Balenciaga’s Legacy: Reinventions of the Modern Female Silhouette

The Victoria & Albert Museum puts on a major fashion-related exhibition every year. This year’s show, Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, celebrates the 100th anniversary opening of Balenciaga’s first dressmaking shop in San Sebastian, Spain and the 80th anniversary opening of his haute couture house in Paris, France. The exhibition showcases some 120 outfits and accessories, with the majority of the collection from Balenciaga’s 1950s and ‘60s-era.

The exhibition is housed in a cosy two level space within the V&A. On the ground floor, visitors are led in a counter-clockwise direction between themed window displays of exquisite Balenciaga designs. Each row of display focuses on Balenciaga’s innovations in the female silhouette, broken down into the fundamental elements of modern ‘dress’, including cut, fabric, form, and embellishments.

Balenciaga’s pioneering interpretation of the modern female silhouette was characterized by simplistic straight lines, bulky volume at the back, and obliteration of the waistlines which resulted in the abstraction of the body. For example, the trapeze-shaped volume in his ‘baby doll’ dress blurred the contours of the body. It was surprising to learn that this loose-fitted design was highly controversial at the time, considering how the ‘baby doll’ dress is now so widely adopted and replicated today. If I remember correctly, the baby doll is part of the basic-wear line of Zara and H&M.

Balenciaga’s later designs of the 1960s and ‘70s are characterized by the increasingly architectural shapes in his garments, such as the flared lantern sleeves. Balenciaga worked closely with fabric manufactures, like the Swiss company, Abraham, to produce innovative fabrics such as the lightweight ‘gazar’ silk which could hold the elaborate shapes without cumbersome supportive structures inside.

Semi-fit dress, 1957-58

Finally, the ground floor ends with some of Balenciaga’s most iconic designs such as the ‘unsexy sack’ which eradicated a pinched waist altogether, the ‘semi-fit dress’ which was only fitted in the front but loose in the back, and the three-quarter bracelet sleeve jacket with the stand-away collars which allowed for the display of jewellery at the neck and wrists. These designs contrasted sharply with the dominant, and conventional, waist-hugging, hourglass shape favoured by his contemporary competitors.

Heading upstairs, visitors are welcomed into a high-ceiling, well-lit room. Unlike the first half of the exhibition, which highlighted Balenciaga’s experiment in silhouette, his skills and ingenious designs, the second half focuses on Balenciaga’s legacy and the vast array of designers he has influenced.

We see from the displays that Balenciaga’s commitment to minimalism has been adopted by designers such as Emanuel Ungaro, Rick Owens, and J.W Anderson. Balenciaga’s emphasis on shape and volume that stood away from body has influenced the likes of Molly Goddard, and Rei Kawakubo. Balenciaga’s innovative pattern cutting and adoption of new materials has influenced designers like Issey Miyake, McQueen, Alaia, and a whole wave of designers who came after him. Like Christian Dior once said, ““Haute Couture is like an orchestra whose conductor is Balenciaga. We other couturiers are the musicians and we follow the direction he gives.”

Today, Balenciaga is known more for its streetwear-inspired, knitted, high-top sneakers and oversized hoodies, than for its radically abstracted haute couture dress designs. The V&A exhibition serves as a worthy reminder that it was Balenciaga who laid the foundations for many of the basic dress designs in the western wardrobe that we may take for granted today.

All images author’s own

By Lily Mu

The Virtue of Spectacle and Fantasy in Fashion Exhibitions: Christian Dior, Designer of Dreams at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs

One of the consequences of studying fashion history is that I can no longer go to exhibitions and simply enjoy them in the straightforward way that I used to. The analytical, critical habit takes over and before I know it I’m unpicking everything I see before me. It is hard to remember that sometimes it can be good to just let oneself be carried away by the sheer joyful extravagance of it all.

The iconic Bar Suit, 1947

2017 marks 70 years since the founding of Dior, and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris is celebrating the anniversary with Christian Dior, Designer of Dreams. An expansive exhibition, it charts the history of the illustrious couture house. It’s a smorgasbord of luxury and dazzle, and a reminder of fashion’s power to create seductive spectacle.

No exhibition is perfect and this one has its flaws. The broad brush concept and comprehensive scope could have benefited from some streamlining, and a modified layout of the themed rooms might have constructed a stronger narrative. However, the exhibition’s virtue lies in the breathtaking drama in which Dior’s exquisite creations are displayed. It’s an exhibition that doesn’t seek so much to tell a story as to bombard the visitor with spectacular sight upon spectacular sight.

There’s a room dedicated to dresses inspired by the 18th century, the displays evoking the interiors of Versailles. Further on, paper blooms and trails of paper ivy carpet the ceiling, lit by soft pastel lights. Somehow, it doesn’t seem to matter that the room simply illustrates the frequency with which flowers feature in Dior’s designs. The pure pleasure in seeing the exquisite craftsmanship of the dresses in such splendid settings replaces the need for lengthy museum-speak explanations.

Some rooms have music playing in the background, or screens showing film clips and interactive touch panels that reveal images and quotes. Three iconic photographs of three iconic Dior dresses are printed on a glass wall. The lighting changes and the photographs disappear, revealing the original dresses behind. Far from overshadowing the clothes, the spectacular displays only enhance the experience of the exquisitely crafted garments.

After a while the visitor begins to feel dizzy with the drama, as the theatricality is amplified until the final room where the exhibition culminates in an explosion of hypnotic, unadulterated spectacle.  Gold glitter cascades from the ceiling and walls, which shimmer and morph into an Italianate fresco, before changing again into the façade of 30 Avenue Montaigne. Fantasy truly takes over in this room where sequinned dresses sparkle and glint under the shifting lights.

Emerging from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs onto the Rue du Rivoli one has that dazed feeling of having been woken slightly too early from the most fantastic reverie. If Christian Dior ‘Designed Dreams’, then this exhibition takes those dreams and works them into the display itself, creating a fashion fantasy-world.

Visit Christian Dior, Designer of Dreams at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs until 7 January 2018.

http://www.lesartsdecoratifs.fr/en/exhibitions/current-events-1322/musee-des-arts-decoratifs/christian-dior-couturier-du-reve/

 

Leah Gouget-Levy

(Non) Fashion exhibitions

Lists such as Dazed’s “Fashion exhibitions you don’t want to miss in 2016” are a familiar feature of the end-of-year frenzy. Yet as fashion exhibitions gain popularity (they are the blockbusters bringing big money into museums­­), offers have widened. Brands in fact now stage their own exhibitions: this year London saw Louis Vuitton and Chanel battling for social media presence through hashtag-inducing displays. Yet for those interested in the history of fashion, there is also a lot to gain from “non-fashion” exhibitions.

2015 fashion exhibitions: Series 3 by Louis Vuitton, Mademoiselle Privé by Chanel (Saatchi Gallery), Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (V&A), and the Jeanne Lanvin exhibition (Musée Galliera).

2015 fashion exhibitions: Series 3 by Louis Vuitton, Mademoiselle Privé by Chanel (Saatchi Gallery), Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (V&A), and the Jeanne Lanvin exhibition (Musée Galliera).

The Vivian Maier exhibition at the Forma fondazione in Milan is one of them. The exhibition showcases over 120 photographs by Chicago photographer and former nanny, Vivian Maier (1926-2009), whose work and story were unearthed by John Maloof in 2007. Maier has since been heralded as “one of the best US street photographers of the 20th century”. Her work however had never been intended for publication: her photographs are personal snapshots of city life in the late 1950s, mostly of Chicago and New York. For the fashion historian, they constitute valuable documents of the ways in which dress was worn and experienced in the 1950s and beyond. Maier had a sharp eye for the dissonances of modern life apparent on the surface of things: the clothing of her subjects often bears the marks of these incongruities.

Two photographs by Maier on display at the Forma Fondazione in Milan.

Two photographs by Maier on display at the Forma Fondazione in Milan.

Her photographs also powerfully articulate the issues that surround the role and representation of women in the postwar years. A photograph taken in the 1950s in a Chicago streetcar for instance highlights the tension between the pervasiveness of women as surface (we discern the fashionable silhouettes of three models on one of the newspapers), and the visibility or agency that is simultaneously denied to them (the image hints at the male-dominated workplace). Her numerous self-portraits however form an interesting counterpoint (also on view at Forma). In these images Maier asserts her presence and reclaims an existence for herself through her own self-fashioning.

The streetcar photograph (Chicago, 1950s) and a self-portrait (New York, 1953).

The streetcar photograph (Chicago, 1950s) and a self-portrait (New York, 1953).

 

This is all to say that there is more than the conventional fashion exhibition for the fashion “geek”, especially as seen through the lens of documentary photography. So to add to the list-mania of the coming weeks, here are some suggestions that go beyond the realm of the fashion exhibition: Germaine Krull exhibition at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin (ends January 31st), Qui a Peur des femmes photographes? 1839-1919 (ends January 24th) at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, Rosângela Rennó’s exhibition at the photographer’s gallery in London (opens January 22nd), Lee Miller: A Woman’s War at the Imperial War Museum (ends April 24th), and the Jacques Henri Lartigue exhibition at Foam (opens January 22th).

A selection of exhibitions for 2016.

References:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/07/books/review/vivian-maier-a-photographer-found-and-more.html?_r=0

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/jul/19/our-nanny-vivian-maier-photographer

http://www.vivianmaier.com