Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum has been on my radar as a must see exhibition since it opened. Having spent this term at uni studying a fashion module, this was the perfect exhibition to see on our uni trip to London.
The exhibition combines designs from Spanish courtier Cristóbal Balenciaga, subsequent designers of the fashion house and contemporary designs using the same innovative techniques. This meant there was a real diversity to the collection on show, allowing the viewer to gaze in awe at the vast range of designs on show and also consider closely elements which connected the different approaches.
The structure of the exhibition worked well towards the main themes of the exhibition, Balenciaga as the pioneer for modern fashion. With the lower floor dedicated to his own design concepts and garments and the upper floor showcasing his influence in today’s fashion. This gave the exhibition a clear sense of continuity, and I almost didn’t realise we had moved on from Balenciaga’s originals!
Balenciaga was well known for his innovative new designs and the stark contrast between his and the work of his contemporaries, such as Dior, who’s emphasis remained on the natural shapes of the female body. Balenciaga’s focus was not on the natural but rather on the constructed. Balenciaga played with his designs in a structural manner, crafting a sculpted garment using new forms creating sack-like dresses eliminating the waist entirely.
The exhibition also features a display of 20 original Balenciaga hats, which perfectly highlighted the innovative ideas pioneered by Balenciaga, taking fashion and how it works with the body to a whole new level.
At the time these designs were incredibly controversial, however they soon caught on with the elite of the time and Balenciaga was responsible for dressing a list of glamorous clientele. This forms a large part of the exhibition, allowing the visitor a chance to envisage the dresses on elegant clientele such as Elizabeth Park Firestone, Ava Gardner, and Mona Bismarck. I felt this was an intrinsic part of the exhibition, bringing such abstracted designs to life in the context of the wearers. The curators used collections of photographs to enable the viewer to see what events the garments were worn at and how they fitted to the clients’ body.
Aforementioned new structural forms played a crucial part of Balenciaga’s designs and it is often a mystery to the viewer how these shapes stayed in place. However in this exhibition, the magic behind the dresses was revealed with a collaboration with x-ray artist Nick Veasey. This allows the viewer to see the inner workings of a select few dresses, and piecing together how they were constructed. It was amazing to see they range of methods utilised from thick metal wiring, giving the skirt a set pleated shape or circular weights placed at significant points, weighting the garment to stay in place.
In order for the visitor to see the workings of one of the famous designs of Balenciaga, there are two mock-ups of a multifunctional piece from 1956 for people to try on. The garment can be worn as either an evening skirt or a cape, and looks stunning as either, really giving a sense of how he pushed boundaries as a designer. These mock-ups are are presented in an area intended to resemble a fifties dressing room. In addition many of the dresses were arranged in glass cases to resemble a designer’s atelier. This gives the visitor a chance not only to see the exhibition value of the garments, but also experience the sense of luxury from couture shopping.
Another great curatorial element was the use of films through the exhibition, including rare footage from Balenciaga’s salon shows, putting on the garment, constructing it on the body and seeing the dresses on the catwalk. This really helped to see the dresses and designs come to life and flowing with the movement of each step.
This really is a must-see exhibition for fashion and culture lovers alike. It was beautifully curated, really giving the viewer an idea of how Balenciaga shaped modern fashion through his carefully constructed designs.
Here are some useful Balenciaga curatorial videos. They go into depth with some of the designs and curatorship behind the exhibition, check them out if you want to know more!