One of the most revered designers of the twentieth century, Coco Chanel (1883–1971) made an enduring impact on the fashion world. It is the authority and mastery of her work, the resonance of her image of the modern woman as articulated in her designs, and the autobiographical infusion of influences in her collections that confirm her iconic stature. In this exhibition, the spirit of the House of Chanel echoes vibrantly with an unprecedented presentation of more than fifty designs and accessories from the Museum's Costume Institute collection, Chanel Archives, and other international institutions such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The exhibition examines the history of the House of Chanel thematically, revealing ideas and elements of biography as they were expressed in Chanel's work. Period examples are juxtaposed with the work of Karl Lagerfeld, who joined the House of Chanel in 1983, revitalizing its spirit and identity. Through Lagerfeld's interpretations and refinements, the historic importance of Chanel is both defined and asserted for the modern woman.
The exhibition begins with a presentation of Chanel's groundbreaking designs from the 1920s, including a jersey dress and cardigan coat, an early example of the sportswear principle of separates dressing. Her audacious use of jersey, at the time more commonly applied to men's undergarments and swimwear, allowed for greater ease and comfort, the hallmarks of the Chanel style. By employing the virtuoso hand-sewn details of the couture, Chanel transformed this humble material into a luxurious fashion statement. Jersey was just one element borrowed from menswear—others included the use of the color black with contrasting white cuffs and collar, a reference to dandy fashions. In a 1920s suit that is featured in the exhibition, the white lining of the black jacket extends to the revers, or lapel facings, a typical Chanel detail that was taken from men's military uniforms.