Let me recommend the Balenciaga exhibition at the V&A. It continues until 18 February 2018 and costs £12 unless you are a member. Or a friend of a member.
Cristóbal Balenciaga – Spain’s greatest designer and the Master of couture – was the son of a seamstress (and a fisherman) who was sent to train as a tailor when he was 12 years old. His deep understanding of tailoring is evident in all his work. The exhibition features a wide range of examples of his structural pieces but also helps us understand how they were constructed using X Rays and animations.
Balenciaga set up his own couture business in 1937. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s he created some radical new shapes that challenged current ideas of the feminine form. As Vogue editor Diana Vreeland said, ‘For 20 years he was the prophet of nearly every major change in silhouette.’ I loved this stunning outfit with a kind of insect-y feel – In the early 1960s Balenciaga redesigns the female shape by creating this evening dress with its balloon hem, longer hobble skirt and short puffed up cape.
On my second visit one of the curators pointed out a much more ordinary suit – this one. This doesn’t look at all radical, and in some senses it isn’t.
The suit has a fitted jacket and slim-fitting skirt with a kick pleat at the back. It illustrates how capable Balenciaga was at choosing exactly the right fabric and also how he was at heart a tailor. The curator said this suit was made for a mature woman (at over £100 at the time his clientele were the wealthiest) and was made to flatter a less than perfect figure. The jacket is carefully fitted to the body in the front but includes subtle fullness at the back, meaning it would be supremely comfortable to wear. Also the sleeve length and the collar shape were designed specifically to enable the wearer to show off her jewellery. Or her hat.
The exhibition reveals the workings of the dresses in a way that is very helpful for designers and seamstresses. This lovely fushia evening dress is clearly boned and bustled. But the X Ray reveals a set of ties that appear to create harem pants inside for comfort and structure. At the exhibition this dress rotates in a cabinet, allowing the viewer to see all sides as well as inside.
In some ways this exhibition is scary as the skill, originality and verve are off the scale. But many of the outfits make you want to have a go.
These two items have entered my soul and I want to make and wear them. First the jacket. This jacket is constructed, in soft brown wool, from a giant T without side seams. The amazing pleating is created by ribbons across the shoulder line, from neckline to cuff, which are simply pulled up The folds are tacked to the ribbon at approximately four inch intervals.
The hat is owned by the V&A which, incidentally, has one of the biggest and best collection of Balenciaga items, largely due to the influence of Cecil Beaton a great friend of Balenciaga who donated but also urged them to acquire.
Back to the hat. According the V&A
The dramatic ‘spiral’ hat is worn like the pillbox, perched on top of the head. Inside, it is secured by three hair combs which support the sculptural spirals rising up at the back. The hat is a perfect example of the dramatic yet minimal sculptural shapes for which Balenciaga was known. Its clean lines and solid block colour exemplify the couturier’s desire to strip things back to their simplest form.
To which I say “Yeah!” In the world of clothes my first love is for the simplest but also the cleverest; the essential; complex cutting and construction that results in the cleanest line.
I have so much more to say – a second post will follow shortly.