Tag Archives: Victoria and Albert Museum

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


Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty – V&A


Image: Copyright V&A


Fierce and fantastical are the only way to describe this brilliant exhibition at the V&A and you can see why pretty much everyone in London is trying to get a ticket. If you’ve ever thought that fashion was a frivolous pastime with absolutely no artistic value then this McQueen show can absolutely change your mind, it is beautiful – both the clothes and the setting.  Wandering through the rooms is like being in some enchanted fairy-tale land, becoming more wide-eyed with astonishment as each new and distinct section unfolds around you.

It’s not that long ago that the Constable paintings filled these rooms and this exhibition presents McQueen’s clothes like high art to be admired and felt. Some have complained that there’s not enough biographical detail about McQueen himself and where his inspiration comes from, but in way that’s also a good thing because unlike paintings, clothes are often used to say far more about a person. The way you dress day-to-day is indicative of your personality and in some sense synonymous with the way you present yourself to the world. You may have books and art and objects in your home which reflect your taste or interests, but none of these are seen as frequently or as widely as your clothing. If you accept that, then you have to apply that idea to this exhibition – McQueen wasn’t making clothes he would wear but ones he hoped would appeal to a wide female audience. They may be his vision but there is something the viewer or wearer must bring to them as well, so in some sense this is about your interaction with the clothes. It’s like a Saatchi Gallery art exhibition in that sense, no real information just you and the stuff with no artist in the way, which I respect.

So the exhibition’s beginnings are surprisingly tame and modest, showcasing some early tailored items from McQueen’s student and early collections in London. Although these aren’t the showstoppers we’ll see later, actually this is quite a shrewd move because you instantly get a clear sense of his aesthetic and approach to designing without being distracted by the more dramatic outfits created later. You learn how McQueen designed for women from the side because it was easier to see the body shape and creatively disguise problem areas, as well as his interest for sharp lines and powerful shapes. There’s also a clear reference to Victorian styles so plenty of frock coats in various forms, some with human hair apparently sewn into the lining which I was pleased not to see at 8am.

Then things take on a more exciting pace as the next room is decorated with tarnished mirrors and gilt to present some of the slightly harder-edged collections themed here as Romantic Gothic. There’s something quite Phantom of the Opera about this room combining a highly ornate and elaborate staging with a sense of darkness and danger. Each dummy wears a leather face mask and is surrounded by mirrors underneath, behind and to each side giving a view of the outfits from every angle as well as a disquieting sense of distortion to underline the style of these pieces.  There is a grand theatricality about the outfits in this room and there’s certainly nothing romantic or wistful about them, but they also maintain McQueen’s sharp lines and powerful silhouettes.

The next section is a complete change again to focus on McQueen’s interest in natural history and animal life. The walls are corrugated with bones and each dress is couched into a recess that seems to have been gouged into the wall, all rather like a primitive cave dwelling. The clothes also reflect this tribal feel with earthy colours, animal fabrics like pony skin and strong shoulder-lines. Weirdly each mannequin has a curved plastic shape on its face that looks like a trunk or a tusk to emphasise that primeval feel. Sound and projection are used to good effect here to add atmosphere, as well as clearly distinguishing the tone of the section.

Up next was my favourite room, combining McQueen’s Scotland-inspired pieces from The Widows of Culloden (2006) with The Girl Who Lived in a Tree (2008). There’s a lot of competition but my favourite dress in the whole exhibition is a knee-length full skirted white tulle number with patterned red stones filling the bodice which nods paradoxically to the decadent purity of the eighteenth-century style, yes I could definitely wear this dress. It sits alongside a suite of similarly inspired outfits combining ruffles, feathers and elegant draping effects which are pure romanticism, striking an interesting contrast to the political statement of the Scottish pieces facing them where innovative technique in the cutting and use of fabric is clear.

The Cabinet of Curiosities is a completely new section for the London shows and is rather like reaching the centre of the maze. It is floor to ceiling stuff and everywhere you look there are countless examples of McQueen’s work; from clothes to Philip Treacy hats, to shoes and facial ornaments- including the beautiful butterfly headdress adoring some of the advertising material. All interspersed with fashion show footage. Luckily there are seats so you can sit down while trying to take it all in. In the penultimate rooms the focus is on romanticism and nature featuring outfits incorporating shells, feathers and antlers, plus ruffles and lots of floaty fabrics but still retaining that trademark structure. Most outstanding is a dress made entirely of 3-dimensional flowers which is crazy but also beautiful, while the final room has a futuristic feel with the last collection entitled Plato’s Atlantis.

As you wander out blinking into the shop, it’s pretty clear that this has been no ordinary V&A exhibition. In fact given the V&A’s poor form in its costume displays, with Hollywood Costumes, Ball gowns and Grace Kelly all being very badly curated, it’s clear that this is a touring show and, honestly, a relief. Tickets are still available and the museum is opening from 8am till late to facilitate extra time slots. I booked about 3 weeks in advance for an 8am entry (if you’re prepared to book a month ahead there are lots of tickets for any time) which I would highly recommend. At that time, the cumulative number of people is incredibly small so you can get close to each item and take your time, and you can just toddle off to work afterwards knowing you’ve had your culture fix before 10am. An 8am start also enhances the dreamlike quality of this wonderful exhibition. As I said at the beginning this is fashion at its most artistic, one of the best fashion shows I’ve seen, brilliantly designed and completely enchanting.

McQueen: Savage Beauty is at the V&A until 2 August. Tickets are £17.50 including booking fee and a range of reasonable concession prices are available for OAPs, students, disabled visitors and art fund members. Day tickets are also available from 10am and no photography is permitted in the exhibition.

Constable: The Making of a Master – V&A

Constable is my favourite artist and it’s all thanks to Charles I; let me tell you a story… My A-Level history class was studying the English Civil Wars and we came to London on a trip to see the Banqueting House where in 1649 for the only time in our history we beheaded a King and became a Republic for 11 years. The majority of us were pretty sympathetic to Charles – tell a bunch of romantic 17 year old girls that he was around 5ft, devotedly loved his wife and was forced to kill his friend, and you’ll make Royalists out of them – and after lunch we were taken to the National Gallery to look at the magnificent Van Dyck portrait of Charles sitting aloft a disproportionately large horse dripping in English symbolism. We emerged from the side room into a collection of Gainsborough portraits and Turners; suddenly there it was, right at the end of the room, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, the most beautiful painting I had ever seen, and a lasting love of Constable was born.

So this new exhibition at the V&A was something of a must-see. I’ve had my differences with curation at this museum in the last couple of years and their Horst exhibition, which is running in the rooms next door to Constable, has done much to salvage our relationship. Happily Constable confirms the upward trend and, despite my preference for the artist, this still has to be one of the best shows in London at the moment. There is plenty to learn about the development of his technique, his methods of scaling from tiny sketch to 6ft canvas, and how this led to his famous interpretations of nature and the drama of the English weather.

It begins with some interesting context, placing Constable’s work among other earlier and contemporary artists who had inspired the development of his style. Here we see the original work of ‘Old Masters’ sitting alongside a piece that either Constable copied directly or used to inspire a similar landscape study. Constable practiced his technique by looking closely at the work of Raphael, Rubens (there’s that link to Charles I again – Rubens designed the Banqueting House ceiling) and particularly Claude Lorrain, who composed classical scenes of pastoral or harbour landscapes often using dramatic light effects. He was also inspired by Thomas Girtin, a contemporary, who painted a number of ruins of medieval churches in a simple but imposing style and that can be seen in Constable’s similar fusion of religion and nature in a number of works.

One of the great successes of this exhibition is that sense of place Constable has in a longer tradition of landscape painters, clearly seeing his work evolve and reflect his wider learning. Sensibly, then, having absorbed the theory the next stage is to experience it for himself and the viewer is guided to a section on ‘Sketching in the Open Air’ where the famous clouds make an appearance. The pieces in this room are quite small as Constable sketched on scraps of paper or cloth and you can see pin holes in several of them showing where they had been pinned to his paintbox. Although many of these reflect the immediate surroundings of his countryside home, there are also some lovely sketches of Brighton beach where the open expanse of sky dominates more than half the image. Building on the work of the Old Masters, you see not just his command of weather effects, but also of reflection and movement in water, particularly in the lovely Watermeadows Near Salisbury.

There are some more direct copies of other artists which helped to pay the bills and often fetched more than Constable’s original works. His large colourless sketch of the fallen saint from Titian’s ‘St Peter the Martyr’ is stunning and surprisingly soft. There are few portraits so it is interesting to see the lightness of touch he has in this piece, sitting alongside all those more famous works depicting the immovability of nature. And in the next rooms we get to some of those amazing large canvases, The Haywain, The Leaping Horse and The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, all exhibited alongside the tiny pencil drawings of particular elements and the full-size oil sketches Constable did in preparation for each. It is still surprising to see the looseness of the full-size sketches which have a blurry quality next to the almost pinsharp precision of the final painting.

The exhibition finishes with the end of the artistic process and the transformation of these works into print form, telling you about Constable’s struggle to the get them right and the fall-out with those he was trying to do business with. You come away not just with a sense of the artistic process, from theory to mass print production, but also having seen the growth of an artist who painted what he knew. Salisbury Cathedral From the Meadows is here of course, temporarily back to London from its tour of the UK having been purchased for the nation last year. It’s now owned by the Tate (and partners) so it’s probably never going back to that wall in the National Gallery unfortunately. Painted shortly after the death of Constable’s wife, and less naturalistic than his other work, he considered it his masterpiece. And I can’t help but agree,  it’s the culmination of everything his work can do –  full of drama and pain, beautiful detail and much to say on nature, religion and hope. Despite countless exhibitions, hundreds of artists and probably thousands of pictures, it’s still the most beautiful painting I have ever seen and well worth the entrance fee. Constable: The Making of a Master is a great show and not to be missed. Well done V&A, we’re officially friends again.

Constable: The Making of an Master is at the V&A until 11 January. Tickets are £14 (without donation) and concessions are available.

Horst: Photographer of Style – V&A

The V&A has had plenty of blockbuster exhibitions in the last few years, tapping into the popularity of celebrity figures such as Kylie and David Bowie, as well as a love of Hollywood costumes and haute couture.  These exhibitions have all been big and shiny with tons of interesting items, but – and this is a huge but – they have been badly curated with next to no information on the pieces or the thematic structure. Of course it’s all in the expensive guide available in the shop, not that this helps you in the exhibition. And sadly this has become a common tactic in big London galleries, forcing you to pay more if you want to understand what you see.

It was with some trepidation therefore that I went to their new show of Vogue photographs by Horst P. Horst, and I was pleasantly surprised. This is a carefully planned exhibition which manages to be both roughly thematic and chronological, giving you a sense of how Horst developed as a photographer, as well as showing how he reflected changing attitudes and styles in his work. It begins in the 1930s with formally posed models pictured in backdrops reminiscent of classical styles alluding to ancient Greece or Rome.

Horst was incredibly skilled at creating mood in his work, cleverly composing scenes like a painter, using light and shade to infer a sense of drama beyond that shot – as though the statuesque subject is in the midst of a wider story. It’s an interesting contrast between the somewhat unnatural pose and the narrative being created around it. At the end of this first room are examples of designer dresses from famous fashion-houses, not immediately relevant to Horst’s pictures, but gives an interesting sense of the groups he worked with and the glamour / femininity of the time. And any excuse for the V&A to showcase its extensive fashion collection is always welcome.

In the second set of rooms we see Horst experimenting with technique by layering images over one another to create surreal visions. He also looks beyond the surface glamour to photograph models undergoing various beauty treatments simultaneously, so they are covered in creams while attached to numerous electrical devices to primp and perfect.  You also see him retouching shots including the famous woman in corset (Mainbocher Corset) to change both the lighting and the fit. Alongside this, Horst retained his reputation for glamour by photographing some of the leading celebrities of the 40s and 50s including screen sirens Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

After the war, Horst began to explore different subjects and the exhibition includes his travel photography from the Middle East showing ancient monuments, artefacts and views, as well as his love of the natural world. This section shows a number of collages created from a single image printed over and over, and placed together at different angels to create larger symmetrical patterns. Throughout the exhibition you’re given a clear idea of how many of the images were altered for publication, showing that retouching is by no means a 21st-century phenomenon.

Most of this exhibition is in black and white, so when you walk into one of the final rooms the boldness of the colours is even more striking. This is filled with rarely-seen large-scale prints which burst with energy and pose an interesting contrast to the more statuesque formality of Horst’s black and white work. Some of these you’ll have seen on the posters – the girl balancing a beach ball on her feet, another fixing her lipstick – but there are many more which beautifully capture Horst’s technique of playing with shadow all the while emphasising the glamour of his subject; be it the fashion or the model.

Overall this is a nicely curated exhibition and in keeping with other such retrospectives, including the Portrait Gallery’s David Bailey show earlier in the year, where we learn as much about the photographer as we do about changing taste in the twentieth-century. Part of the reason for its success is the approach to Horst’s work here covering its many elements and his willingness to experiment. As for the V&A’s disappointing record of late, well I’m not ready to entirely forgive them just yet, but let’s say this is a great first step on the road to recovery.

Horst: Photographer of Style is at the V&A until 4 January. Tickets start at £9 with concessions at £6 and £7.

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