross.

Gabrielle Chanel was about meeting the needs of women, rather than appealing solely to the aesthetics of the male gaze, often involving attire that was more restrictive of movement at the time. Taking inspiration from master haute couture designer Paul Poiret, Chanel abolished the fashioned corset to create flowy silhouettes that took up presence rather than bound women’s bodies to an impossible hourglass.

She made comfort and freedom the new chic. Comfort has never felt more relevant as we struggle from beloved work-from-home loungewear back into office suits – though she was also on the frontline to put women in a suit which became a sign of empowerment and greater independence.

An interconnected maze of pieces from afternoon dresses to exquisite gowns open up to a sublime section dedicated to the suit sets of Chanel. Somerville pointed out Chanel’s attentiveness to details, and her dedication to ‘innovation and surprise’ in the materials that were not often considered high fashion.

Read: So you want my arts job: Fashion and Textiles Curator

The exhibition aims to shed light on Chanel’s accomplishment as a women of wit and ambition, rather than the often hyped caricature made up of mysteries and dramatic affairs.

After walks of wonder and admiration, the exhibition concludes with an epic showcase of Chanel’s final collection in 1971 at the age of 87. From frocks of lush gold to the eternal simplicity of the little black dress, you see a fashion icon living her last moments on the stage, and the extraordinary legacy that continues to this day.

A talented entrepreneur at heart and a women of dedication, even as the brand solidified its fame, Chanel is a trailblazer in tapping into a time of accelerated social change that brought liberation and empowerment to fashion.

Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto is on view at the NGV until 25 April 2022.