Thursday, 31 October 2013

Chanel's Political Statement

I was just scrolling through my UnPublished archive and realised I never posted this piece on my personal blog! This is my review of Chanel's 'The Little Black Jacket' exhibition that I went to see at the Saatchi Gallery this time last year. I decided to write a piece on the political importance of the exhibition for my friend's online literary journal UnPublished ( Though this particular piece is now in fact a whole year old, the exhibition is still touring, currently in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The long grey room that has previously hosted so many flamboyant exhibitions has been transformed into a space that exudes the nonchalant luxe that Chanel embodies. From 12th October until 4th November, the Saatchi Gallery played host to Chanel's 'The Little Black Jacket' exhibition. The gallery has been stripped of excess and embellishment, and instead 113 black and white photographs of Karl Lagerfeld and Carine Roitfeld's most inspiring muses hang on the walls. In each photo, the subject dons the little black jacket, a revolutionary piece designed by Mademoiselle Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel, whose notions of masculinity within female clothing shaped Chanel into the revolutionary brand that it has been for a century.

The little black jacket was originally a male piece, however as Lagerfeld states in the 'Making Of' interview, it has become "a typically feminine piece. It has crossed that boundary…It has become the symbol of a certain feminine elegance." The exhibition features both men and women wearing the jacket, establishing the androgyny of the piece as well as notions of gender equality that it represents. The muses span three rooms, lining the walls in a manner that is military, yet undeniably compelling. However, in typical Chanel fashion, the primary focus is not on the way that things appear. This exhibition is not only about the little black jacket itself, but about the unity it has provided for people of every age, sexuality, culture and religion that one can recall.

The ages of the models span seven decades, including arguably the most influential woman in fashion, sixty three year old Anna Wintour, editor of American Vogue, and even the unborn child of French actress, Charlotte Gainsbourg, whose pregnancy has now been beautifully immortalised. Each photograph mirrors its subject; the inaccessibility and enigma of Wintour, as well as the maternal excitement of Gainsbourg. Could it be that Lagerfeld and Roitfeld are trying to prove the agelessness of fashion not only through the jacket itself, but through its consumers?

Age is not all that we are invited to debate; the two also raise questions about cultural equality, providing the resounding view that there is beauty to be found on every inch of this world. Note the portrayal of Indian-American designer and actor, Waris Ahluwalia for instance, who is pictured in the classic little black jacket and a turban. Or perhaps the photograph of Kiko Mizuhara, a Japanese model, which modernises traditional expectations of Orientalism in the fashion industry, as she sports a kimono under her little black jacket. The most controversial and thus possibly the most interesting photo in the exhibition is of Danish model Freja Beha Erichsen wearing a nun's headdress, fishnet tights, black lingerie and the little black jacket. The depiction of a religion so vocally opposed to premarital sex contrasted with the iconography of prostitution makes for a very provocative piece, and could be Lagerfeld and Roitfeld's way of expressing their desire for religion and sex to coexist without condemnation of one another.

The little black jacket represents the unity and equality of Chanel as a brand, and of fashion as a movement. Fashion affects everyone, from those who work in the industry, to those who consider it as the last of their priorities. By choosing to portray minority groups of every area in the same piece of clothing, the exhibition neither glorifies nor diminishes any one individual or collective. Virginie Viard's words "It is outside fashion" ring true in this instance, thus making the little black jacket as much an iconic fashion piece as it is a political statement.

Lauren Pike

For those interested in the 'Making Of' interview I mentioned, here is the link

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Lauren x