Balenciaga: The shaping of fashion as art

By Abbigail Steer

FTS visits the first ever UK exhibition exploring the iconic couturier Cristóbel Balenciaga.

“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 has said of Cristóbal Balenciaga, the man who only gave one interview in his entire life time. Now, years later, the V&A opens its doors to Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, an exhibition which will run until February 2018, that explores the couturier’s lasting influence in the fashion world, with over 100 garments crafted by Balenciaga, his protégées and contemporary designers influenced by his innovation. FTS takes a look, not only at Balenciaga’s ground-breaking designs, but how this craftsmanship can be seen as true art.

What makes Balenciaga so unique and influential is the fashion house’s artistic and avant-garde approach to design. Even now they have been in the news for their recent controversial $2,145 leather holdall that mimics the 40p Ikea bag, current creative director Demna Gvasalia continuing the house’s legacy and, with pieces by contemporary designers such as Molly Goddard and Comme des Garcons, the upper floor of the exhibition confirms the lasting impact of Balenciaga’s legacy as a master of fashion. His influence is clear in Goddard’s modern baby doll dress and Ralph Rucci’s architectural evening dresses. However, it is the main floor of the exhibition that focuses on Balenciaga which sells him as the real master of modern design, with a dedicated and glamorousclientele consisting of actresses and socialites such as Gloria Guinness, Ava Gardener and Mona Bismarck, an American socialite and fashion icon, who’s devotion to the courtier was so profound she is said to have had an outfit for every occasion made by him, including gardening shorts.

Throughout his career, Balenciaga’s works and the shapes of his dresses became increasingly abstract. This is apparent throughout the exhibition with detailed displays and examples of Balenciaga’s modernist and nouveau garments, showcasing his experimentation with silhouettes unseen before in fashion, such as the ‘envelope’ and the ‘sack’ dresses. Utilising abstract architectural shapes, Balenciaga became an expert in manipulating fabrics to create forms which abstracted the body and totally eliminated the waist. These odd, modernist traits are now trademarks of the house and Balenciaga is credited as a provocateur of fashion, altering the industry’s narrow definition of beauty. “Balenciaga is about the kind of beauty which has a weirdness about it”, remarked curator Cassie Davies-Strodder during the preview of the exhibition.

 X-ray photograph of silk taffeta evening dress by Cristóbal Balenciaga, 1955, Paris, France. X-ray by Nick Veasey, 2016. © Nick VeaseyX-ray photograph of silk taffeta evening dress by Cristóbal Balenciaga, 1955, Paris, France. X-ray by Nick Veasey, 2016. © Nick Veasey

X-ray photograph of silk taffeta evening dress by Cristóbal Balenciaga, 1955, Paris, France. X-ray by Nick Veasey, 2016. © Nick VeaseyX-ray photograph of silk taffeta evening dress by Cristóbal Balenciaga, 1955, Paris, France. X-ray by Nick Veasey, 2016. © Nick Veasey

What stood out as superbly impressive was the use of X-ray photography in the exhibition. Ghostly yet remarkable life size X-rays of a selection of dresses are presented next to their real life counterparts. They communicate the absolute attention to detail and the amount of work that went into each and every garment; the skeletons of the dresses are visible, showing the sophisticated manipulation of the fabric that gives them their artful form. This was a complex process undertaken by X-ray photographer Nick Veasey and is a creative endeavour that is not widely used due to its complex, expensive and hazardous process, thus providing a new and rare insight into Balenciaga’s creations, unseen before. And it is only fitting that this modern technology be used to showcase the work of the alleged Master of modernism himself. Renowned for his tailoring, Balenciaga’s training as a seamstress and his input in all aspects and stages of the designing of his clothes sets him apart. With displays of fabric swatches, sketches, fabric patterns and animations of the dresses being draped and designed, the exhibition presents Balenciaga as not only a couturier, designer and fashion icon but an artist. “It is difficult to communicate to a modern audience how much work went into these clothes, because if you buy fast fashion, you have no concept,” Davies-Strodder says of her approach, using the insights into Balenciaga’s process, such as the X-rays, to reveal the complexities and creativity behind his couture.

 Alberta Tiburzi in 'envelope' dress by Cristóbal Balenciaga. Photograph by Hiro Wakabayashi for Harper's Bazaar, June 1967. © Hiro 1967

Alberta Tiburzi in 'envelope' dress by Cristóbal Balenciaga. Photograph by Hiro Wakabayashi for Harper's Bazaar, June 1967. © Hiro 1967

Ultimately, this exhibition shows a deep understanding and adoration of the Master of couture and is a fitting and respectful tribute to his craft, by focusing on the true artistry and amount of work and detail that went into his undeniable masterpieces, as well as showcasing the true talents that follow in his footsteps.

 

Kabyashree Saikia