Anyone with even a vague interest in fashion is familiar with the names Dior and Channel, but did you know it was a Spanish designer and couturier by the name of Cristobal Balenciaga who they themselves revered and referred to as “The Master”?
The Bendigo Art Gallery is celebrating the fashion and legacy of this fashion icon through its exhibition Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, in conjunction with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It’s toured in other countries but Bendigo is the only place you can see it in Australia. The coups regional art galleries can pull off!
Born in Spain in 1895, Balenciaga was first introduced to sewing by his mother and at 12 years of age became an apprentice tailor. Ten years later in 1917 he opened his first fashion house and later moved to Paris to a fancy street where he remained for the rest of his 50 year career.
A complete perfectionist and with an obsession for sleeves, he was one of the most innovative and influential fashion designers of the 20th century. This was a man who had an amazing understanding of fabrics, which were at the very the heart of his designs and led his pioneering work.
He revolutionised the shape of women’s fashion which was previously dominated by the hour-glass shape by coming up with a range of sculptural and architectural shapes that didn’t accentuate the waist and that still resonate today in fashion. Middle-aged women are still grateful. He is credited with the invention of the sack, tunic, shift and baby doll dresses, a sample of each displayed in the exhibition.
Balenciago dressed some of the most fashionable and influential women of the times including Jackie Kennedy, Grace Kelly and Gloria Guiness. Fashionista Mona von Bismarck was enamoured with his fashions and famously refused to leave her room for three days when news broke that Balenciago was going to close his studio in 1968, claiming there was no one left for him to dress. Clearly she disagreed.
There are two parts to the exhibition. The first explores Balenciaga’s early life and influences, his craftmanship, workrooms and clientele and features garments and hats he crafted from the 1950s and 1960s. Visitors are able to peer back into how he worked in his salons and workrooms through a collection of sketches, patterns, photographs and fabric samples, and watch the fashions being strutted out on the catwalks of decades ago.
Some of my favourite pieces were the x-rayed images of some of his pieces which revealed the hidden details and finesse and structure of his work. The work underneath is an artwork in itself.
The second part of the exhibition features Balenciaga’s legacy in the fashion world and looks at his influence on the work of more than 30 fashion designers over the last 50 years including pieces by Calvin Klein and Yves St Laurent and an intriguing black plastic ‘snake dress’ created for Icelandic singer Björk.
Even if you’re not a fashionista, it’s an exhibition with much to see and beautiful details to appreciate, and it may have you looking at the engineering of clothing in a new light.
If you want to catch the exhibition, you’d better hurry along – it finishes on 10 November. Quick sticks.