The first dress visitors to Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion will see, when the exhibition opens at the Victoria & Albert Museum on 27 May, is a lurid pea-green silk gown made in 1962. Hot-air balloon puffs of volume render the figure beneath irrelevant, and the dress stands with its back turned haughtily on the viewer.
“We chose that dress to set the scene, precisely because it’s so odd,” the curator Cassie Davies-Strodder explained during a preview of the exhibition in the final stages of installation. “Balenciaga is about the kind of beauty which has a weirdness about it.”
Cristóbal Balenciaga is a giant of fashion history but presents a challenge for curators hoping for blockbuster visitor numbers. Coco Chanel has pearls and tweed suits, Christian Dior has New Look full skirts, but to most people the name Balenciaga conjures up nothing more than a vague image of a loose black dress. After banning the press from many of his catwalk shows and giving only one interview during his lifetime, the designer “has been written out of history a little bit”, says Davies-Strodder.
Shaping Fashion frames Balenciaga as a mid-century provocateur, an early rebel against the fashion industry’s narrow definition of beauty. Famously, as a tailor he preferred the look of a softly rounded tummy to a concave waist, finding it the most sensual of womanly curves. Many of his most iconic pieces, such as the “sack” and “envelope” dresses, eliminated the waist entirely. Subtly fuller-figured mannequins have been used in the show to reflect the aesthetic of a designer who hired models of different races, ages, shapes and sizes to walk in his shows. (Balenciaga’s unconventional models were dubbed “the monsters” by the media.)
Visitors hoping for the high emotion of the V&A’s Savage Beauty retrospective of Alexander McQueen or the buzz of the David Bowie show will find Shaping Fashion an altogether milder experience. But it is clever, rather than overly cerebral, and there is plenty of glamour in gowns of sultry black lace and opera coats with sleeves of feathers. The most dazzling pieces are arranged in cases dressed to resemble the designer’s atelier, “to give visitors a sense of the luxury of the couture customer’s experience”, says Davies-Strodder.
For the fashion nerd, much of the appeal of Balenciaga is in its unique internal construction. Clients were known to send dresses back pleading that they were impossible to pee in. Museum curators have admitted to leaving pieces hanging in archives for decades after being unable to decide which way up they should go. “It is difficult to communicate to a modern audience how much work went into these clothes, because if you buy fast fashion, you have no concept,” says Davies-Strodder. Her team have addressed this by “exploding” dresses, so that a Tulip dress is displayed on a mannequin next to an X-ray of its construction, which immediately unpacks the secrets of its complex seaming. Even better, visitors can leave with a Balenciaga selfie: two mock-ups of a multifunctional piece from 1956 which can be worn as either an evening skirt or a cape are laid out for trying on, against a mocked-up wall of the 50s salon.
The upper floor of the exhibition makes a convincing case for Balenciaga as a godfather of modern fashion. A simple white gown made by Phoebe Philo’s Celine for Tilda Swinton’s Bafta red carpet turn in 2012 has strong echoes of Balenciaga’s uncompromising minimalism. Pieces by designers as diverse as Azzedine Alaïa, Comme des Garçons, Gareth Pugh and Molly Goddard are brought together under the umbrella of Balenciaga influence. But the real life and energy of this show is not in the contemporary pieces, but on the ground floor among the fearsome ghosts of Balenciaga, his “monster” models, and a glamorous clientele which included Elizabeth Park Firestone of the Firestone Tyre fortune, Ava Gardner, and Mona Bismarck, whose devotion to the couturier ran so deep that she had gardening shorts made to order.
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