Shaping fashion with Balenciaga
A riveting walk among more than 100 intricate pieces hinting at Cristóbal Balenciaga’s mastery in architectural garments – that is V&A’s Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion.
Mixing Balenciaga’s designs with the work of his protégées and contemporary fashion designers inspired by the Master’s artistry, the exhibition delves into the couturier’s influence on modern fashion.
V&A’s display is spread over two floors. The first floor debuts iconic Balenciaga garments and hats that pioneered the 20th-century look. Later, the second floor exhibition traces the couturier’s impact on fashion as seen in the Balenciaga-inspired garments fashioned by modern day designers.
From innovative garments towering in arresting sculptural forms, to dazzling embellishments of Spanish heritage, the downstairs display is an ode to Balenciaga’s creative period between 50’s and 60’s. The 1958 baby doll dress, sack or fuchsia flamenco inspired evening dress flaunt the couturier’s penchant for volume, material cravings and radical shapes. An inherent excitement for sculptural forms is showcased in his dome-shaped hat or the monumental pom-pom hat, two of the 20 hats displayed.
The upstairs exhibition shows modern day Balenciaga souvenirs as reimagined by contemporary designers, along with garments from the couturier’s revived fashion house under Nicholas Ghesquière and Demna Gvasalia. Featured in the exhibition, Paco Rabanne’s 1967 plastic and wire mini dress is reminiscing about Balenciaga’s attraction for embellishments. On the other hand, in Givenchy’s feathered evening dress form the 60’s it exemplifies the Master’s influence on his protégé.
An exhibition highlight is Balenciaga’s 1967 ‘envelope dress’. Born in a culmination of his architectural artistry, this cocktail dress is pinned in four cardinal pleats that reproduce a futuristic form, defying the natural body figure. Its dramatic shape is moulded in black silk gazar flattered by a pearly brooch rising like a lonely star in the night sky. Balenciaga himself invented the crisp yet smooth and lightweight silk gazar which soon became ubiquitous in his late 60’s collections. It allowed the couturier’s sheer enthusiasm for big volumes and defined shapes to manifest in spectacular three-dimensional garments. Despite winning the press, the dress only made it in two wardrobes, with one client returning it after she could not find a way to go to the bathroom when wearing it.
The elegant ‘spiral hat’ from 1962 is an exceptional showcase of Balenciaga’s refined millinery. It has a sculptural shape that circles its way up in a stiffened fabric covered in silk. This Balenciaga classic was worn like pillbox secured and supported by three inside hair combs. Because of its clean, minimal shapes gracefully fashioned in a solid warm, almost creamy white colour, the hat looks upscale, emitting a certain First Lady-like aura. At a time when etiquette made hats imperative on formal occasions, this was one of the many intricate Balenciaga hats crowning the socialites’ heads. The couturier was as meticulous with his hat as was with the garments. His hats were so elaborate that during the Second World War, the authorities closed his millinery workshops for exceeding the fabric allowance under austerity measures.
Hussein Chalayan’s laser-cut tulle dress is perhaps the most captivating Balenciaga-inspired design from the exhibition. While obscuring the body, the dress is floating in a bicoloured wispy cloud of fabric. The bottom half is snow white while the upper part is cherry red. Both hues of colours are imagines as watercolours negotiating territory on the crumpled tulle dress. The buoyant garment is strikingly similar to an avant-garde design from Balmain’s 1957 collection. It is fascinating to observe how even without Chalayan’s slight alterations in 2010, the couturier’s dress could effortlessly fit into the modern fashion’s landscape. The same carelessness for the natural silhouette that peculiarized Balenciaga’s designs is perpetuated not only by the Cypriot designer but has been rather adopted by the whole industry.
This exhibition offers a rare opportunity to meet the man on whose shoulders the architectural fashion has raised – Cristóbal Balenciaga.