As RuPaul would say, ‘we’re all born naked and the rest is … Balenciaga!’ For fashion queens, Spanish couturier Cristobal Balenciaga is the Rosetta Stone of late 20th and 21st century fashion. Rather cleverly, the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion has gathered over 100 original Balenciaga couture pieces – concentrating on his glory years in the 1950s and 1960s – and matched them with a gallery of later works by modern masters that clearly pay tribute to the great man’s work.
Now, let’s begin with what our American cousins call a ‘rider’. If you haven’t worked on a large scale mannequin show in a museum then you don’t know the years of preparation and weeks of perspiration to bring that vision to the public. The V&A’s costume department consistently work at such a high level that we tend to judge their work hyper-critically. The costume gallery is like Regent’s Park with an outer circle for the permanent collection and an inner circle with mezzanine for specials. The decision to show the Balenciaga originals behind glass in the low-ceiling inner circle undercroft has been criticised.
I tend to agree that the circular mezzanine space is the main stage and one might well wish to see Balenciaga’s work on top as t’were. But I’d hazard a guess that the masterpieces needed the protection of glass and climate-control cases. So that said, did Balenciaga dazzle?
On balance I would express a preference for Christian Dior’s hourglass New Look silhouette of the late 40s and early 50s and gravitated towards the pieces that sculpted into the waist. But fashion, like art, needs provocateurs such as Balenciaga and the cutting techniques away from the body truly shaped the future of fashion.
Way before Saint Laurent, Balenciaga was introducing a new line every season: the baby doll, the tulip, the sack, the shift, the bubble. I was absolutely transported by the pink tulip dress that wrapped from front to back revealing bows and folds and layers as delicate as the flower. Interesting, isn’t it, that Balenciaga’s followers were the fashion Amazons: Diana Vreeland, Mona Bismarck, Gloria Guinness and Ava Gardner.
The exhibition opened my eyes to Balenciaga’s fabulous use of embroideries such as a barbed wire motif on a cream satin evening dress and supersized sequins that opened the door for his apprentice André Courrège’s 60s Futurist shift dresses. Emanuel Ungaro was also a disciple of Balenciaga. Balenciaga reminded me of his fellow Spaniard Pablo Picasso working in periods of creativity that radically changed season-on-season.
What impressed most about the Balenciaga exhibit in the lower circle was the use of film, fabric swatches, patterns, toiles and extraordinary X-rays of the garments that revealed weighting, double-facing and in one case a gown made with a single piece of cloth.
Moving to the upper circle, I must say I missed the occasional opportunity to put past and present together with, say, a Balenciaga floral embroidery and an homage by Oscar de la Renta or the pink ruffled Belle Epoque Balenciaga silhouette next to Roksanda Illincic’s echo. I was desperate to juxtapose Issey Miyake and Yuki’s Pleats Please pieces – some of the most radical 20th century fashion – with a Balenciaga that showed the reference point.
Balenciaga remains a fashion favourite rather than a globally recognised phenomenon because he was averse to publicity; giving only one interview in his life. He had matinee idol looks but shunned press and personal appearances. I cannot wait to read the catalogue to learn more about the man as well as his work.
Speaking out of turn – what else is new? – I do wonder why the V&A doesn’t go up against New York’s Metropolitan Museum fashion Gala and host an annual dinner to celebrate these marvellous exhibitions. Maybe they do and I’m not invited. But considering the amount of press the Met Gala sucks up every January, I’d love the British to show them how to do it better and with more class.
The V&A has had so many hits with fashion retrospectives such as Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty and Hollywood Glamour. They bring a vast amount of tourism to London because the V&A always delivers. If you love fashion and don’t travel to see Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion then you’re missing out on a once in a lifetime opportunity.
I will also say that the V&A’s exhibitions have a huge influence on London’s fashion colleges. Not only can Central Saint Martins and London College of Fashion students study the exhibits and learn from the masters, they can also examine the garments close-up in the V&A archive. Expect to see tulips, sacks, shifts and bubbles at the next graduate collections.
I must admit to being as big a fan of film and theatre costume as fashion hence absolutely adoring the V&A’s Ballets Russes exhibit a couple of years ago. Film costume may be brash and made for camera but it displays incredibly well and lifts antique costume which doesn’t always look as spectacular as one would hope.
It has long been a dream of mine to bring Eva Peron’s wardrobe on another Rainbow Tour of Europe and unite it with the costumes made for the Madonna film that I thought were excellent interpretations. You’ll recall that as a child working on the Sunday Express I found many of Evita’s evening gowns in a suburban bank vault in Buenos Aires. I believe they are now in a dedicated museum.
Anyway, enough fantasy curation for now. I have some real curation to get on with for 2018. Until next time…