Skip to content

Behind the Scenes in Conservation: A “Conversation” with Coco Chanel

by Obie Linn, Associate Conservator of Textiles


CAMConservation , vintage chanel , vintage , textile conservation

What is one of the best things about being a textile conservator? To me, it’s that I sometimes have the chance to “converse” with my fashion design heroes through their work. This red velvet dress is an original Chanel, dated 1924–1925, when the great designer herself (Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, 1883–1971) was at the helm of her booming fashion house on the rue Cambon, Paris. She was already too big a deal by then to be cutting and sewing her designs, but Coco probably designed this dress, supervised, and consulted with her team of patternmakers, cutters, and seamstresses during its construction and would certainly have had final approval of the finished product. As the textile conservator overseeing its care now—nearly 100 years after it passed through Chanel’s workshops—I am the newest member of that team, headed up by Coco herself.

Coco’s designer voice speaks loud and clear through her dress. She may not be here to lean over my shoulder and say, “Non, ma chère, the outside corner should fall at a soft curve,” but she has left that message for me, here, nonetheless. The lining of the skirt has badly deteriorated so I’m creating a pattern of it to make an overlay of new material that will protect the original and do its work of holding the hem at the correct depth and shape. (Coco left clear instructions in the cut and stitch lines of how it ought to behave, before the lining failed.) I created new, dyed-to-match silk crêpeline (a super fine fabric often used in textile conservation) so my overlay will be almost invisible at a short distance, but if you look closely, you can see the original lining underneath the thin crepeline gauze.

The museum’s red velvet dress will soon jet-off to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum where it will be shown in the special exhibition Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto, from September 16, 2023 to February 25, 2024.