The Balenciaga exhibition at the V&A starts with some examples of his work inspired by his Spanish heritage. For any designer their own background and experience will always come through their work, to some extent. But Balenciaga, who may be the greatest ever designer in terms of technical skill and ground breaking design, is always a Spanish designer.
The display case includes several obviously Spanish items. Black lace, as found in the Mantilla, layered over cream silk looks stunning. Beige lace, thickly encrusted with red florets, bows, lace work and heavy embellishment. And a stunning flamenco style dress from 1961, sit alongside matador jackets offset by a series of hats which have come from the bullring, the street dancers, the church and the agricultural worker. Balenciaga, as a result of the Spanish civil war, came to Paris where he set up his business in 1937. Maybe the dislocation intensified his affection for the styles of Spain, but I think Spain has a richer cultural tradition than most of Europe and these influences come through very markedly in nearly everything that he designed. Oscar de la Renta, who began his career as Balenciaga’s apprentice claimed that “even after his success in Paris, he remained very deeply influenced by the culture and folklore from Spain, from the religious to the gypsies, flamencos and bullfighters.” The highly stylised shapes and sumptuous fabrics that characterise Cristóbal Balenciaga’s work, sprang from traditional Spanish costumes.
These dresses are so beautiful, radical and absolutely different to the fashions of the day. His approach was truly original and ground breaking.
From the world of Spanish art Balenciaga is influenced by Goya’s portrait of the Duchess of Alba in a head enveloping black lace mantilla to create the amazing black silk gazar outfit known as a “chou” wrap, dependent on the stiffness of silk gazar, while the evening dress is made from fluid black silk crepe.
Velázquez’s “Las Meninas”, one of the greatest portraits of all time, and worked on by everyone from Picasso to Francis Bacon, influences Balenciaga’s ivory silk satin “Infanta” evening dress with scrolls of black velvet along the neckline and waist, and accentuated fullness over the hips, supported with panniers or padded hip under structures. The dress has a long metal zip up the centre back.
Other influences from life include religious vestments and robes he saw up close – his uncle was a priest and he was an altar boy. At the V&A there is ample opportunity to actually study how these enormous, voluminous garments were designed and worn. I really found this part of the exhibition very exciting and interesting as the modern toiles and diagrams reveal how the garments are designed, cut and constructed. These stiff shapes are held away from the body so that the underlying body shape is both disguised and enhanced. They also have the effect of making the wearer look vulnerable and ethereal.
Although the exhibition includes just the one black reimagined cardinal’s chasuble, this idea is repeated again and again in Balenciaga’s work – as a regal violet velvet evening coat with a huge shawl collar; as a black coat with an enormous cape which makes Lucky, the model, appear to be a tiny, elphin head (topped with a confection); now as a huge, orange evening coat with a huge statement collar, set off by delicate black accessories. Do the ladies in the fashion show look with interest, envy or shock?
Likewise, the amazing catwalk of perfect black dresses in the V&A cabinet, each one unique and each one challenging existing trends – he made one each year – are inspired by the black clothes that became a uniform for the widowed women of the Basque country.
On both visits to the exhibition it struck me that Balenciaga is not as well known as many modern designers who may be marketing geniuses, but are not great craftsmen/ women, with limited design imaginations. Balenciaga shunned publicity and never gave interviews. His breath-takingly original work was appreciated mainly by very wealthy European women, but his name is not known in many households. This exhibition is the beginning of a fight back. In researching the article I found countless examples of the most exquisite designs, season after season, unique novel, inventions over a long and very productive life. I loved the V&A McQueen exhibition and really think he had a very special talent – but the V&A – aware of the bankability of the fairly recently deceased designer – spread his much more limited work over several galleries. The Balenciaga is crammed into a small space and I feel it needs to be bigger, with space to breathe. And more examples. Perhaps this is a task for the Spanish – a blockbuster exhibition with several more items borrowed from galleries all over the world.
I must end with a question. How far do you design or make items that stem from your own national or local or cultural roots? As an English person from the Lancashire cotton mills, with Scottish blood I find myself continually attracted to both wool and cotton, to tartan, to tweed, corduroy, to soft heathery colours and English summer florals. I like the English designers and the royal outfits. Do you connect with your own heritage and does this come through in your dressmaking?
Good questions Kate. I’ve always loved Balenciaga’s work, and its essentially dressmaker approach. Also that the clothes have a regal elegance and element of aloofness, and celebrate femininity -something that is hard for designers to do today when the underlying pressures are towards a kind of equality which sometimes feels like a cloak for exploitation. Alexander McQueen’s work was inspiring, but in a completely different way. Modern design often feels as though it uses the model as a blank canvas, and that the less of a female person she is the better. Or that it is about the designer, his/her ability to come up with something newsworthy or express his/her personality.
Absolutely breathtaking thankyou so much for sharing. I’d say my Greek heritage definitely comes through in my dressmaking in my use and love of vibrant delicious Mediterranean colours.
I’m not partial to the Scandinavian sweaters of my Norweigian folk, but I do admit a heavy jones for lederhosen and the whole Geiger of Austria line of woolens (a classic blue knit Geiger coat is stored in my freezer to kill all the moths eating it alive).
I’ve seen so many individual examples of Balenciaga’s radical couture (oops, just spent an hour looking for the perfect example from Center for Pattern Design, and they sold off their pattern business! EEEEK) over the years, I am green with envy over the Balenciaga show. Now I know what it feels like to stare with my nose pressed against the window…..
I was there yesterday and also felt that while what was on display was excellent there could have been so much more. Having been brought up London Irish Catholic with a young life that revolved around processions (my dad was a member of organisations – known in Catholic argot as sodalities – like the Knights of St Columba) all the Catholic influences were bound to appeal. I did also think they’d done the technical explanations really well. My first degree was in textile technology (in Manchester in the 1980s) and I often feel exhibitions miss out the interesting stuff of making. The best designer exhibition I’ve seen from the point of view of demonstrating craft was the Valentino one at Somerset House a few years back. I don’t even like Valentino designs but the use of video to show how looks were achieved was exemplary. (As a sideline it was also very good in illustrating who could afford couture.) I was also fascinated in the Balenciaga exhibition by the Ava Gardner donations – had no idea she ended up living and dying in London.
Interesting to read that there were processions in London – I would love to know more. I went to a Catholic school but it was very staid – we never got the saints out, although they got posies on their feast days. I also went to that Valentino exhibition, despite like you not being a massive fan, and I so agree about the videos. I remember the bias cutting, and the filled tubes of satin in particular. Films of construction are always fascinating – we can relate to them but also marvel at the level of skill.
Maybe it was geographical. I was born in Wapping in 1963 in some LCC flats called Stephen and Matilda House. Matilda House still stands but Stephen (where we lived) was demolished a long time ago. At the centre of the flats was a courtyard and during the month of May (Our Lady’s month) an altar was set up there and processions would take place around the altar. We were rehoused when I was six months old to the thirteenth floor of a tower block in Stepney but my mum and dad used to take us back to Wapping for processions and masses at the English Martyrs Church in Tower Hill. My mum had lots of photos of the processions but as she was lost to dementia and then death things got mislaid. I also remember when we were living in the tower block (we stayed there for sixteen years) women in the blocks would clean out the corridors and lifts specially for events like processions and weddings so that long dresses wouldn’t get spoilt. Again I can remember Super8 movie footage of young women dressed in first communion dresses and men sharp suited like the Krays (it was the 60s after all) but I don’t know where that ended up either.
I suspect all of this did seep in to my own personal tastes – as did the post Vatican II folk art ecclesiastical fashions of the church. And more specifically I learnt to sew from one of my Irish aunts who, like so many women from Cork, worked at Dagenham Fords as a seamstress (and fought for equal pay). It’s clearly all in the mix of things that have shaped me.
Really enjoy your blog – thank you for making the effort.
What fascinating recollections Joan. I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you for making the effort.
There are some amazing videos on Youtube about Balenciaga’s pattern cutting and how he created some of these iconic gowns. Here is a link to one https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h_FfrtcizKw
There is alot of interesting information about Balenciaga on the internet. This is fabulous. Thank you for the link Linda.
I like the question about including references to my heritage in my sewing. I haven’t intentionally done so, although I’ve looked at Scandinavian embroidery designs for some inspiration. If I found something that fit my vision, I’d use it!
I had been thinking about North Americans and what your heritage garments or fabrics might be – denim, cowboy boots, animal skins? It wasn’t until I got your answer and SJ Kurtz that I realised of course that many of you will think about heritage in terms of your original countries – Norway and other parts of Scandinavia, Scotland, etc. How narrow minded of me! Thank you for changing my perspective.