Sunday, 13 August 2017

Balenciaga at the V&A

I've been down to London for a few days, and part of the reason for the trip was to visit the Balenciaga exhibition at the V&A. Most fashion exhibitions at the V&A do not allow photography, and at the recent underwear exhibition even sketching was forbidden, but this time both were permitted. I took a lot of photographs - at one point I honestly thought that my camera was going to overheat and die - but for the sake of everyone's sanity I have edited it down to a sensible number.

The ground floor of the exhibition was all about Balenciaga's own work. It began by looking at the elements of his Spanish heritage which influenced his designs; regional dress, flamenco and bullfighting.

A selection of Balenciaga dresses showing Spanish influences

Unlike most designers, Balenciaga started with a fabric and let its properties dictate the design of the garment. 'Gazar' silk, which is lightweight but stiff, was created in 1958 and became a favourite fabric of his.

Lantern-sleeve silk gazar dress, 1968

There was a whole display of black dresses, including the one which appears of the cover of the catalogue, but I failed to get a decent photograph of them.

'Envelope' dress, 1967, and others

Much easier to photograph were the three outfits which were displayed in detail. These consisted of the original garment(s) on a rotating mannequin, a toile, X-ray images showing details of the construction, and original sketches and photographs.

Silk evening dress and cape, 1967

This dress was displayed inside-out to show the construction details. The edges are bound with silk tulle, and even the zip tape is covered with velvet to make it more comfortable to wear!

Silk gaberdine evening dress, 1963

I can't imagine that this was comfortable to wear, though. The billowing skirt front was achieved by tying the hem around each leg above the knee; the ties are just visible on the toile.

Silk taffeta evening dress, 1964

Talking of toiles; I loved this one for a suit, with the pattern of the fabric drawn on.

Calico toile, 1969-72

Balenciaga was trained in both dressmaking and tailoring, and I imagine that both must have come into play when designing this coat. A piece of ribbon runs inside the sleeve, and holds the elegantly draped pleats in place.

Wool evening coat, 1950

This suit was displayed along with tailoring equipment.

Suit, and tools of the trade

Although Balenciaga was based in Paris, he also ran a Spanish couture house called Eisa (from his mother's maiden name). This produced selected items from the Paris collections, and canny international clients bought their Balenciaga designs there, at a fraction of the cost of the Paris equivalents!

Two Eisa dresses

The Paris premises included two millinery ateliers, and the exhibition included a display of Balenciaga hats. Sadly the lighting was too low for many of the photographs to come out well.

Sketchbook of hat designs, 1963-5

Balenciaga was strict about how his clothes should be worn; this pillbox hat for example was meant to be worn on the top of the head. Its owner, Gloria Guinness, clearly had other ideas.

Leather pillbox hat, 1962

The next case contained a number of amazingly embellished garments.

Embellishment with painting, feathers, embroidery and beads

The white and pink evening coat was made up first, and then beaded. The organza base was dip-dyed, to add to the colour gradation.

Lesage beading sample for the evening coat above right, 1967

This dress for the, ahem, remarkably-proportioned Viscountess Lambton was made differently. The eight panels which make up the dress were marked out on the fabric before the embroidery was done. This meant that no time was wasted embroidering fabric which wouldn't be used. If you look closely you can just see the horizontal bust darts in the centre two sections, but the embroidery is positioned so cleverly that they are almost invisible.

Wild silk cocktail dress with embroidery by Lesage, 1960-2

This dress of hand-painted silk was my favourite thing in the entire exhibition. I loved everything about it; the neckline, the bow, the positioning of the blue flowers on the bodice to be symmetrical but not rigidly so, the way that the yellow and pale blue flowers on the ends of the bow are matched on the respective sleeves. Sigh.

Painted silk dress, 1955-6

The upstairs section of the exhibition looked at Balenciaga's influence; both directly and as a design legacy.

Suits by Balenciaga, 1951 (left) and Gvasalia for Balenciaga, 2016 (right)

Emanuel Ungaro was apprenticed to Balenciaga, and later set up on his own.

Wool gabardine day dress, Ungaro, 1966

Hubert de Givenchy was mentored by Balenciaga, and when the latter closed his house in 1968, he referred most of his clients to his protégé.

Feathered evening dress, Givenchy, 1960

Oscar de la Renta worked briefly at Eisa.

Embroidered silk organza dress, Oscar de la Renta, 2015

Finally, a selection of pieces by designers with no direct link to Balenciaga showed how his ideas continue to influence fashion today.

Rei Kawakubo, Molly Goddard and Delpozo

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, runs until Sunday 18th February 2018.


  1. A lot of bloggers I know seem to be going to this and I can see why, his work really was so interesting. I have to say though, as I said on another blog, that grey wool suit is definitely my favourite. It brings out my inner tailoring geek! xx

    1. There was just so much to admire. I loved the 1951 suit upstairs - it would have been wonderful to see how the fishtail on the jacket moved when it was being worn. xx