|Flamenco dress, 1961|
This exhibition mainly explores Balenciaga's work from the 1950s and 1960s, when he was at the height of his fame.
Because Balenciaga trained as a tailor he was an expert in cut and fabric. His designs usually started with the fabric rather than a sketch—"it's the fabric that decides" he declared. Outwardly simply garments were cleverly cut and put together with great precision.
Back to Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion. As well as displaying lots of gorgeous gowns, the curators of this exhibition decided to devote a portion of their exhibition space to the construction of the clothes. This included an x-ray of one of the evening dresses, showing the inner boning supporting the apparently unstructured garment (as well as a couple of pins the original seamstress had left in the hem!) One of Balenciaga's toiles was mounted on a dummy, demonstrating some of the techniques of his craft.
Opposite to the toile was a case containing various dressmaking tools used in the house of Balenciaga.
|Cape in white gazar, 1963|
There were certain motifs that reoccurred in Balenciaga's designs: for example, the fitted front and the bloused back, bracelet length sleeves and necklines that stood away from the neck. (The last two of these were to allow his wealthy clients to display their jewels more easily!) In keeping with the exhibition's emphasis on the technical side of Balenciaga's work the signage on the displays pointed out these and many similar details. The label on one evening cape (originally worn by Gloria Guinness) not only explained how it was made in two parts, but also pointed out that there were concealed (and very handy!) pockets in the side seams!
This leads me from the technical side of Balenciaga to the commercial: who bought Balenciaga's clothes? Firstly, there were the private clients. Balenciaga made clothes for some of the wealthy and socially prominent women of his day, including Ava Gardner, Gloria Guinness (original owner of the cape, above) and the Baroness Philippe de Rothschild (original owner of the tunic, left).
|Harrods fabric book|
However, private clients, however wealthy, were not enough to sustain a couture house by the 1950s. Balenciaga made most of his real profits licensing his designs for reproduction (usually to upmarket department stores). The exhibition contained promotional material from Harrods spruiking their licensed Balenciaga designs, as well as a book of fabric samples, used to match the licensed copies with their designer originals.
Also displayed were a number of dresses from "Eisa", Balenciaga's smaller (and less expensive) establishment in Madrid.
The last few displays in this exhibition were dedicated to designers who were inspired by Balenciaga, including Courréges, Givenchy, Mary Quant and Yves Saint Laurent.
Balenciaga closed his business in 1968.
|From Eisa, 1951-|
|Suit, Autumn-Winter 1954|
Lastly: what is an exhibition without a catalogue? I'm pleased to say that this exhibition is accompanied by an excellent book: Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion by Lesley Ellis Miller. In nearly 200 pages the author explores Balenciaga's background, craft, clients and legacy—in other words, fleshes out the topics of the exhibition. The book is illustrated by some excellent photographs of dresses in the V&A's collection (much better than my phone camera snaps!) as well as reproductions
of in-house sketches of his dresses and pages from contemporary glossy magazines.
Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion
London: V&A Publishing, 2017
ISBN 978 1851 177 9031