As soon as I found out that the V&A were staging their ‘Shaping Fashion’ exhibition of the work of Cristóbal Balenciaga, I had mentally booked my rail ticket. My knowledge of Balenciaga’s designs was embarrassingly patchy but enough to know that this was a ‘must see’ exhibition. His is a name that appears in most discussions of 20th century fashion; images of his designs fall into the ‘once seen, never forgotten’ category. However I’d never quite reconciled his later sculptural designs with his more traditional tailoring from earlier years.
As it turned out, not only did this exhibition tie all of these together into a cohesive whole, it also made me wonder that this was the first opportunity there’s been (in my memory at least) to see his work gathered together.
In fact the “Shaping fashion’ exhibition does far, far more than simply collocate Balenciaga’s designs. In the way that only the best exhibitions can, it draws you into another world and despatches you afterwards with a sense of revelation.
I’m not going to even try to repackage here all the biographical and historical context – there are plenty of websites and books that will do that. What I will do is try and explain why this is an exhibition worth the rail fare (even if, like me, you end up paying twice for the return journey – thanks very much, Virgin East Coast…)
I thought it might be fun to take a look at the grandly titled Exhibition Road Quarter, which as of last month, provides access to the Museum across the porcelain-tiled Sackler Courtyard. The courtyard café and the ‘Oculus’ view to the gallery below seem small in comparison to this pristine white space. As a visitor you feel the need to scuttle across to the entrance beyond, rather than pause and appreciate your surroundings.
It’s a space which feels as if it hasn’t yet properly been relinquished by the architects – but it is an exciting space which boldly announces the contemporary aspects of the V&A. Inevitably it delivered me into the museum slightly confused about where I’d entered. Once I’d reoriented myself with the help of a nice chap in black, I happily trotted off to the Fashion Galleries.
Adjustment and immersion
There’s a point in every exhibition where you not only step into the gallery space – but you mentally divest yourself of all distractions. For those of you who know the V&A, the Balenciaga exhibition occupies the central ‘core’ of the main costume display space, extending over the ground and mezzanine floors. On the face of it, not a massive space – and indeed that process of initial adjustment is a little uncomfortable as the entrance area by the ticket desk is a little awkward, channelling you into a small lobby area with some timeline information.
Reading this was difficult amid a muddle of people figuring out which way to go and a whispered soundtrack of ‘oops’, ‘so sorry’ and in my case mortification as I stepped back from the first gown (an extraordinary three-tiered number in vibrant green silk) and literally trod on a tiny woman who had clearly been trying to escape my size eights as they reversed towards her. Cue then a parental phone call vibrating in my pocket and a near-flooring of another visitor with my bag as I turned; surely now I was about to be ejected with a discreet tap on the shoulder. Not before time I retreated into a corner and gathered myself with a couple of deep breaths.
Setting the scene
From my refuge I read that Balenciaga trained as a tailor; what set him apart from many designers was his mastery of the different stages of creating garments, from design through cutting, construction, fitting and finishing. Speak to any fashion student and you’ll learn to your surprise how little they are taught of the technicalities of garment-making. Extra-curricular practice, training and apprenticeships are essential to acquire those skills as explained recently by Stella McCartney in her recent Desert Island Discs appearance.
One of the most wonderful things about this exhibition turns out to be how well it demonstrates Balenciaga’s accomplishment across all these areas. Only the ground floor of the exhibition space is devoted to his creations; this itself in a section of a larger gallery. Yet the creative approaches used by the curators to reveal and explain Balenciaga’s skill and inventiveness are diverse and wonderfully effective. They draw on education, design, conservation science and traditional curatorial practice across the board.
Shape & construction
The ‘Envelope dress’ from 1967 is immediately recognisable from much of the exhibition’s publicity. It represents the climax of Balenciaga’s experimentation in garment shapes, stepping away from the body as a template for form, using it instead almost as a display stand for his sculptural creations. A note on the display emphasises this, explaining that the design of the dress made it difficult even for the wearer to go to the bathroom due to the extreme narrowness of the bottom of the dress. This process of abstraction had begun as early as 1957 when his ‘sack’ dress contravened the prevailing fashion rule of the hourglass silhouette at the time, anticipating the simpler shift dress designs of the 1960s.
In other areas of the exhibition, garments are positioned in such a way as to reveal cleverly-positioned darts. Mirrors are used to reflect different aspects of garment shapes and some mannequins are placed on turntables, enabling us to see them from all angles, as with the ‘Tulip’ dress made for Ava Gardener in 1965.
Based on close inspection and even X-ray analysis, as well as the copious notes and drawings on display, a copy of the dress was made and a video produced to explain how the different pattern pieces were shaped and assembled. This in-depth analysis is deployed on a later garment too, providing a fascinating insight not only into the garment, but also the extent of Balenciaga’s inventiveness and experimentation.
This silk taffeta evening dress from 1955 was similarly analysed
and this is the X-Ray that reveals the complex internal construction.
Later in the exhibition, there is a video showing how one of his couturiers went through the process of fitting an entire suit from toile to final fitting – the (very long-standing in every sense) customer commenting how she was ignored as an individual and was simply used as a template – even customer service coming second to the supremacy of the tailoring and fitting process itself.
Balenciaga’s desire to innovate extended beyond garments. When the Duchess of Cambridge was married, it was in a dress of silk gazar – not a fabric that I was familiar with at the time (I don’t ‘do’ weddings) however I recall being intrigued by it at the time. We learn in this exhibition that silk gazar was developed through a collaboration between Balenciaga and Swiss manufacturer Abraham in 1958. It’s a lightweight yet stiff-woven silk that Balenciaga used extensively to achieve the sculptural shapes that many of his garments were known for. He worked closely with other fabric manufacturers and was known as a demanding and knowledgeable client. The exhibition explains that for Balenciaga, the fabric was the true starting point in a design; he is quoted as declaring:
It is the fabric that decides.
I’m as much a stranger to elaborate embellishment as I am to elaborate weddings, however even I took pause watching how this extraordinary fabric was produced at the Lesage house in Paris for the most breathtaking evening coat.
We have come to appreciate that to succeed at any creative endeavour in the real world, then you probably need to be something of an entrepreneur. Balenciaga was no exception – but the sophisticated range of commercial activities his company engaged in was extensive. For example the exhibition shows us the order book for his garments at Harrods, which had a special department dedicated to making copies of his garments under strict licence and quality control, using identical fabrics.
Other forms of department store licensing existed too – and Balenciaga also had a sister label, Eisa, based in Spain, which he used to serve the Spanish market. Details such as these were a vital part of Balenciaga’s story – a reminder that he had a good head for business as well as for creativity and innovation.
It’s clear that the creators of the exhibition took the spirit of experimentation as seriously as Balenciaga himself. They recreated one dress in order to understand the role of ties underneath the skirt of the gown. By trying the gown on a model and using the ties in different ways, they discovered that when these ties were attached around the lower legs they caused the skirt to balloon out, catching the air and creating the distinctive shape in Balenciaga’s original design. Similarly, a garment that can be tied around the wearer as a skirt or a cape is reproduced for visitors to try. I didn’t put them on – but I had as much fun watching as two fashion students capered around in them – learning as they played.
Upstairs there are some 40 outfits from a range of designers all of whom have demonstrably drawn inspiration from some aspect of Balenciaga’s work. These include a stunning tailored suit by Elsa Schiaparelli through to the futurism of Courrèges. Included too are contemporary designers who play with shape and volume, such as Gareth Pugh; the genetic connection obvious once pointed out.
(An aside at this point – I was struck by the delectable scents also on offer here – one spectacularly-suited gentleman in particular having a marvellous personal aura of mossy cedarwood – it occurs to me that perhaps all exhibitions should have an olfactory dimension.)
At the end of the exhibition upstairs was a personal favourite of mine – but it was a revelation to see this Issey Miyake piece in the context of Balenciaga’s work. The sculptural shape, the sleeves, the obsession with fabric – I now appreciated a familiar garment in a completely new light.
… do go, if you can! If you have the means and the opportunity, then it’s well worth the effort. It’s true that £12 (plus a train fare) is a not-insignificant amount of money to spend on an exhibition which on the face of it, occupies only a space within a gallery. However when that space is used as intelligently and creatively as this, with so much to learn from and to be inspired by, then it’s difficult to begrudge. If you’re craving more, then the permanent fashion display is waiting for you as you exit. In my opinion the sophistication and thought underlying the Balenciaga exhibition is well worth the time and money. Tickets are timed and despite my initial gauche clumsiness, the staged arrival system works well in terms of managing the flow of visitors.
Inevitably my stomach dictated my departure after almost two hours of enthralment and so I headed off into South Kensington in search of food. On my way out through the main entrance hall however I was diverted by an exhibition on plywood. Another 20 minutes of pleasure ensued (the scent here: birchwood!) and I was entertained by the sight of two older women guffawing at a video of a 1950s housewife holding up a piece of ply (in full skirt and lipstick) while her manly husband set to with a hammer and nails. I suspect they would have been more than happy to teach him how to use a nailgun.
Their spirit – and my diversion in the face of hunger – tells you all you need to know about the enduring capacity of the V&A to capture hearts. I finally parcelled up the little piece of mine that I leave there for safekeeping – and stepped through the revolving doors.
The Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion exhibition is on at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 18th February 2018. Click here for all the details!
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