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Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion – V&A

Balenciaga -Shaping Fashion, V&A

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.

Balenciaga Tulip Dress, V&AFirst, 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.

Balenciaga Green Dress, V&AThis 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.

Balenciaga Embroidered Dress, V&AOne 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

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The Crime Museum Uncovered – Museum of London

Museum of London / Alastair Grant

In fiction, we all love a good villain and sometimes even harbour a secret hope that they might triumph over the dull purity of the hero. From Shakespeare’s Iago to Alan Rickman’s dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham via the many crime lords that seem to pepper soaps these days, for some reason the very dastardliness of the villain makes them the most interesting characters. But in real life, while we certainly wouldn’t dream of endorsing their endeavours, the psychology of villains still fascinates us and the audacity of some crimes capture the public imagination for decades.

Earlier this year the Wellcome Collection set a high bar for its exhibition on Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime, examining the development of methodology and techniques by the police to solve mysteries. Building on this, the Museum of London has gained unprecedented access to the Metropolitan Police archive – or Black Museum – of criminal implements and artefacts used primarily to train would-be detectives, and never before seen by the public. It’s a fascinating exhibition that combines a variety of evidence used in the prosecution of notorious and less well-known crimes from robbery to fraud, terrorism to murder.

Established in the 1870s the Black Museum originally took possession of anything people had on them when arrested but soon developed an astounding collection ranging from actual murder weapons to court illustrations and death masks, so this exhibition opens with two rooms that recreate the museum itself, based on original illustrations, with lots of little display cases filled with personal effects as well as evidence used to secure a conviction. Although there are notes with each item, you’ll need to pick up the accompanying ‘newspaper’ guide that tells you the stories behind them – although given the crowds even on a Monday lunchtime it’s hard to take in all the information on display and read the backstories.

Some of the most chilling items in this section include one of the two pistols used by Edward Oxford when he attempted to assassinate Queen Victoria in 1840, a Police poster reproducing the ‘Dear Boss’ letter from Jack the Ripper, and a number of weapons donated by a police surgeon including a penknife used in 1898 by a man to commit suicide and a larger knife used to kill a woman in Shadwell in 1902. It’s probably important to say at this point that one of the primary aims of this exhibition is to ask questions about the propriety of displaying such items and what we can learn from them. Nothing is shown in a sensationalist way and as you’re looking at these things it’s impossible to feel anything but unnerved by the proximity to something that actually took a life.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the second room which along one wall displays 6 execution ropes saved from as long ago as 1847, used to end the lives of convicted murderers. It’s rare for an exhibition to create such a moral quandary but, having so recently seen the excellent Hangmen at the Royal Court, it is impossible not to feel slightly sickened by them even after you’ve read the story of the crimes behind them. Whatever your view on capital punishment it’s a challenge to stand in front of the evidence of it and not be repulsed.

The final room in the exhibition is huge and contrasts display cases about the development of police procedure with a wall of case studies of particular crimes from the nineteenth-century up until 1975. The decision to stop 40 years ago is a sensible one in order to protect the families of both victims and criminals still affected by the incidents depicted. For many, the stories of villains, as I suggested above, will be irresistible and this approach is really effective in giving a chronological history of crime and simultaneously showing that sadly human behaviour never changes. Each case has a description of the story on one side, sometimes with reproduced photographs from newspapers or later with short video reels. Next to that is the glass case containing the items from the museum and this section is no less testing that the earlier ones; it’s one thing to read about a man jealously strangling his ex-girlfriend because she’s become engagement to someone else, but quite another to then look at the scarf he used to do it.

Famous cases are plentiful including the Krays unused poison briefcase and the gun used to shoot Jack McVitie (recently depicted in Legend), as well as evidence discovered at Rillington Place from the Christie murders. Again you may have been fascinated by these people but it’s quite different to stand in front of the implements they used. This is by no means a bad thing, however, because giving this a proper human dimension takes away from the mythology that springs up around violent crime and reminds you that at the heart of it people died horribly and the perpetrators were deeply disturbed individuals.

It’s not all murder however and there are plenty of stories about other misdemeanours like theft including the fingerprints and crockery the gang left behind after The Great Train Robbery and the attempted diamond heist at the Millennium Dome. One of the interesting aspects of this exhibition is the way the detection of crime and advancement of forensic science runs through the stories, so it’s far more than a showcase for the crime itself, and each story tells us how it was solved – letting the viewer see the practical application the Crime Museum has for trainee detectives.

This new exhibition at the Museum of London is an excellent companion piece to the earlier Wellcome Collection show, and if you enjoyed that then this is definitely for you. While the stories of crime will continue to fascinate society, perhaps more than anything the conscious effort to address the moral dubiety of displaying these objects sets this apart, asking you to question everything you see and why you need to see it. We may all love a villain but The Crime Museum Uncovered reminds us that in real crime there’s always a victim and their story is usually full of suffering.

The Crime Museum: Uncovered is at the Museum of London until 10 April. Tickets are £12.50 (without donation) and concessions are available. Booking in advance is recommended as it is busy. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1. 


Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon – National Portrait Gallery

Audrey Hepburn has long been seen as the epitome of style and audiences are guaranteed to flock to film showings and exhibitions. Some old Hollywood stars never seem to lose their glamour but it’s a glamour that’s frozen in time, in those golden years from about 1940-1965. Rarely do you see anything before or particularly after that time as said starlet wrinkles and fades. Arguably this is true of Hepburn’s image, forever trapped in her roles as Holly Golightly or Eliza Doolittle, so this new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery while focusing on these years is also a rare chance to see a smattering of pictures from her later life.

This exhibition tells the story of the one time ballet dancer and show girl who became an icon, yet while these pictures are beautiful, all Hepburn gives the viewer is her image and there is little hint of the personality beneath or the real life she was living off-screen. It seems unusual now where celebrity exposures are a daily occurrence (although happily some still maintain a level of discretion over their personal lives), but for most their knowledge of Hepburn is almost entirely related to her films which is presumably what makes her image so powerful – it is untarnished by over familiarity with her off-screen life.

The exhibition opens with a number of early images of Hepburn’s dance training as well as showcasing her ballet shoes. This is accompanied by promotional flyers and pictures from her days in the chorus of various music hall type performances where her looks were first spotted. Soon, Hepburn had become a model and photographed by those including Cecil Beaton and thus, this exhibition shows the beginning of her long association with clothing and style. This chronological approach soon moves on to her early film roles with a number of stills and off-duty but clearly posed shots between scenes, throughout which Hepburn of course looks as poised and stylish as you would expect.

But it’s at this point, coming into that series of iconic films from Roman Holiday to Charade, that it began to depart from its own determination to examine Hepburn’s influence. Yes we’d seen picture after picture proving she wore a lot of very nice clothes but somehow everything began to look the same, lacking any particular insight into her lifestyle and personality. Hepburn began her career when the studio system was at its height, controlling not just the films each star made but also their lives on and off screen. Is it inconceivable then that Hepburn’s style was actually forced on her by the studio bosses? This lifelong association with Givenchy which the exhibition repeatedly romanticises could also be boiled down into a mutually lucrative deal between the movie makers and a famous fashion designer offered an unheard of level of publicity via the silver screen. How better to sell your clothes then by getting a beautiful starlet to wear them.

Now I’m not for a moment saying that this is how it happened, maybe Hepburn was Givenchy’s champion taking his work from film to film, but nowhere in this exhibition is that proven. Famous actors today endorse all kinds of products and some have been associated with big fashion houses for a year or two. Using the images alone how can someone looking back in the future insist that Nicole Kidman made Chanel a modern powerhouse or that Eddie Redmayne determined Burberry’s 21st-century look? We don’t see Hepburn off duty at any point and even the pictures that seem as though they’ve caught her unawares are still quite stagey, so from this exhibition we can’t know for sure whether it was Hepburn, Givenchy or the fat cats at the studios who really created her style.

This debate leads on to a discussion about the creation of iconic images. There is no doubt that Hepburn was one of the faces of the Twentieth Century but at some point, through no fault of her own, her image became devalued and commercialised. I lost count of how many student rooms had a poster of that Breakfast at Tiffany’s image of her in a restaurant (shown in this exhibition), and not to mention those nasty box print images of her silhouette flogged by the people at Argos and such like. So hasn’t looking at these overfamiliar pictures of Breakfast at Tiffanys now lost some of their style and allure? These are questions you’d expect the Portrait Gallery to address in the exhibition, i.e. to what extent has this over-emphasis on Hepburn’s fashion credentials led to a greater commercialisation of her image that has ultimately cheapened it?

For Hepburn too, what were the consequences of selling her ‘face’ in this way? The pictures here are accompanied by the barest knowledge of her personal life with fleeting references to her three major relationships (two of which were marriages) and her two sons who colluded in this exhibition. So what were the tensions between the public and private versions of Hepburn, what did fame, celebrity and icon-status mean to her. Was it a burden or a delight, and what effect did it have on her family?  One thing this exhibition gives is a number of shots of Hepburn in her later years both on film and magazine covers, as well as her charity work in Africa. Given that our view of her is eternally stuck in the 1960s, it was actually fascinating to see her age, admittedly gracefully, but still an interesting contrast to the elfin 30-year old we’re bombarded with.

This exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is by no means a bad thing, despite what it may look like above. The images are interesting as objects of beauty certainly reinforcing society’s obsession with the image of Audrey Hepburn, so if you’re a fan or just want to wallow in some reverence of the golden age of Hollywood film then you’ll certainly enjoy this. It’s reasonable value at £9 although I was only in there for about 40 minutes and I tarried while others stalked though, but then the Portrait Gallery has lots of other free things you can see while you’re there.

Lots of lovely photography, but I couldn’t help feeling the whole thing was rather soulless and didn’t even begin to tackle some of the big questions about the commercialisation of image. Hepburn is undoubtedly an icon and a worthy subject for exploration, yet somehow this exhibition is a little too reverential and takes too much at face value. It perpetuates the myths rather than questioning them to offer up new insight into a woman whose image adorns a thousand student walls.

Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon is at the National Portrait Gallery until 18 October. Entrance is £9 although small concessions are available.    


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