Balenciaga. Shaping Fashion. at the V&A

A few weeks ago, a friend and I went on a multiple museum day out in London, visiting three fashion exhibitions and a talk. Since finishing my undergraduate degree, I am more conscious that ever to keep my fashion history interests, thirst for knowledge and desire to research alive. Therefore, Sarah and I planned a strategic day out on a day we both fortunately didn't have work. 

As this day was so packed with culture, I am going to divide my account into three, a post for each event or exhibition to give each the recognition that it deserves. Thus begins Part One...

We began at the V&A and ensured that we took full advantage of the brand new 'Exhibition Road' entrance, leading to the innovative Exhibition Road Quarter of the museum. I thought it was beautiful how the architect(s), Amanda Levete Architects (AL_A) combined the old with the new in this bright and beautiful structure. Two of the pillars that create the archway entrance are original arches of the 19th century screen designed by Sir Aston Webb, complete with war wounds and visible signs of their impressive history. 

Fortunately, Sarah has a V&A Membership, so we both got to enter the exhibition for free, me as her guest. What pleasantly surprised me at the entrance desk of the fashion exhibition space was a sign stating that 'photography and sketching [was] encouraged'. I don't believe I have ever been to a fashion, or any fee-charging, ticketed exhibition in fact, exhibition in the V&A that allowed photography. Of course, people still take a sneaky photo here and there, but on the whole, it has been forbidden in the past. This sign appeared to be a catalyst for new techniques in curation unveiled throughout the museum.

I, undoubtedly, took full advantage of the ability to take photographs of the exhibition. As I prepare for my Masters, I am trying to hone my interested into one area of fashion history. Currently, I am increasingly drawn to the curatorial / exhibition making side to this subject, and the study of fashion within the museum environment. This interest comes from various sources, from the extensive  revision I had done for my final year exam, to beginning volunteering at Fashion & Textiles Museum,  and my continued work researching and cataloguing the private archive, THE ARC. Therefore, being able to take reference photographs at 'Balenciaga. Shaping Fashion' will, no doubt, come in very useful in the near future. I did wonder whether the reason photography was allowed was a decision made by the house of Balenciaga, or whether it was a mutually agreed term between the designer and the museum, as perhaps things like copy-right of images are harder to negotiate when an exhibition combines many different designers. Being that Balenciaga lent many of the pieces from their own archives, they would whole responsibility for how the images are used. Similarly, photography and sharing on social media is a great form of promotion and, essentially, free marketing and advertising. [1] Whatever the agreement was, the fact that photography and sketching was, not just allowed, but in fact encouraged, was a great development.

Many things about this exhibition stood out as innovative and invigorating. A key technique that was used in the exhibition was X-Raying the garments, so that the otherwise unseen structural features of the clothes become visible. 

Another amazing feature of this exhibition was the wide variety of sources on display. Many of the garments on display we shown in all stages of their creation, from Cristobal Balenciaga's sketches, to initial mock ups in calico (or similar), and also videos that demonstrate the intricate constructions of the garments. I feel this exhibition would have been fascinating, not only for fashion historians such as Sarah and myself, but also fashion students, as the detail and in depth focus on construction was unlike any exhibition I have been to before. 

Another really engaging part of the exhibition, was the tangible elements that featured at various points throughout. Firstly, as shown above, was a station in which you were provided with one piece of paper that had instructions on how to fold and tear in order to create a one seam dress coat, in the style of the Balenciaga version on display. I can only assume that this was a very inexpensive addition, after all, it was simply paper. However, it was so interesting, and fun at the same time. A repeated topic within debates surround fashions place in museums, questions arise around the seeming frivolity and fickleness of fashion, and whether the subject matter is too low-brow, unintelligent or 'fun' for the museum. 

I've mentioned before that I believe there is a certain sense of escapism when visiting a museum. Part of escapism, for some, can be elements of having fun and enjoying oneself. I think this practice station at 'Balenciaga. Shaping Fashion.' could add to a visitors sense of escapism. I also liked that it encouraged the viewer to be the creator. While, of course, Balenciaga was the focus of this exhibition, to celebrate his talent and skill, it was nice to let visitors have the opportunity to, themselves, become creators. 

There was also a dress up corner, which I am a huge fan of. When a fashion museum has a dress up corner, I love it a slight bit more! 

The final part of the exhibition I wanted to address was the upstairs section. For those who have not visited the fashion and textiles gallery at the V&A, it is important to understand that the space is circular in design. The permanent fashion collection runs around the outer section of the space, in  a chronological format. The fashion exhibition space is in the centre, and mimics the circular shape. Downstairs, it is easy to forget about this, due to glass cabinets and displays that appear angular and rectangular. Upstairs, however, always seems weirdly shaped, sparse and almost irrelevant to the downstairs exhibition, despite being part of it. For 'Balenciaga', the upstairs did feel like a better use of space. The walls had been built up, so you didn't look down upon the permanent fashion collection over the railings, and instead the walls were filled with quotes from designers who claim to have been inspired by Balenciaga. This, at least, made it feel far more separate and focused. Similarly, the arrangement of display and curatorial space arrangements were, in my opinion, far better! The space was laid out with one focus cylinder in the centre, which had a projection of a dress onto it. Each display case lead towards this point, making the space linear, yet working with the circular space in a seemingly logical manner, with no wasted space or emptiness. This, I believe, was an improvement. 

However, I did find, as I always tend to with the upstairs section of any fashion exhibit in this space, that the pieces on display were not exactly...relevant, for lack of a better word. Upstairs held contemporary designers who, as I mentioned previously, were 'inspired by Balenciaga'; from use of tailoring, colour or architectural structure. Now I do see where this idea comes from, and I can appreciate that fashion is cyclical etc. However, some of the garments appeared to be very much 'clutching at straws' in their link to Balenciaga. Perhaps they were pieces from the V&A archive that had never been displayed, or at least not for a while, and needed a bit of attention paid to them? Perhaps they needed to be included for a matter of funding or sponsorship? I will probably never know the answer to these questions, but I can conclude that that fact I didn't take a single photograph of the upstairs of the exhibition, probably means I didn't find it that interesting, or want to remember it!

That being said, overall 'Balenciaga. Shaping Fashion.' was a brilliant exhibition, in terms of curatorial innovation, visitor integration and engagement and level of artefacts on display. In my view, this wasn't just a 'fashion exhibition', it was a celebration of the craftsmanship that inevitably goes hand in hand with haute couture fashion. 

I will leave you with my final case from the exhibition, and no surprise at all, it is a display of several black Balenciaga garments. 

[1] The idea of the commercial aspect of fashion museums of living fashion houses or designers is a really interesting subject that I have been doing some research on, but have yet formed a cohesive academic opinion and argument on, so I will leave this as it is, until further notice. 


Google's Art & Culture App

On hearing the theme of the Met's summer fashion exhibition, Rei Kawakubo / Commes des Garçon: Art of the In-Between, I straight away started researching flights and hotels in Manhattan for a few days in order to visit it. Ultimately, I am not in the position to spend at least £500 to visit this exhibit, as much as I was trying to convince myself that I could - and live on basic's baked beans for the foreseeable future!

However, my desire to explore Art of the In-Between has just been fulfilled through Google's Art & Culture App! This app provides an interactive and in-depth virtual experience of going through the exhibition, complete with text panels, images of the installations and video clips. As a Fashion & Dress History soon-to-be graduate, I am all too aware that physically visiting an exhibition is pivotal in the learning, understanding and absorbing of an exhibition. The actual experience of seeing garments, experiencing the atmosphere and loosing oneself in the museum experience is irreplaceable. Museums are places of escapism, of enlightenment and to immerse oneself into a liminal space. There will always be a need, if not necessity, for the museum.

However, sometimes it is logistically impossible to visit all the exhibitions that you desire. In this way, the Google Art & Culture app enabled those interested in enhancing their cultural knowledge and appreciation for the arts, without economic, distance or time constraints. I was surprised to see just how thorough the descriptions and images were. It follows the exhibition through all the rooms and sections, with in-depth descriptions and explanations and incredible images of each room / installation. 

The app has 16 other exhibitions from The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, including a fascinating section going 'Behind the Scenes' at the Costume Institute Conservation Lab, a space that many people have only imagined it to look like.

Aside from the Met, Google Art & Culture app also give it's user virtual access to many other incredible  galleries and museums. Currently on the app's homepage there is a link to the article,  'Explore Stylist Locations Around the World in Street View', which includes the Palace of Versailles, ModeMuseum Province Antwerpen, Museo Frida Kahlo and Parsons School of Design amongst many others. This means you can take in culture and creativity from across the world from the comfort of your own country. In fact, there are 2888 museums / galleries available via Street View on the app!

According to reports by the Business of Fashion, the aim was “to bring 3,000 years of fashion to the Google Arts & Culture platform...The initiative is based on the premise that fashion is culture, not just clothes. Led by Kate Lauterbach — a Google program manager who began her career at Condé Nast in New York and later worked for J.Crew’s Madewell — it aims to digitise and display thousands of garments from around the world, stage curated online exhibitions, invite non-profit partners like museums and schools to script and share their own fashion stories, and leverage technologies like Google Street View to offer immersive experiences like virtual walkthroughs of museum collections.'[1]

Google have been digitising the art world since 2010, when an engineer named Amit Sood kickstarted the Google Art Project, which enabled users to virtually walk through art galleries and museums across the world, making cultural artefacts accessible in extraordinary detail to millions of internet users. The project has since grown into the Google Cultural Institute, which is non-profit and housed in a grand hôtel particulier in  Paris. The Google Cultural Institute has partnered with over 1,300 museums, showcasing a range of different artefacts and art pieces to users worldwide.  

However, their current the main focus seems to be on fashion, more specifically fashion's relationship with art is new. With featured content such as 'The True Cost of Fashion' and the aforementioned 'Art of the In-Between' exhibition, this focus is incredibly interesting for me, as I am currently in a limbo-like state, somewhere lost between awaiting my undergrad results and staring at an incomplete Master's application. Yesterday, the 8th of June, marked the last day I was able to take books out of the library until I (hopefully) enrol onto my preferred Master's course, which leaves about 3 l-o-n-g months that I would be intellectually limited. Although I am able to use 'desk reference' books at my university library, with the help of the Art & Culture app I will be able to soak in fashion and art history from the comfort of my new flat. 

Although this seems very much like a sponsored article, due to my apparent love of the app, I genuinely just find it amazing! I only just discovered it this morning and I have already given myself a migraine from just browsing the different exhibitions and museums that it has to offer (true story - my vision has only just come back, and I'm sure staring at this screen is likely to make it resurface!). A large part of my degree was debating where fashion is art. Lauterbach said to BoF "We wanted to show that fashion is much deeper than just what you wear; that there’s a story behind it, there’s people behind it, there’s influences that come from art, that come from music, that come from culture more broadly; and, in turn, what we wear influences culture. We really wanted to put fashion on a par with art and artists." Which is definitely something worth considering, and may even pose as a research topic for further work. 

The Google Art & Culture app is free to download, and I would say it is an absolute must have for anyone interested in fashion, art, design or craft, both the history of and contemporary examples.

You can download it on iTunes here or on Google Play for Android here

[1] Vikram Alexei Kansara, 'Why is Google digitising the worlds of fashion archives?', Business of Fashion, 8 June 2017. 


Balenciaga - L'oevre au Noir

In light of the impending opening of 'Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion' exhibition at the V&A this coming Saturday, I became aware of another Balenciaga exhibition currently on display. 

Held at Musée Bourdelle, part of the infamous Palais Galliera, in Paris, 'Balenciaga - L'oevre au Noir', is an exhibition paying homage to the 'couturier of couturiers'. Curated by Véronique Belloir, the curator of haute-couture collections at Palais Galliera, this exhibition displays variations of black repeated in over a hundred of pieces from the Galliera collections and the archives of Maison Balenciaga. 

While I am excited to visit the V&A interpretation of curating Cristóba Balenciaga, unsurprisingly, when I learnt of the Parisian exhibition, centring on my favourite shade, I knew both were must sees. Although I have yet to attend this exhibition - I have a last minute and air b'n'b open in tabs on my mac as I type - the images I have seen thus far illustrate my personal mantra about black. Balenciaga expertly utilised black in different textures, materials, finished and silhouettes to show the versatility of the shade. In fact, as Belloir states, “[r]evisiting Balenciaga’s work without the distraction of color enables us to focus our gaze on the essentials, and enter into the subtlety of his materials and execution.” To further this, in 1938, Harper’s Bazaar described Balenciaga black as “almost velvety, a night without stars, which makes the ordinary black seem almost grey.”[1]

According to the Palais Galliera description of the exhibition, Balenciaga was motivated by black; it was this exceptionally skilled tailor's preference. "Balenciaga saw black as a vibrant matter whether it be opaque or transparent, matt or shiny - a dazzling interplay of light, that owes as much to the luxurious quality of the fabrics as to the apparent simplicity of the cut." [2] The exquisite tailoring that Balenciaga is famous for, combined with juxtaposing fabrics, such as lace highlights on silk velvet, to a cape reinvented as a coat, ensures that each all black ensemble is intrinsically different and each can individually be admired. 

What perhaps interests me the most is the curatorial decisions of the exhibition. As illustrated above, the garments are mounted amongst sculptures in the Musée Bourdelle, supposedly to mirror the "pure sculptural effect of Balenciaga's creations."[2] This museum is entirely dedicated to the work of early-20th-century sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, providing an interesting space to present fashion and dress. Throughout my undergraduate degree, I have become interested in fashion curation, and the way in which the display of fashion and textiles has changed and developed over time. I really appreciate this multidisciplinary route of display, utilising other forms of art as a compliment, rather than a backdrop, to the haute-couture clothing. As can be seen in the below images, the structural tailoring of the garments really are enhanced by the surrounding sculptures and dramatic use of light. 

In the scenography, the Palais Galliera director Olivier Saillard made the most of the museum’s vertical space, propping dresses up high and arranging them in mirrored stands as a counterpoint to the museum’s sculpture collection. [3] Hamish Bowels, writing for Vogue, describes the space as follows, "[s]et to float among Bourdelle’s epic statues and portrait busts, or framed by black walled cases, in both the hubristically scaled galleries and in the sculptor’s more intimately scaled atelier, the exhibition, is revelatory." [4]

Having seen the press shots of the exhtion in Paris, and potentially seeing it before it closes in July, it would be interesting to contrast it to the 'Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion' version at the V&A, which certainly does not shy away from the bright opulent colours also used by the couturier. Similarly, to compare the use of space will be of interest, as the V&A has a dedicated, separate space for Fashion and Textiles within it. 

'Balenciaga - L'oevre au Noir' is an exhibition that speaks to me for many reasons. Firstly, and most obviously, it's focus on all black ensembles of course entices me. Not only will it showcase the beauty of black, along with a versatility that I have always believed in, it may also serve as inspiration of how I can put together my own exclusively black attire. 

Secondly, the innovative and interesting approach to curating the garments alongside the existing, traditional sculptures of the museum really intrigues me, and is something that I wish to study further in my academic endeavours.

The exhibition is open until 16 July 2017. 

[1] Sarah Moroz, 'Tracing Balenciaga’s History of All-Black Outfits' The Cut, NY Mag, 5 March 2017.

[3] Tina Isaac-Goizé, 'Balenciaga, All Black', Vogue, 5 March 2017.

[4] Hamish Bowels, 'Balenciaga Is the New Black: The Fashion World Fetes the Designer’s Retrospective in Paris' Vogue, 6 March 2017.


Perspectives on Fashion Curation

 Disclaimer: this post was first published on the University of Brighton's History of Art and Design blog. All words are my own.

For a two week period, London College of Fashion (LCF) took over House of Vans in Waterloo with an exhibition and programme of events called Found In Translation, showcasing work from the School of Media and Communication postgraduate courses at LCF.  These include Master’s courses of interest to Brighton’s History of Art and Design BA programme students including Costume for Performance, Fashion Cultures, and perhaps most relevant for those studying Fashion and Dress History, Fashion Curation.

On Friday 17 February, I attended Perspectives on Fashion Curation: a series of presentations by some of the leading figures who teach on LCF postgraduate programmes in Fashion and Dress History and Fashion Curation. The event was chaired by Ben Whyman, the manager for Centre of Fashion Curation, and began with presentations from several experts in the field talking about different areas of fashion curation and exhibition making.

Susanna Cordner introduced the London College of Fashion Archive which is open by appointment only and has a vast array of fashion objects, literature and other artefacts. The collection includes 650 shoes from the Cordwainer College Archive dating back to the 18th century. Cordner has worked hard to create an immersive experience from the archive and organises events such as the Object Reading Group, where an object is presented and attendees discuss them, and Sartorial Stories, when a guest speaker from the industry, from designers to editors, bring in an object and discusses it in relation to their career and the fashion industry.

Jeff Horsley explored concepts of exhibition making, and spoke in great detail about the fashion displays in Antwerp that he has been researching for his PhD. Themes of his talk included the importance of exhibition entrances, concepts of what ‘objects’ are within a museum context and the use of mannequins for historical dress vs. contemporary haute couture that could be displayed on a live model. This is something Claire Wilcox  – curator of the exhibition Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty – has explored with Fashion in Motion at the V&A by presenting contemporary fashion on live models around the museum rather than confined to a glass cabinet. Wilcox, who began working at the V&A in 1979, also spoke about changes in fashion collecting and the shifting attitudes towards fashion exhibitions and contemporary designers in a museum collection.

The penultimate presentation was an overview of the Fashion Space Gallery that is at the campus just off Oxford Circus. The space relaunched in 2014 and was described by Ligaya Salazar, the gallery director, as an ‘interdisciplinary incubator of ideas about fashion” and a “think tank for curatorial ideas and experimentation.” Although it is a small space, there is arguably more freedom than at a larger establishment, leading to innovative use of space and creative curatorial decisions. The current exhibition, Museum of Transology, curated by E-J Scott, documents objects of importance to members of the trans community and runs until 22 April 2017.

Their work also goes outside of the gallery with the travelling Polyphonic Playground. This off-site project is a kind of playground apparatus that can be used to make sound art as all of the surfaces use touch technology or electrical conducting thread to create sound.  Similarly, Alison Moloney spoke about a traveling exhibition she worked on called Cabinet Stories in which 7 curators would use the small cabinet space to display objects in different venues, including a women’s prison, an NHS hospital ward for people with suffering with personality disorders, a charity shop in Poplar and an old peoples home. At all the venues, people were encouraged to then display objects that meant a lot to them. This meant that people could get involved from the community in curation, showing the diversity of fashion outside of the museum. Moloney also introduced the project 1914 – Now, a series of films and essays summarising the themes of this event, which was displayed in the exhibition space at House of Vans and also available on SHOWstudio. Fashion films explore initiative ways to present fashion using film, visuals and sound, much in line with the inovations presented at this talk related to new ways to exhibit fashion and dress.

The final portion of the event was a panel discussion with Amy de la Haye, Alison Moloney, Jeffrey Horsely, Ligaya Salazar, and Claire Wilcox, where they discussed what curation meant for them, motivations when creating an exhibition and generally what it is like to curate a fashion exhibition. It was fascinating to hear differing approaches on the subject of fashion curation and to learn more about how experimental the field is.