Written by Kat Cutler-MacKenzie (@geometryforbeginners)
The V&A’s latest exhibition, Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, offers a summary of Cristobal Balenciaga’s sculptural and sophisticated approach to design. From armadillo folds to taffeta cascades, the show highlights the worldwide influence of the Spanish couturier. He unclasped the pinched waists of Dior’s ‘new look’ and constructed architectural garments with simultaneous certitude and lightness, the Le Corbusier of couture. However, following Cristobal’s death in 1972 the fashion house clearly changes direction; the garments appear more extravagant, less comfortable and aspiringly ‘cool’.
Born to seamstress Martina Eisaguirre, Cristobal had developed a nonchalant aptitude for tailoring, assisting his mother from the age of eleven. His early mastery of materials and the female form allowed fabrics to dance with rather than across the body: dress, tailor and client were bound by the secrets of the garment.
This is most notable in an X-Ray photograph of ‘Silk Taffeta Evening Dress’ at the V&A, which reveals a sparing but energetic use of wiring. The inner structure swirls with a light and delicate foot as if waltzing amongst a flurry of voluptuous, velvety fabric. Within Balenciaga’s design is an inherent magic, but it is unclear whether this is from tailor or wearer. As Balenciaga stated – perhaps somewhat distastefully – “a woman has no need to be perfect or even beautiful to wear my dresses, the dress will do all that for her”.
Cristobal Balenciaga engineered dresses that were worn by one’s movement rather than one’s body. The elegance of his designs lay in the exacting structure and cut to fit of every garment, individually tailored to each clients’ shape and person. For Balenciaga, to know the female form so closely was to know the luxury that it possessed within. His garments added nothing more, they simply asked one to look again.
However, on the exhibition’s second level (post 1972) we are presented with clothing as art rather than art as couture. The designs seem to rely on embellishment, shape and colour to hide the obvious lack of attention to the body they will adorn. Instead of mystery we are presented with ego; the female form becomes a plaything, bending to the needs of the fabric. Indeed, The Standard commented that Balenciaga “is all about obscuring the female form”, but this is only true in the misinterpretation of Cristobal’s approach following his death.
Yes, his ‘envelope’ and ‘sack’ dresses sound overwhelming, but they allow a woman to move, to be elegant, to be sexy; she is comfortable, confident and indisputably commanding. Whilst a powder pink ball of tulle also envelops its wearer, it doesn’t quite have the same gravity; like candy floss she dissolves into a saccharin sweet cliche of naively yearned for youthfulness. Formal similarities are not enough to uphold the complex thought and care behind Cristobal Balenciaga’s graceful and sumptuous designs.
What Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion highlights so successfully is the current misinterpretation of what it means for a woman to own her body. In aspiring to be cool, sexy or even shocking, her clothes tell a story of insecurity and beauty versus common sense; even when flaunting she is hiding. Perhaps we could return to the confidence of Balenciaga’s 1950s designs, of clothes that exude lavish luxury with the commendable modesty of a woman assured in her own being.
Photo c/o Kat Cutler-MacKenzie.