Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion

Alberta Tiburzi in 'envelope' dress

On 27 May, the V&A opened Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, exploring the most creative work of fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga. It’s the latest in a series of fashion exhibitions at the V&A and follows the exhibitions; Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear (2016 – 2017), Shoes: Pleasure and Pain (2015 – 2016) and Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s (2013 – 2014).

The exhibition marks the centenary of the opening of Balenciaga’s first fashion house in San Sebastian and the 80th anniversary of the opening of his famous fashion house in Paris. It is also the first ever UK exhibition about the reputed designer and focuses on the later part of Balenciaga’s long career, the 1950s and 1960s, which is considered his most creative, and features the largest collection of Balenciaga in the UK, initiated by Cecil Beaton in the 1970s for the Museum.

Cristóbal Balenciaga at work, Paris, 1968. Photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson , Magnum Photos

Cristóbal Balenciaga at work, Paris, 1968. Photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson , Magnum Photos

Renowned for his technical pattern cutting skills and use of bold, architectural shapes, Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga produced some of the most influential designs in the history of modern fashion.

‘Haute Couture is like an orchestra whose conductor is Balenciaga. We other couturiers are the musicians and we follow the direction he gives.’

Christian Dior

Evening gown and cape, silk zibeline, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Paris, 1967 - Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Evening gown and cape, silk zibeline, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Paris, 1967 – Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The main body of the dress is cut from a single piece of fabric joined at the centre back. There are no side seams. The neck of the cape is painstakingly pieced to ensure a soft line which stands away from the body. This ensemble typifies the increasing simplicity and abstraction of Balenciaga’s later work. It relies on a deep knowledge of the fabric which determines the sculptural shape.

The house of Balenciaga is considered one of the most original Couture houses of our era. Cristóbal Balenciaga is best known for his incredible approach to designing fashion that played with and transformed the silhouette by sometimes removing all sense of the waistline, broadening the shoulders, reintroducing the empire line and including kimono cuts. Since the closure of his fashion houses in 1972, he is remembered not only for his innovative design work but also for the influence and impact he had on other designers of note.

Born in 1895 in Getaria, he was introduced to fashion by his mother, who was a seamstress. Her clients included the most fashionable and glamorous women of the village of Getaria. Aged just twelve, he began an apprenticeship at a tailor’s in the neighbouring fashionable resort of San Sebastian, where in 1917 he established his first fashion house, named Eisa – a shortening of his mother’s maiden name.

Balenciaga alone is a couturier in the truest sense of the word. Only he is capable of cutting material, assembling a creation and sewing it by hand, the others are simply fashion designers.

Coco Chanel

Spiral hat, silk, Balenciaga for Eisa, Spain, 1962.  Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Spiral hat, silk, Balenciaga for Eisa, Spain, 1962. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Balenciaga’s hats were some of the most elaborate in Paris. During the 1950s and 60s they became increasingly surreal, playing with scale, shape and unusual materials. While Balenciaga did not design the hats himself, he worked closely with his hat designers, the Franco-Russian milliner, Wladzio d’Attainville, and later, the Spaniard, Ramón Esparza to develop these avant-garde creations.

Balenciaga’s Spanish heritage influenced many of his most iconic designs. His wide-hipped ‘Infanta‘ dresses from the late 1930s drew on the portraiture of the 17th-century Spanish artist Diego Velázquez. Flamenco dresses, matador outfits and black lace – seen in the traditional mantilla shawls worn by women at special ceremonies and during Spanish Holy Week – were also frequent motifs.

Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn wearing coat by Cristóbal Balenciaga, Paris, 1950. Photograph by Irving Penn - Conde Nast, Irving Penn Foundation

Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn wearing coat by Cristóbal Balenciaga, Paris, 1950. Photograph by Irving Penn – Conde Nast, Irving Penn Foundation

He not only dressed some of the most renowned women of the time, but also introduced revolutionary shapes including the tunic, the sack, ‘baby doll’ and shift dress – all of which remain style staples today. Highlights of the exhibition include ensembles made by Balenciaga for Hollywood actress Ava Gardner, dresses and hats belonging to socialite and 1960s fashion icon Gloria Guinness, and pieces worn by one of the world’s wealthiest women, Mona von Bismarck, who commissioned everything from ball-gowns to gardening shorts from the couturier.

The exhibition is organised around three main sections: ‘Front of House’, including Balenciaga’s salons, behind the scenes in Balenciaga’s ‘Workrooms’ and the lasting impact of ‘Balenciaga’s Legacy’. The ‘Legacy’ section features the work of over 30 designers of the last 50 years tracing the influence of this most revered figure in fashion right up to the present day.

Evening dress, silk taffeta, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Paris, 1954, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Evening dress, silk taffeta, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Paris, 1954, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Balenciaga was Inspired by 19th century costume – great swathes of fabric were supported by hoops drawn from the centre front seam to form the bustle-like back. The skirts are shaped through ‘bagging out’, which creates spacious voids that fill with air as the wearer walks. This was enhanced further by quirky hidden ties which knot just above the knee.

Themes include an exploration of his minimalist aesthetic reflected in the work of his former apprentices André Courrèges and Emanuel Ungaro, and more recently revived by designers such as Phoebe Philo for Celine and in the strong lines of J.W. Anderson. Balenciaga’s perfectionism and attention to detail are reflected in the work of Hubert de Givenchy and Erdem. His pattern cutting and explorations of volume can be seen in the work of Molly Goddard and Demna Gvasalia, while his creative use of new materials is referenced in the work of former Balenciaga creative director Nicolas Ghesquière.

Skirt suit, wool and silk, Demna Gvasalia for Balenciaga, Paris, Autumn Winter 2016 ready-to-wear, look 1 - Catwalking

Skirt suit, wool and silk, Demna Gvasalia for Balenciaga, Paris, Autumn Winter 2016 ready-to-wear, look 1 – Catwalking

On display are over 100 garments and 20 hats, many of which have never been on public display before. These are accompanied by archive sketches, patterns, photographs, fabric samples and catwalk footage revealing Balenciaga’s uncompromising creativity.

In addition x-rays, animated patterns and short films on couture-making processes uncover the hidden details that made his work so exceptional.

The V&A has also used x-ray technology to take a forensic look at the hidden details inside Cristóbal Balenciaga’s garments. These images, made with x-ray artist Nick Veasey, show structures invisible to the naked eye, including dress weights strategically placed to determine the exact hang of the skirt in one of Balenciaga’s most minimal designs, and boning in dress bodices, dispelling the myth that he did not use such structures.

“X-ray is an honest process. It has integrity. It shows how well things are made or not, revealing previously hidden internal details. The collaboration with the V&A gave me access to stunning couture garments made by ‘The Master’ of fashion. The results, I am pleased to say are beguilingly beautiful as befits these iconic examples of historic fashion.”

Nick Veasey,

Students from the London College of Fashion were invited to investigate some of the iconic garments by the master, deconstructing his processes and revealing secrets of their making and construction. These have been digitised and animated to show how these building blocks come together to form the finished piece.

'La Tulipe' evening dress, gazar, Cristóbal Balenciaga for EISA, Spain, 1965. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

‘La Tulipe’ evening dress, gazar, Cristóbal Balenciaga for EISA, Spain, 1965. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In a number of cases, the patterns reveal that the main body of the garment has been crafted from one single piece of fabric, demonstrating Balenciaga’s mastery of materials. Three of these animations will be displayed alongside Balenciaga’s original garments to give a deeper understanding of each. Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion is an extraordinary exhibition about one of couture’s greatest innovators. He reshaped the fashionable silhouette of the mid-twentieth century and crafted graceful and elegant garments that helped redefine modernity and an entire industry. His strong tailoring expertise and knowledge earned him the respect of the fashion world and a well deserved place in history.

The exhibition Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion curated by the V&A’s Cassie Davies-Strodder, opened on 27 May 2017 and will be in view until 18 February 2018 and is accompanied by a new V&A publication and a series of related events, courses and creative workshops.