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Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion at the V&A, London

The V&A’s new fashion exhibition celebrates the 80th anniversary of the opening of Balenciaga’s first Parisian couture house and showcases his innovations in the cut and construction of women’s garments. Bringing together over 100 dresses, jackets, suits and millinery from Balenciaga’s couture line, Eisa (Balenciaga’s Spanish diffusion range) and contemporary designer pieces. Experience the modernity of Balenciaga’s designs including the ‘Chemise dress’, a forefront to the shift dress of the 1960s, revolutionary shapes and bold colours juxtaposed with Balenciaga’s obvious loyalty to Spanish traditional dress. 

Cristobal Balenciaga (1895-1972) began his career as a tailor on the Basque coast of Northern Spain when he was 12 and came to be regarded as the courturier’s ‘Master of us all’ according to Christian Dior. Despite his early start and considerable success, it wasn’t until 1957 that Balenciaga started to influence the female silhouette, which was until this time following Dior’s 1947 ‘New Look’ hour glass shape. ‘For twenty years he was the prophet of nearly ever major change in silhouette’ said Diana Vreeland, Editor of Harpers Bazaar and Vogue who championed Balenciaga’s designs. 

Cover from Harper’s Bazaar collectors edition produced for the exhibition

This engaging exhibition offers a revelatory insight into Balenciaga’s craftsmanship, he is quoted as saying ‘it is the fabric that decides’. Exposure to new textiles from Italy, Switzerland and the UK meant that he worked directly on the mannequin to create his masterpieces rather than designing with pen and paper. ‘Balenciaga uses fabric like a sculptor working in marble’ states Cecil Beaton. The show demonstrates a vivid and intimate dissection of how Balenciaga worked and his extra ordinary attention to detail, including an X-ray of one of his ballgowns (header photo from V&A Magazine).

Sketch of Balenciaga’s 1962 Flamenco inspired evening dress (sketch by S.Richards)

This is an exhibition of two halves; Downstairs is a culmination of Balenciaga’s tailoring skills cross-pollinated with innovative substrates and construction resulting in iconic pieces such as his signature balloon hem, a frilled skirted fuchsia evening dress with shoulder to hem cape (sketch above) and the one seam coat. Whilst upstairs the white gallery space is dedicated to Balenciaga’s ‘Legacy’ with large glass boxes encasing dramatic silhouetted pieces from contemporary designers imbued with the discerning knowledge of fabric and the female form. 

Sketch of one of the Balenciaga’s Legacy designers: Gareth Pugh from 2013 (sketch by S.Richards)

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion is on at the V&A until 18th February 2018, tickets cost £12 each. You can read more about the history of Balenciaga on the V&A website (Featured image: Front cover of V&A Magazine, Spring 2017 issue).