posted in: Designing, History of fashion | 24

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.

Advert on the tube (Alberta Tiburzi in Balenciaga ‘envelope’ dress June 1967)

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.

Balenciaga green balloon dress
1961 Evening dress and cape in green silk gazar

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.

Silk taffeta evening dress, Cristóbal Balenciaga, 1955, and X ray of the dress
Silk taffeta evening dress, Cristóbal Balenciaga, 1955, and X ray of the dress


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

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.


24 Responses

  1. Su

    Ah, I envy you living near the V and A and their clothing collections. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the V and A about 25 years ago. What skill he had to create those beautiful architectural shapes. I’ve always liked jackets with collars that stand away from the neck – such a flattering look and yes, to show off jewelery – but a look that’s so rarely seen in sewing patterns. Looking forward to your next post about the exhibit.

  2. jay

    Beautiful; one of my favourite designers. The suit design marries so well to the fabric, tailored and simple but not severe.

    • fabrickated

      Beautifully put Jay. He is one of my favourites too, hugely inspirational and exciting. I think people like you and me, who find pattern cutting and tailoring intellectually interesting are drawn to Balenciaga – up to now he hasn’t really been as well known as Chanel and Dior who are great for other reasons, but for construction I think Balenciaga is the best.

  3. Anne McCrossan

    Lovely write-up, thanks Kate. I’m going to see the exhibition later this week. Balenciaga’s mastery and imagination was phenomenal and his influence runs deep into the modern day, with designers like Galliano. I think fashion is a wonderful metaphor as well as being delightful in itself. The shape and form of all things can flex and change in ways that are perhaps greater than we often imagine.

    • fabrickated

      You will love it Anne. I have been twice already, but I didn’t have time to investigate upstairs where they had a range of outfits inspired by Balenciaga which I am sure will be very interesting too.

  4. Kerry

    I really enjoyed it too. The exhibition highlights Balenciaga’s attention to detail through his tailoring skills, but it also demonstrates how well he understood the female form, so although the suits he designed were masculine in style they really flattered the wearer. I also liked how he used simple designs to create the ‘wow’ factor, I think he must have really understood how fabric drapes and folds to create form.

    • fabrickated

      Yes! He was really breaking new ground with some of his fabric choices. The way he created so much volume and structure and yet also honoured the female form is just breathtaking.

  5. Annie

    How lovely to see the inner workings, he certainly knew how to make a woman look her best. I really like that suit, the wearer must have had a broad back and it looks like one shoulder is built up to compensate a slope, very interesting. I’d like to see inside that hat because little details like hand stitches make me happy.

    • fabrickated

      Now you must have a good eye because the shoulder shaping completely escaped me. I too would love to handle the exhibits, or at least watch while a white gloved hand did it for us. There are some other little details I will share in part two…

  6. viliene

    Thanks for the pictures. Balenciaga is my favorite, he is a genius. How long is the exhibition on?
    Looking forward to your next post and the projects.

    • fabrickated

      He is a genius Viliene, and the exhibition is on until 18 February, so time enough for you to pop over for a visit. I would love to meet up again so please let me know if you are coming.

  7. Karen of Fifty Dresses

    I can’t wait for Part 2! Thank you so much, Kate, for this excellent exhibit review. The green evening dress looks amazing, but then everything does. Kudos to the V & A for putting together such a noteworthy exhibit of probably the most influential fashion designer of all times. Now I must figure out a way to see this in person…

  8. ceci

    I love to be able to see the “workings” of these fabulous things, next best thing to being able to touch myself! That hat for example……


  9. Brenda

    Thank you for the review- it’s inspiring! I am interested in seeing your interpretation of the pleated jacket. How fun!

    We can learn something from his expert suit jacket that you explained. It takes a little while to figure out what flatters and fit your lifestyle, but it can be done. 🙂

  10. Sarah

    I can’t wait to see this show, I will be leaning in as far as I can to see every detail. The cut of some of these pieces is fabulous. The X-ray is a brilliant addition to show the inner construction, very clever. Thank you for the sneak preview!

  11. Karen

    Thank you. This looks wonderful. We are coming to London in December to see Hamilton and now also to see this exhibition. I’ve been to see the Jackie Kennedy Onassis exhibit, Jean Paul Gualtier and Alexander McQueen and Kylie’s stage costumes and loved them all. The fabrics, the construction, the design are all incredible to see up close.

      • Karen

        That would be perfect. I would be the one wearing my gorgeous #EZYokeKAL jumper, instead of the traditional flower in the lapel. Ok I am getting ahead of myself. I am running the risk of being the one in my gorgeous woolly boob tube, I’m having a wee bit of a fight with magic looping the sleeves and making stitches, I am determined. I can do this. Apologies for muddling up the comments feed, (woolly boob tubes don’t belong under a Balenciaga post).

  12. Kim

    I visited a couple of weeks ago (yet to blog) and loved this exhibition. Loads of magnificent inspiration, and I was amazed at just how many contemporary designers were clearly inspired by him too. He was clearly an exceedingly talented man. I’m hoping for a second visit when down in September.

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