Making the case for fashion as a recognised and skilled art form has never been easy, and until recently exhibitions in museums and galleries haven’t helped, offering a series of pretty outfits on mannequins with very little focus on the intricacy of construction and the inventiveness of design studios. Showing the finished product isn’t enough on its own, and many a show has fallen foul of the clothes-horse approach that just show a series of lovely frocks with no real explanation of why they’re important and influential, reinforcing the idea that fashion is all about surface frippery. The Alexander McQueen show changed all that with its combination of design, story-telling and careful curation, and it’s clear from the V&A’s new exhibition focusing on another fashion icon that they’ve learnt some important lessons.
The V&A’s impressive Balenciaga exhibition is a slightly different beast from the touring Alexander McQueen show from 2015, and where there is less show-stopping glamour in the room as well as in the arrangement of the garments, the Balenciaga show has deeper academic and historical depth of content that should please the fashion-lovers as well as the expert seamstresses or designers. Emerging on the other side, the visitor can genuinely say they’ve seen beautiful outfits but, crucially, that they have also learnt about the detailed construction and engineering process that sits behind the creation of every garment, helping you to understand why designer clothing is so special.
Fed through the exhibition is Balenciaga’s experience as a tailor – an important contributory factor in his success. What the V&A does so cleverly is clearly demonstrate this at every point in their argument about his influence on contemporary and modern designers. It is a tell and show exhibition in which the detailed signs explain the skill in each themed section – be it a type of cut or particular means of construction – and then shows you two types of evidence.
First, the finished garment often with x-ray images demonstrating the hidden engineering or weighting within to main shape, but also – and this is the clever bit – a recreation of that technique made by the V&A now to demonstrate its current applicability. In many cases, this is accompanied by a video of the creation process so you can see how these styles were made. It’s such a smart idea, giving the visitor a proper insight into the importance of the techniques Balenciaga pioneered, which also showcases the talent of the fashion gallery staff at the V&A who are undoubtedly experts in their field.
Famously aloof, the V&A attempt to break open Balenciaga’s process with a series of early cases looking at design beginning with fabrics which, unlike most approaches in female fashion, came before the sketch as Balenciaga, with his tailor training, found that the choice of material would determine how it could be cut and shaped. These decisions early on would then affect every subsequent aspect of the creative process, moving, as the exhibition then does, from cutting to sewing and construction.
It is here in the ‘Workrooms’ section that we learn about the creation of the famous 1965 tulip dress that sought to flatter the figure while actively offering a new shape – contrary to the popular fitted jacket and full skirts of Dior’s New Look. But while this high-neck peach silk evening gown looks loose and comfortable, constructed from an entire sheet of fabric at the front, and with a fitted bow at the back, Nick Veasey’s accompanying X-ray shows an inbuilt corset structure around the torso which is entirely invisible from any angle.
And these revelatory images appear again and again throughout this exhibition, unveiling the hidden expertise within the dresses in which Balenciaga determined how the finished item should fit and look even when it appeared on a live woman. Equally fascinating is the 1954 reddy-pink gown with ties under the full skirt that fit around the knees to keep the lower half of the dress in place as you walk. It’s one of the more stunning pieces in this collection both for its striking colour and, using the X-rays, you see a combination of corsetry, hoops and padding that created what feels like a modern gown but with nods to a more glamorous age of bustles and Embassy Balls.
This taps into one of the V&A’s core arguments, that Balenciaga’s approach has left a lasting fashion legacy, and in these carefully chosen pieces, you can see how his designs combined a sense of past, present and future that give them a timeless appeal. Even now a semi-voluminous green dress near the start of the exhibition that uses ballooning to create three layered sections down the body, with a puff sleeved cape in the same hue, looks slightly futuristic, and could be something one of the more Avant Garde starlets might wear on the red carpet. But at the same time, it all feels like the 1960s and, further back, references the empire-line fashions of Regency England.
Balenciaga’s interest in architecture also becomes increasingly clear, whether it manifests in the ruched sleeve of a tan coat with one single piece of ribbon holding the sculpted layers of material in place so they drape the arm, or in the lasting design of the babydoll dress introduced in 1958 that subverted the idea of designing specifically for the female-shape. By adding volume all over the body and not just in the full skirts of contemporaries, Balenciaga actively moved away from ideas of traditional feminine allure to demonstrate different ways to look good, which had little to do with uncomfortable figure-hugging styles, giving the body more freedom and, importantly, better comfort.
But Balenciaga also offered glamour, so the next step was to add embellishments to the clothes themselves and there are several examples of dresses cut in quite a simple style with jewels, feathers or embroidered patterns to make them special. Highlights include a cream hour-glass shaped shift dress sewn with a classic floral pattern, mixing garden flowers connected by green vines. Nearby is a silver and pink evening coat made of dyed feathers, while behind it is a red coat combining encrusted 3-D ‘jewels’ and embroidery. It’s clear Balenciaga was a designer who knew his customers and created items for all the occasions she might attend.
One of the other things you may notice here, unlike most designer exhibitions, is that Balenciaga’s outfits look as though they could fit a modern-sized woman, with a realistic sense of the female figure rather than the impossibly-tiny items you usually see in these shows. Many of these designs are deceptively simple and the minimalistic ethic is one that has been much imitated.
The second section of the exhibition looks at the showroom and the Balenciaga salons in which customers were given an opportunity to see the clothes on live models employed by the fashion house to sell direct to customs – quite different to a runway fashion show. There are videos as well as examples of the outfits showing the sale process in which customers sat with pads noting the number of the item they wished to order.
In the middle cases that form the inner circle of the show, there are examples of clothes that made it into everyday wear, all with simple and practical approaches to design that challenge the traditional silhouette. Whether it’s the long-sleeved loose-fitting shift dresses that now look so elegant, but at the time were practically scandalous, to the classic floral day dress and tailored suit, practicality, comfort and style typify Balenciaga’s design that simultaneously reflect the changing role of women in the post-war era.
Once the garment is sold, and it becomes the property of the customer, it might be interesting to note that alterations were made that actively subverted the designer’s original intentions. Among the star pieces here are contributions from Ava Gardner’s collection, herself a lover of the Spanish style that infuses Balenciaga’s work, including a pink dress discovered to have a separate corset inside and a 1964 lace evening coat that she added feathers to after she bought it.
The final part of the exhibition upstairs in the lovely mezzanine gallery considers the Balenciaga legacy in other designers’ work, so expect lots of red carpet-esque dresses and crazy pieces that espouse the values or style principles of Balenciaga. Although this is in some ways the core of the argument about how Balenciaga ‘shaped fashion’, for me, this was the least interesting part of the show, moving away from the main work and showcasing a series of less interesting and tenuously connected items -several of which have done the rounds at numerous fashion exhibitions, including the red and white puff dress that looks like a ball of feathers.
Nonetheless, this exhibition helps the V&A to establish its position as the leading curator of fashion history, that doesn’t just rely on the pretty clothes but takes a more rounded approach to presenting material. With a strong central argument and the careful presentation of evidence including video and recreated gowns, the V&A easily prove the case that Balenciaga shaped fashion, and that they are shaping the fashion exhibition.
Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion is at the V&A until 18 February and tickets are £12 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1