Dior, Chanel, Yves St Laurent are all big fashion beasts, if asked I could describe a look they are famous for. Cristobal Balenciaga is a name I know but I could not tell you what his clothes look like. American Vogue editor extraordinaire Diana Vreeland declared that for 2o years he was the prophet of nearly ever change in silhouette. Judging by this pink dress on show in Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion at the V&A, his still is. Those sleeves are everywhere this spring.
Balenciaga was the son of a Spanish seamstress, when he was 12 he was apprenticed to a tailor. By the time he arrived in Paris he had 20 years’ experience of pattern cutting, dress making and tailoring. He often used very simple shapes but with very clever engineering to make spectacular sculptural garments like this camel evening jacket. Those waves are created by a ribbon running the length of the sleeve between the lining and the fabric.
Working out how some of the more complicated dresses are constructed has long foxed fashion students. The gowns are too fragile for rigorous physical inspection and so the curators of Balenciaga Shaping Fashion came up with the idea of working artist Nick Veasey x-raying the dresses. The resulting pictures show perfectly placed weights to make a hem hang just so and in the case of this red dress boning not only in the bodice but also in bustle.
Wearing Balenciaga’s clothes was the preserve of the rich and famous. Gloria Guinness, one of his regular clients, commented that his clothes were so beautifully constructed, so perfectly thought out, that there was not a woman in the world who could not wear them. Luckily the V&A have provided a skirt or cape, depending on how you wear it, for visitors to the Balenciaga Shaping Fashion to try on. What do you think?
The final part of the exhibition is devoted to fashion designers who either trained with Balenciaga or who continue to be inspired by him. My Mother and I spent a long time looking at this Oscar de la Renta evening dress trying to work out how it was made. The fabric is incredibly fine but you can see very few seams.
Balenciaga produced many different looks in his career maybe that his why I could not have defined his style before visiting Balenciaga Shaping Fashion. Now I know that if a ‘new’ shape appears in the shops, chances are he had a hand in influencing it. If the V&A were to put on a course to make that skirt I tried on I’d be there like a shot.
BALENCIAGA: SHAPING FASHION
Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL
27 May 2017 – 18 February 2018
Open: 10am – 5.45pm (Friday until 10pm)
Admission: Adults £12 concessions and family tickets available details here
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