Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion at the V&A London. A Review
17/07/2017 § 2 Comments
I’ll get what I didn’t like about this exhibition out of the way first and then move on to what I did like, because while the positives far outweigh the negatives, the V&A, like a much loved aunt, has some annoyingly bad habits that make it impossible to love her unconditionally.
The main irritant is the dumbed down curation. There is rarely ever any suggestion that a critical interrogation of the displayed objects is possible, much less desirable. Instead, you get a little card next to the item, describing what you can see – like this:
Well yes, I can see that, you say to yourself – but as it is being displayed in one of the most important museums in the world, is there not more to it than you’re suggesting? Or do you expect us to take everything at face value? Are you assuming that the majority of your visitors are a bit thick and can’t cope with descriptions that invite interpretation, that go beyond the merely prosaic and mundane? Or are ideas only for the people who are prepared to spend £25 on the accompanying book? I know that the V&A prides itself on its popularity. McDonalds is popular. That doesn’t automatically mean it’s any good. I know too that there are some very fine minds working in the V&A, and I don’t understand why their presence is not more evident in the public-facing side of the museum, in the exhibitions and shows that the museum hosts. Come on, V&A, show us your brains.
So now that’s out of the way, I can talk about the exhibition itself.
It’s small – if you went to the McQueen retrospective Savage Beauty, it’s about a fifth of the size of that. The work of Cristobal Balenciaga takes up the ground floor of the small fashion gallery, while upstairs is given over to more contemporary work from designers who are inspired by or derivative of Balenciaga’s innovations. Balenciaga’s output was nowhere near that required of contemporary fashion designers, and this, combined with a historic tendency not to treat designer clothes as culturally significant objects in their own right and so to not retain and maintain them, means that there’s actually a limited amount of his work left in the world to make up a retrospective of this kind.
Nevertheless, the broad theme of construction is clear from the pieces selected, and the architecturality and sculpturalism of Balenciaga’s oeuvre is evidenced across the installations.
This is why Cristobal Balenciaga is so important. While historically fashion has always played with the human form, using various pads, supports and trusses from farthingales and bustles to crinolines and corsets to reshape the body in new and innovative ways, Balenciaga was the first person to use the construction of the garments themselves to create distortion. This requires a very particular skill set, as well as a peculiar and quite remarkable imagination. His design philosophy was writ large on the wall of the exhibition, putting into words what can be read in the clothes, that beauty is not innate, but made.
The exhibition cleverly uses x-rays of some of the creations to show how they were constructed so that there is no need to take the garment apart, in the same way that archeologists will x-ray a site rather than excavate it.
There were also mock-ups of a Balenciaga cloak, which took five other visitors (three young French women, two American seniors) and myself at least ten minutes to work out how it would be worn. The poor model, Ann from Australia, was there for a while until we worked it out. It was a bit of a logic test, but allowed for visitors to interact both with each other and with a designed object, which was nice.
Upstairs, there were designs by Gareth Pugh, Issey Miyake, Azzadine Alaia, and various others, showing how Balenciaga’s heritage is still evident in fashion today. Some of the links were more tenuous than others, and while some pieces were merely derivative there were some that showed real innovation in the designer’s response to the challenge set by Balenciaga.
This exhibition shows how fashion continues its complex dialogue with the human body. Indeterminate boundaries are taken as read, containment continues to be impossible, and shape-shifting is the norm. Cristobal Balenciaga showed how fashion and the body interact to produce some of the most fascinating structures and images of our time, and set the bar for pretty much every fashion designer subsequently. His work is modernity and femininity writ large, in the sorts of dresses and coats and hats that even now, almost one hundred years since he opened his first shop, are still relevant. If you have any sort of interest in fashion, or design, or the human body, you might like this exhibition.
Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion is at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London until 18 February 2018.
All photos taken by Alison Bancroft.