“Opulence Over Culture”

· Fashion exhibitions and the culture industry ·

In an article in 1947, one year after the Museum of Costume Art merged with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to form the Costume Institute, American Vogue wrote, ‘Money to support the Costume Institute has come mostly from the fashion industry.’ This came just three years after Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer published Dialectic of Enlightenment, which included a chapter about what they coined as ‘the culture industry.’ When Vogue mentioned the source of the Costume Institute’s funding, they had no way of knowing they had touched on an issue that would still be debated almost 70 years later: where fashion exhibitions get their funding and how that influences the exhibition.

Mademoiselle Prive
Mademoiselle Privé poster via Marie Claire Malaysia

In recent years, fashion exhibitions on a single designer have come under fire for their commerciality. This especially as more critical exhibitions have made strides in legitimizing the place of fashion in the museum. Designer-led, commercially-minded exhibitions only perpetuate Adorno’s theory of the culture industry, and a recent example can be seen in that of Chanel’s Mademoiselle Privé at the Saatchi Gallery. Designer-led monographic exhibitions, like that of Mademoiselle Privé, simultaneously use the cultural currency of the research-led exhibitions of recent years as they use the museum to elevate their cultural status. They do this while simultaneously lowering the fashion exhibition’s status as a product of the culture industry.

Adorno’s account of the culture industry was a scathing critique of mass culture. In 1944, Adorno argued that there had been a collapse of high and low culture in order to appeal to the widest audience. In his 1963 follow-up, Adorno wrote, ‘The culture industry intentionally integrates its consumers from above. To the detriment of both, it forces together the spheres of high and low art, separated for thousands of years.’ Today, he might argue that this is what fashion exhibitions are doing: bringing low culture (fashion) into the domain of high culture (museums).

While the Costume Institute only appeared in the 1940s, museums have been collecting clothing since the mid-nineteenth century. The Victoria and Albert Museum has collected clothing and textiles since its inception in 1852. The International Exhibition in Paris in 1900 was the ‘first popular fashion history exhibition.’ However, it wasn’t until the second half of the twentieth century that the fashion departments of museums began to pick up speed. The 1960s and 1970s saw fashion exhibitions across various museums, but these tended to be straightforward, chronological displays of historic dress without much analysis or interpretation. Then came Diana Vreeland.

YSL Diana Vreeland
Diana Vreeland’s Yves Saint Laurent exhibition at the Met via MetPublications

When Vreeland staged a show on Yves Saint Laurent in 1983 it was the first fashion exhibition on a single living designer. Ten years earlier, she staged a retrospective on Balenciaga, creating a tradition of monographic exhibitions. But it was the fact that Saint Laurent was still alive that caused controversy. It raised questions of influence and commerciality in the museum, questions Adorno himself could have posed. Since this show, museums and galleries all over the world have staged monographic retrospectives to mixed reviews, though generally exhibitions on living designers are seen as commercial branding exercises in a museum setting.

The monographic retrospective, when sponsored by the designer, sets back other fashion exhibitions that offer historical and cultural value. Contrary to Adorno’s theory of the culture industry, there are exhibitions of increasing academic rigour that provide an opportunity for thought on the role clothing and fashion play in history and our daily lives. The 2005 show Spectres: When Fashion Looks Back was praised for the ways it eschewed the typical glamourous aspects of fashion exhibitions in favor of a more thought-provoking concept. Director of the Museum at FIT Valerie Steele writes,

‘The exhibition included about eighty garments, both contemporary and historic, that were juxtaposed to show ‘how designers have influenced each other across history.’ As the reviewer for The Independent noted, it was ‘far removed from the conventional fashion exhibition, which trades on glamourous celebrity connections.’ Rather, it traced ‘the development of ideas, and its title refers to the ghostly shadows that history casts over the present.’’

As more exhibitions like Spectres pop up, monographic retrospectives look increasingly commercial. Yet, designers realize the cultural currency to be gained from an association with the world of museums and galleries. One such example is Chanel and the Saatchi Gallery exhibition, Mademoiselle Privé.

Spectres: When Fashion Looks Back displayed fashion to demonstrate how designers continue to influence each other. Via The V&A

In July of 2015, British Vogue announced the new exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery on Chanel. A storied couture house, Francesca Specter wrote,

‘The exhibition, installed over three floors of the gallery, will celebrate both the historical inspiration behind the designs of Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel and the innovative way that the brand has been developed under Karl Lagerfeld.’

Thus, the public anticipated an exhibition on the history and design of Chanel. However, that is not exactly what they got.

One of the ‘totems’ representing the ‘Chanel codes.’ What did it mean? With not much interpretation, I couldn’t tell you.
The closest thing to clothing on the first level of Mademoiselle Privé

Upon entering the gallery, visitors found a re-creation of Coco Chanel’s Rue Cambon apartment, followed by a cartoon representation of her first hat store. A puzzling room followed with more larger-than-life representations of the ‘Chanel codes:’ symbols, colors, flowers, even the pearl, were represented as ‘totems.’ Next, visitors passed through a room filled from ceiling to floor with different fabrics used by Chanel. The last room of the ground floor was an open, futuristic room with large vats containing the different ingredients in Chanel No. 5 that slowly opened one at a time to reveal an individual scent.

If you’re wondering where the actual Chanel clothes were, you’re not alone. It was not until visitors ascended to the next floor that they finally saw any garments. And even this was lacking. One room contained contemporary haute couture evening dresses designed by Karl Lagerfeld, displayed on light rods instead of mannequins. In the other, the 1932 Bijoux de Diamants jewelry collection was paired with designs from Chanel’s Autumn/Winter 2015 collection. Photographs of celebrities wearing both the jewelry and the designs adorned the walls. In an adjacent room, a short film directed by Lagerfeld showed the ‘ghost’ of Coco Chanel in conversation with Lagerfeld himself. A fragrant French garden featuring the famous interlocking C’s finished off the middle floor, while the top floor housed workshops for engagement with the brand. Accompanied by an app, the exhibition was meant to be an immersion into Chanel’s current identity, as well as its heritage.

Mademoiselle Prive 2
One of only two displays of Chanel clothing at Mademoislle Privé. Both displayed the current Chanel collections, rather than any historical designs. Via The Telegraph

For all its promise of ‘historical inspiration,’ however, the exhibition lacked substance. Mademoiselle Privé felt much more like a large scale advertisement for Chanel’s A/W collection than a critical look at the brand’s history and how that history informs Lagerfeld’s current design. The only clothes displayed were available to purchase at the time, and the exhibition opened just after the close of Paris Fashion Week. The Guardian’s Jess Cartner-Morley wrote in her review of the show, ‘This is an exhibition light on historical detail and big on brand experience.’ Much like the monographic retrospectives created by Vreeland at the Costume Institute, theatricality was prized over historicity and critical interpretation.

IMG_2263 (1)
A projection of a Louis Vuitton runway show at Series 3

Presented by Chanel, Mademoiselle Privé was an un-objective promotion of the brand’s identity in an art gallery setting. Adorno’s fear of the collapse of high and low culture came true as an art gallery became a large scale advertisement. While many recent fashion exhibitions are rich with research, Mademoiselle Privé and other brand-created exhibitions (like Series 3 by Louis Vuitton) bring the commercial into the art world, with the directors of these houses realizing the cultural elevation of doing so. In an article for the Financial Times about Mademoiselle Privé, Charlie Porter also discussed Series 3’s similar concept, writing,

‘The show will act as a reminder to consumers that the product is available, while hoping to elevate the work to that of art. ‘Associating with the art world reinforces the sense of creativity, craftsmanship and aesthetics of a luxury product,’ says Thomas Chauvet, analyst at Citigroup.’

The same could be said about Mademoiselle Privé and this mixing of the art world and the promotion of a brand is exactly what Adorno critiqued in his coining of the phrase ‘culture industry.’

The interlocking C’s of Chanel were everywhere in the exhibition

Ultimately, these brand-driven exhibitions rely on the popularity of the more research-led museum curated shows. Cartner-Morley wrote of Mademoiselle Privé,

‘The exhibition draws on the public appetite for fashion exhibitions fuelled by the phenomenal success of Savage Beauty, but wisely creates something completely different. It is abstract and conceptual where Savage Beauty was specific and artefact-based…’

As more fashion exhibitions have become respected for their rigor, exhibitions with little historical or critical offerings like Mademoiselle Privé use the regard for those to draw visitors while keeping the status of fashion exhibitions as a whole in the realm of the commercial. ‘There’s nothing neutral about Mademoiselle Privé,’ wrote Porter. The difference between a self-created exhibition and one fashioned (pun intended) by a museum curator lies in its objectivity. Brands like Chanel stage these exhibitions to associate with the high culture world of galleries and museums, but by doing so they are rather lowering the status of fashion exhibitions, doing exactly what Adorno feared of the culture industry.

MP bag
The canvas bag and poster handed out at the free exhibition. Incidentally, the only images I could find were on eBay or Gumtree

Mademoiselle Privé opened with a star-studded launch party with guests including Cara Delevingne, Lily Rose Depp, and Georgia May Jagger (all wearing Chanel, of course). Within days of the opening, London was covered with free canvas bags featuring a Lagerfeld drawing of Coco Chanel that was handed out at the exhibition. The bags worked two-fold as free advertising for the brand and a way for the public to draw a connection between Chanel and the art world. While fashion exhibitions attract much-needed funds for museums from the fashion industry and have done so since at least the Costume Institute’s inception in 1947, fashion curators have worked hard to elevate the status of fashion exhibitions, making them more than just a spectacle of glamour. Brand-led exhibitions like Mademoiselle Privé use this elevation to their benefit, but ultimately preserve their status as the height of Adorno’s culture industry.



Adorno, T.W. (1991) ‘Culture Industry Reconsidered’, in Bernstein, J.M. (ed.) The culture industry: Selected essays on mass culture. London: Routledge, .

Adorno, T.W. (2001) The culture industry: Selected essays on mass culture. Edited by J. M. Bernstein. 2nd edn. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Anderson, F. (2000) ‘Museums as Fashion Media’, in Bruzzi, S. and Gibson, P.C. (eds.) Fashion cultures: Theories, explorations and analysis. New York: Routledge, .

Armstrong, L. (2015) Chanel Privé: Please come in. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/fashion/brands/chanel-prive-please-come-in/ (Accessed: 10 April 2016).

Cartner-Morley, J. (2015) Mademoiselle Privé: Exhibition brings coco Chanel to life. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2015/oct/12/mademoiselle-prive-exhibition-coco-chanel-brand-karl-lagerfeld (Accessed: 9 April 2016).

Chanel. (2015) Mademoiselle Privé. London: Saatchi Gallery. 13 October-1 November 2015.

Fashion: The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum: In ten years it has grown from an idea to a generating influence on American fashion (1947) Vogue (March), pp. 210–211, 246, 51.

Horkheimer, M., Adorno, T.W. and Cumming, J. (1979) ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’, in Dialectic of enlightenment. London: Verso Editions,.

Milligan, L. and Vogue (2015) Inside: Chanel’s Mademoiselle Privé. Available at: http://www.vogue.co.uk/news/2015/10/12/inside-chanel-mademoiselle-prive-exhibition-london-preview (Accessed: 10 April 2016).

Porter, C. (2015) Designer open house. Available at: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/628e7b3e-66a8-11e5-a57f-21b88f7d973f.html#axzz45QqblJ8f (Accessed: 10 April 2016).

Saatchi Gallery (no date) MADEMOISELLE PRIVÉ. Available at: http://www.saatchigallery.com/current/mademoiselle_prive.php (Accessed: 10 March 2016).

Specter, F. and Vogue UK (2015) Chanel Exhibition comes to London. Available at: http://www.vogue.co.uk/news/2015/07/20/new-chanel-exhibition-london-saatchi-gallery (Accessed: 10 March 2016).

Steele, V. (2008) ‘Museum Quality: The Rise of the Fashion Exhibition’, Fashion Theory, 12(1), pp. 7–30.

Stevenson, N.J. (2008) ‘The fashion retrospective’, Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, 12(2), pp. 219–236. doi: 10.2752/175174108×300003.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (no date) Chanel. Available at: http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2005/chanel (Accessed: 10 March 2016).

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (no date) The Costume Institute. Available at: http://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/the-costume-institute (Accessed: 8 April 2016).

Victoria and Albert Museum (2013) A brief history of the museum – Victoria and Albert Museum. Available at: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/a-brief-history-of-the-museum/ (Accessed: 9 April 2016).

Victoria and Albert Museum (2013) ‘Spectres: When fashion turns back’, fashion installation – Victoria and Albert Museum. Available at: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/s/spectres/ (Accessed: 10 March 2016).

Wallwork, E. and Huffington Post UK (2015) Cara Delevingne and Rita Ora toughen up tulle and feathers at Chanel Party. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/10/13/chanel-mademoiselle-prive-saatchi-gallery-cara-delevingne-rita-ora_n_8285596.html (Accessed: 10 April 2016).

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