London: Balenciaga Shaping Fashion at the V&A


Victoria & Albert Museum

I was so happy we were in time to see the exhibit Balenciaga Shaping Fashion at the Victoria & Albert Museum. To quote the V&A site “This exhibition examined the work and legacy of influential Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga, with over 100 pieces crafted by ‘the master’ of couture, his protégées and contemporary fashion designers working in the same innovative tradition.”

The notes of the show:

Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895-1972) was one of the most revered fashion designers of the 20th century. His clothes were characterised by their sculptural quality, deft manipulation of textiles and dramatic use of colour and texture. His contemporaries called him The Master.

One hundred years after Balenciaga established his first dressmaking business in northern Spain, this exhibition reveals what made Balenciaga’s work so exceptional and how it continues to shape fashion – in couture and on the high street – today.



Balenciaga’s training set him apart. Unlike most couturiers he was skilled in every stage of the making process: designing, cutting, tailoring and dressmaking.



Bold Shapes: Designs such as this evening dress and cape from 1961 show how striking Balenciaga’s work remained during his long career. Bold colours, abstract architectural shapes and the clever manipulation of fabrics such as this stiff silk gazar are typical of Balenciaga. Their originality demonstrates why he had such a lasting impact on fashion.




Abraham of Switzerland developed a strong working relationship with Balenciaga. The company produced seasonal collections of textiles in different fibres, weaves, printed patterns and colour combinations from which Balenciaga selected those he wanted to use. As an influential client, he was sometimes guaranteed exclusive use of a design. In the 1950s and 60s, he worked closely with Abraham to develop new fabrics.



Spanish influence




FABRIC: The strong architectural shape of this dress relies on its fabric: a stiff silk gazar which stands away from the body and holds its form. The main dress is made of a single piece joined at the back with no side seams – a characteristic of Balenciaga’s designs. a second panel of fabric hangs from the shoulders and is secured with bar tacks under the arms, creating the illusion of a loose, unstructured garment. Underneath, however, a stiff corset (visible in X-ray) ensures a secure fit. As in many Balenciaga designs, the plain front of this ‘Tulip’ dress (as critics soon dubbed it) reserves interest for the back, with a large bow reminiscent of Japanese kimono.




‘Tulip’ dress



Invisible Engineering: Here a T-shaped kimono cape is manipulated into dramatic folds by an invisble internal ribbon, which runs the length of the inside sleeves and holds the gathers in place.



I love all of the X-rays of the garments to be able view the internal construction



Activity time!



Balenciaga made several different versions of his sari dresses. Indian saris are formed of a single, long piece of special fabric which is pleated and wrapped around the body. This couture version, however, is built from many separate pieces. The outer layers are sewn and hooked to a boned underdress. A mock pallu or drape falls from the back to the front.



KIMONO COUTURE: Madeleine Vionnet probably introduced Balenciaga to Japanese kimono. The French designer hung Japanese ukiyo-e (‘floating world’) prints in her studio and was inspired by non-Western fashion. Balenciaga first used a kimono sleeve, cut from the same piece  of cloth as the sholders, in 1939. Here he adopts a kimono sleeve and wide, obi-style belt. However, unlike in kimono, the waist on this dress remains defined.



If the cost of his Paris salon was out of reach, there were other ways to buy a Balenciaga design. Some were sold less expensively under Balenciaga’s label Eisa in Spain, where labour costs were lower and cheaper fabrics might be used.



The photograph shows an earlier version of this coat, before actress Ava Gardner adapted it by adding ostrich feathers. The embroidered fabric and scalloped edge are similar to – but not the same as – a design in the Paris collections, so the fabric may be Spanish. Gardner referred to her couture garments as her ‘babies’ and insisted on opening her wardrobe daily to let them ‘breathe’.





‘Almost air-borne’ was how Vogue described this historically inspired evening dress. ‘Taffeta as thin as burned paper, shaped into harem skirts. Balenciaga’s source: the balloon skirts of the women of Ibiza, who look like clouds walking.’ Skillful draping of the finest silk taffeta creates this effect. Great swathes of fabric, supported by hoops, are drawn towards the back from the centre front seam. The skirts are shaped through ‘bagging out’, which creates spacious voids which fill with air as the wearer walks. At the hem are ties which knot above the knee, lifting and balooning the hem for yet more drama.



FABRICS FOR COPIES: This book from Harrods department store records it purchases from the Swiss textile manufacturer Abraham. The fabrics were needed to make high-quality copies of Balenciaga garments, using where possible the same fabrics as the originals. Harrods produced them on-site in large workrooms. They boguht designs from Balenciaga from 1938 until he retured in 1968.



CHINA THROUGH FLAMENCO: Balenciaga commissioned this embroidery design, which is seen on the nearby cocktail dress. It is based on the brightly coloured, floral embroidery of Manila shawls. Such shawls, often worn by flamenco dancers, were imported from China via the Philippines, which were under Spanish rule from 1565 to 1898. They were prized possessions worn in Spain for many festivities and rites of passage. The use of neon-bright oranges and pinks echoes the palette of 1960s fashions.




2 garments in 1




SHOES FOR EVERY OUTFIT: Elizabeth Parke Firestone had a pair of shoes made for every outfit in her couture wardrobe. In her letters to Madame Alice at Balenciaga, she asks that sample fabrics be sent to her shoemaker, so that the colour could be matched.

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