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. 

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