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Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion

The V&A host a retrospective for the famous couturier.

‘A woman has no need to be perfect or even beautiful to wear my dresses. The dress will do that for her.’

Image credit: Model wearing Balenciaga orange coat as I. Magnin buyers inspect a dinner outfit in the background, Paris, France, 1954 © Mark Shaw,

He was known as ‘The Master’ of couture, whilst Oscar de la Renta referred to him as an ‘architect’. Through his famous silhouettes and commitment to craftsmanship and tailoring, Balenciaga’s influence in fashion can still be felt today.

He was born Cristóbal Balenciaga Eizaguirre in San Sebastian in 1895. His mother was a seamstress, and as a young boy, Balenciaga would often watch her work. He trained as both a tailor and a seamstress, which was particularly unusual in design and couture, meaning that he was skilled in all areas of design. Balenciaga was born firstly as a boutique in Spain, and then a couture house in Paris in 1937.

 The exhibition explores different aspects of Balenciaga’s designs, emphasising his interest in cut and drape, as well as his meticulous attention to detail. He was famous for his attention to detail and his perfectionism, fitting each model himself, as well as his creative innovation in shapes. His more challenging and innovative work came in the 1950s, when his designs became increasingly minimalist. As well as his interest in capes, he also came up with the concept of the ‘semi-fit’ and the so-called ‘sack dress’. The dominant silhouette at the time, taken from Christian Dior’s New Look, was focused on the waist; in Balenciaga’s envisioning, the ‘sack dress’ eradicated the waist, instead ballooning out and totally transforming the body. Though the Daily Mail at the time proclaimed ‘It’s hard to be sexy in a sack!’ the shape has endured: in many ways, this daring dress predicated the coming popularity of shift dresses in the 1960s. 

Image credit: Alberta Tiburzi in 'envelope' dress by Cristóbal Balenciaga, Harper's Bazaar, June 1967 © Hiro 1967

His experimentation continued into the 60s, with his innovations in the baby doll dress, and the beautiful but totally impractical envelope dress. With its elevated shoulders, sunken arms and tapered skirt, the dress is more of a piece of art then a garment. There are some other examples of his ingenuity: a cape that can also be worn as an overskirt to add volume from either the shoulders or the waist. There is also a pleated jacket with discrete string which means it hold its striking shape. These are pieces of clothing that elevate dressing to a new art form, as well as challenging received ideas about feminine shapes.

In two displays, of a cape and a dress, x-rays of the entire garment have been included to expose the underlying structure. This shows the ingeniousness of the design, as well as the levels of process undertaken in creating form and shape. An intricate pink and white sequin coat is also presented as example of the craftsmanship so often seen in his work. This coat has been meticulously layered with silk that has been dip dyed and then embellished with three different kinds of sequins.  Visitors are also asked to attempt to make their own paper version of the one seam coat, a deceivingly simple design for a cocooning coat.

Image credit: Cristóbal Balenciaga at work, Paris, 1968. Photograph Henri Cartier-Bresson © Henri Cartier-Bresson, Magnum Photos

A highlight of the exhibition is the hats on display. Many of these were designed by milliner Vladzio Jaworowski d'Attainville, who was also Balenciaga’s partner until his death in 1948.  There are some incredible designs here; a black sail hat sweeps grandly across the head; the white pillbox hat was supposed to be worn straight down on the head; a more surreal design made from straw leaves that look like ears of corn.

Balenciaga’s influences were varied and he drew inspiration from traditional Spanish dressing and toreador costuming, as well as from 19th century drapery. In the upstairs of the exhibition, there are several displays with examples of work from other designers, including Balenciaga’s pupil Givenchy, Roskanda Ilincic, and Gareth Pugh showing the longevity of his influence. The influence of his silhouette is particularly felt in the work of Joseph Font for Deplozo whose minimalist toreador jacket is something you could just imagine being designed by the man himself.

This exhibition is a must for anyone interested in couture, and wants to learn about the patience, attention to detail and sheer skill that goes into crafting enduring and influential designs.

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion is at the Victoria and Museum until 18 February.