Cristóbal Balenciaga was famously enigmatic, refusing to come out and take the traditional designer bow after his presentations, and giving only one interview during his fifty-year career.
“[I]t’s very tricky to talk about the man because he’s so absent,” says Cassie Davies-Strodder, curator of “Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion,” a new exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. “He doesn’t talk about his work. There’s a lot of mythology that’s built up around him for that reason. But really I think it’s the work that he wanted to be the most important and it’s the thing that is his legacy.”
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Balenciaga’s first fashion house in San Sebastian, Spain (the designer was born nearby), and the 80th anniversary of the opening of his Paris fashion house. “Shaping Fashion” includes over 100 garments and 20 hats, some of which have never been publicly displayed before. The entire exhibition took two years to assemble.
To shed a little more light (literally) on the mystery man and his designs, the museum collaborated with artist Nick Veasey on x-rays of three dresses, done with a mobile x-ray unit built specifically for use within the museum’s archives. The x-rays, which include images of a 1954 balloon hem dress and a 1967 cape dress, bring new light to the designs in a way never before seen. For example, the cape dress, made from a single piece of silk gazar for socialite Gloria Guinness, has two small metal weights hidden in its seems, which determine exactly how the dress hangs. No one realized the weights were there until the x-rays were taken.
“We wanted a really visual way to show what was going on,” Davies-Strodder explains. “We use x-ray quite a bit in the museum as a science conservation thing, so we’ve x-rayed a lot of very early dress. But we hadn’t done it on this scale before. It gives you a different way to see the garments. In a couple of the hems the seamstresses have left the pins in it, which is a really nice trace of the people who made it.”
Overall, Davies-Strodder hopes the exhibit shows “what a profound and continuing influence [Balenciaga] has on fashion.” She acknowledges that while his influence among designers and other fashion insiders is well-known, “an everyday audience might not know the name.” She continued, “I hope people take away a respect for his work and you start noticing the legacy of the curve sleeves or the Balenciaga coat. You’ll start to see him everywhere.”
To showcase Balenciaga’s impact, the exhibit, sprea