Upon a recent viewing of the Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion exhibition at the V&A, as well as the focus on shapes and forms, I was particularly interested in the mentioning of Balenciaga’s fascination with fabrics. In the exhibition there featured a couple of displays of fabric swatches and samples, including a huge book with fabric samples. One of the textile boards showed a multitude of fabric choices for a single collection — so many colours, patterns, and textures. The board was used as a marker for the models for the order of the show. Rather than representing fashion and dress predominantly through its shape and overall look like we usually do, Balenciaga associated his designs with their fabric, texture and colour. On the board he detailed where the fabric was made and the name of its wearer, providing almost a personality and identity to the fabric itself.
Rather than starting with a design or a sketch, Balenciaga began with the fabric. As he said, “It is the fabric that decides.” His knowledge and interest for different cloths led him to forge very close working relationships with many textile manufacturers worldwide. In order to create the magnificent shapes of his garments, fabric was the most important aspect. Because of this, stiff materials were often needed to hold the shapes of his designs. After his careful selection of fabrics, Balenciaga preferred to start making instead of dwelling on sketches and designs. Instead, a sketch artist would work on the drawings for him, and Balenciaga would attach a fabric sample to the sketch. In the exhibition, a huge book of fabric samples is displayed in a glass case, offering a tactile tease to us viewers — the beautifully coloured fabrics shone in the display light, away from our grasp. In selecting the fabric first, Balenciaga was choosing the viewer and the wearer of the garments, whose skin these designs would be in contact with. The exhibition also had a replica dress of Balenciaga’s that visitors of the exhibition could try on, all in order to recreate the feeling of enveloping oneself in one of his designs.
Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion is on at the V&A until February 18th, don’t miss it!
The Victoria & Albert Museum puts on a major fashion-related exhibition every year. This year’s show, Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, celebrates the 100th anniversary opening of Balenciaga’s first dressmaking shop in San Sebastian, Spain and the 80th anniversary opening of his haute couture house in Paris, France. The exhibition showcases some 120 outfits and accessories, with the majority of the collection from Balenciaga’s 1950s and ‘60s-era.
The exhibition is housed in a cosy two level space within the V&A. On the ground floor, visitors are led in a counter-clockwise direction between themed window displays of exquisite Balenciaga designs. Each row of display focuses on Balenciaga’s innovations in the female silhouette, broken down into the fundamental elements of modern ‘dress’, including cut, fabric, form, and embellishments.
Balenciaga’s pioneering interpretation of the modern female silhouette was characterized by simplistic straight lines, bulky volume at the back, and obliteration of the waistlines which resulted in the abstraction of the body. For example, the trapeze-shaped volume in his ‘baby doll’ dress blurred the contours of the body. It was surprising to learn that this loose-fitted design was highly controversial at the time, considering how the ‘baby doll’ dress is now so widely adopted and replicated today. If I remember correctly, the baby doll is part of the basic-wear line of Zara and H&M.
Balenciaga’s later designs of the 1960s and ‘70s are characterized by the increasingly architectural shapes in his garments, such as the flared lantern sleeves. Balenciaga worked closely with fabric manufactures, like the Swiss company, Abraham, to produce innovative fabrics such as the lightweight ‘gazar’ silk which could hold the elaborate shapes without cumbersome supportive structures inside.
Finally, the ground floor ends with some of Balenciaga’s most iconic designs such as the ‘unsexy sack’ which eradicated a pinched waist altogether, the ‘semi-fit dress’ which was only fitted in the front but loose in the back, and the three-quarter bracelet sleeve jacket with the stand-away collars which allowed for the display of jewellery at the neck and wrists. These designs contrasted sharply with the dominant, and conventional, waist-hugging, hourglass shape favoured by his contemporary competitors.
Heading upstairs, visitors are welcomed into a high-ceiling, well-lit room. Unlike the first half of the exhibition, which highlighted Balenciaga’s experiment in silhouette, his skills and ingenious designs, the second half focuses on Balenciaga’s legacy and the vast array of designers he has influenced.
We see from the displays that Balenciaga’s commitment to minimalism has been adopted by designers such as Emanuel Ungaro, Rick Owens, and J.W Anderson. Balenciaga’s emphasis on shape and volume that stood away from body has influenced the likes of Molly Goddard, and Rei Kawakubo. Balenciaga’s innovative pattern cutting and adoption of new materials has influenced designers like Issey Miyake, McQueen, Alaia, and a whole wave of designers who came after him. Like Christian Dior once said, ““Haute Couture is like an orchestra whose conductor is Balenciaga. We other couturiers are the musicians and we follow the direction he gives.”
Today, Balenciaga is known more for its streetwear-inspired, knitted, high-top sneakers and oversized hoodies, than for its radically abstracted haute couture dress designs. The V&A exhibition serves as a worthy reminder that it was Balenciaga who laid the foundations for many of the basic dress designs in the western wardrobe that we may take for granted today.
The current exhibition on show at the Anna Wintour Costume Center at the MET has been given the title Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion. Rather than exploring a theme, as Judith Clark has so brilliantly done with Vulgar at the Barbican Centre, the MET’s assistant curator Jessica Regan presents viewers with a mix of fashion with no unifying theme or trend or feature other that the 50 pieces were acquired over the last decade, and that each may be termed a ‘masterwork’.
A decade since the MET’s last acquisitions show, blog.mode: addressing fashion, in 2007, Masterworks marks a shift in the collecting strategy of the museum when it comes to fashion. The phrase ‘Unpacking Fashion’ speaks to this. The set of the exhibition is formed from crates, suggestive of the archives in which the garments are stored to best preserve them, from which they are then unpacked for display. But the term also refers to the academic practice of unpacking an idea, a point, a proposition in order to understand its significance. Why is a sculptural, slashed tulle gown by Viktor and Rolf worthy of being exhibited in a museum? What makes it seminal, important, a masterwork?
The dress in question is not part of everyday dress trends seen on women walking down the street; it was not mass produced, indeed it was worn by only a handful of people. It may not warrant a significant space in an encyclopaedia of Western fashion, but the challenging design and painstaking skill of its construction make it worthy of celebration. No one else, quite simply, has made anything like it.
The main Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery is organised chronologically, with each garment accompanied by an in-depth explanation, or rationalisation, of its presence in the exhibition. Designers represented range from Paul Poiret to Yves Saint Laurent and Vivienne Westwood. The design advances of new names – Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga – and less widely known – Noritaka Tatehana, maker of the extraordinary heel-less shoes favoured by Daphne Guinness – are acknowledged.
The Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery at the end of the exhibition features ensembles donated by designers on the occasion of the retirement of long-serving curator Harold Koda in January this year. These represent specific masterworks long and especially admired by Koda and include a design, re-made for the occasion, from Karl Lagerfeld’s first collection for Chanel. This stands alongside an intricately embroidered frock coat by Raf Simons for Dior, across from a screen featuring tributes from the great and good of today’s industry.
The lingering question posited by Masterworks is that age old debate: is fashion art? It is clear what the MET believes. The first work you see as you come down the stairs into the exhibition is an expertly crafted Viktor and Rolf dress which resembles a painting smashed over the head of a mannequin – an attempt, surely, to reinforce the point that each garment should be viewed with the same attitude as that afforded by a Van Gogh upstairs. Andrew Bolton, curator-in-charge, has commented on the Costume Institute’s renewed mission ‘to present fashion as a living art that interprets history, becomes part of the historical process, and inspires subsequent art.’ It is a vow restated by this thoughtful exhibition, with extraordinary skill and innovation displayed and emphasised by curious pairings and dramatic exchanges – no more so than in the vivid red of a John Galliano for Martin Margiela coat in conversation with its 18th century inspiration.
Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until 5 February, 2017.
During our MA study trip to New York City we were fortunate to visit several excellent archives. Our very first stop on Monday, to the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Special Collections archive, kicked off the week with a look through fashion illustration’s past. Among the items shown that day were several lady journals dating back to the eighteenth century. An anthology of La Gazette Rose, a Parisian ladies’ magazine, displayed high quality coloured fashion plates from the early 1870s. The plates, interspersed throughout the volume, show women posing in various outdoor settings adorned in sumptuous costume, creating an intriguing contrast between their hyper-decorated dresses and the simplicity of nature.
Paul Poiret objects were also on display, including two early catalogues and a fan from his perfume shop Rosine. The albums, Les Robes de Paul Poiret of 1908 and Les Choses de Paul Poiret 1911, show Poiret’s fashions in the pochoir technique–each limited edition album was laboriously hand stenciled and coloured. The fan, a souvenir from Rosine, featured multiple scents on the back in divided columns.
Finally, we looked through a wealth of mid-twentieth century designer sketches. When we were invited to browse them at the end of our visit, Harriet and Barbora took on that task. Their exploration of several large boxes found inventive sketches by designers like Balmain and Balenciaga.
Later that day, we visited the storeroom of the Museum at FIT. While there, we saw clothing from the 1920s to the 1960s, including a brilliantly beaded dress from the roaring 20s, daringly cut dresses from the 30s, and a full Dior ‘look,’ complete with matching floral cocktail dress, heels, head wrap, and shawl.
Later in the week we stopped by the Parsons School of Design and were introduced to the sketches of former students well-known in the twentieth-century American market: Claire McCardell, Mildred Orrick, and Joset Walker. While at Parsons we also saw a luxurious red evening gown by McCardell and publicity albums from Orrick and Walker.
Our last archive visit was to the Brooklyn Museum where we viewed their collection of playful sketches by Elizabeth Hawes, as well as her publicity albums. Though the museum gave most of their fashion collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2009, they retain sketches like Hawes’ artfully rendered designs. Hawes’ sketches stand out for their attached fabric swatches and humorous names, like ‘Go Home and Tell Your Mother,’ ‘The Clinging Tina,’ and ‘Chicken Little.’
We are extremely grateful for the opportunity to visit each archive. A special thanks to April Calahan at FIT Special Collections, Emma McClendon at the Museum at FIT storeroom, Wendy Scheir at the Parsons Archives, and Lisa Smalls and Deirdre Lawrence at the Brooklyn Museum.
People keep asking, and I keep failing to share a singlefavourite thing from our recent trip to New York. Certainly, the group went into collective paroxysms of bliss when a 1923 opera coat of black velvet, gold brocade and grey chinchilla trim was whirled in front of us at Museum at FIT. There were more than a few exclamations of, “But this place has my entire undergrad art history coursework in it’s collection!” from those who had never been to MOMA. And when the Museum of the City of New York turned out to be a veritable Aladdin’s cave of costume and couture from the city’s historic hoi polloi, I will admit to a certain amount of gaping.
Perhaps that’s it. Proximity, presence, reality—the physical experience of objects we’d only previously seen in print. There is inevitably a certain amount of staring at reproduced images in Art History, and Dress History is no exception. The world doesn’t hold an endless supply of Fortuny Delphos gowns to pass around, no more than it has endless Matisse. Neither can Fortuny be replicated more easily than Matisse, his pleating technique, lost to history has never been accurately replicated. So when a peach silk Delphos is uncoiled from its box, and the lightness and fragility of the silk has to be carefully balanced in an archivist’s hand against the incredible comparative weight of the Venetian glass beads at its sides you can’t help but feel like you’re being let in on a secret. In pictures, both on the body and on mannequins, the Delphos gown lends an air of the impenetrable, neoclassical statuesque. Up close in the Museum at FIT archives, it looks so delicate you begin to imagine what it would be like to wear — how it would cling and skim over your body, the hang of the beads and stretch and pull of the intricately pleated fabric.
Again at FIT, a Charles James gown on display conjured up romantic visions of an idealised 1950’s silhouette, all curves and flounce and extremes of femininity. Exterior layers of tulle belie a lightness, the impression of which is quickly dispelled when confronted with a muslin archive copy that audibly groans on its hanger from the sheer weight of fabric involved in these creations. James’ wish to be regarded as a sculptor make more sense than ever from this vantage, as the dress is able to stand under its own support, and the addition of a body inside it seems inconsequential to its existence.
I could write paragraphs upon paragraphs of examples—how seeing the serious corsetry under a loose, a-line 1962 Balenciaga, or hearing the sheer volume of noise created by a fully beaded 1920’s flapper dress made me feel like I had been handed closely guarded knowledge about dress history. Seeing these garments, even on hangers, or being gently removed from archival boxes gave a sense of weight and movement and even sound that images will always struggle to convey, and which going forward encourages me to seek the real thing out wherever, and whenever possible.
Lesley Miller is Senior Curator of Textiles and Fashion at the V&A and Professor of Dress and Textile History at the University of Glasgow. She has led the curatorial team on the reinterpretation of the Europe 1600-1815 Galleries at the V&A over the last five years, and returns to her duties in Textiles and Fashion in 2016. Her current research projects focus on early modern dress and textiles.
Your first degree was in Hispanic Studies at the University of Glasgow, before you went on to pursue the History of Dress for an MA at The Courtauld. What led you to Dress History? How was the transition; did any interesting connections arise between the disciplines?
The sewing skills I learnt as a child provided the route into historical dress studies while seasonal treks around remnant shops and department stores handling materials laid the foundations for my knowledge of textiles. As a student, I spent my summer holidays making costumes for either theatrical performances or museum displays under the guidance of my mother. Penny Byrde’s book The Male Image alerted us to the existence of the Courtauld course. I was not optimistic that I had the qualifications – no history or art history at undergraduate level. But, I did have more than two modern European languages, and they have proved invaluable throughout my career. Initially, at the Courtauld, having come from a language and literature background without an image or an object in sight, my visual memory was extremely poor. A daily diet of dozens of slides at the Courtauld, a weekly diet of visiting art galleries and the Witt Library’s rich photograph collection soon had its impact – and I am still grateful for that exhilarating training.
What was the History of Dress course like when you studied at The Courtauld?
The History of Dress course was still a two-year programme in 1980 under Aileen Ribeiro’s stewardship: the first year was a survey from the classical world to the present day; the second comprised a special subject – in our case, ‘Dress in England and France, 1740-1790’ – and a 10,000-word dissertation on a subject of our choice – in my case, on men’s dress in Golden Age Spain. The 18th-century course provided my entrée into a PhD on 18th-century French silk manufacturing, while my dissertation put dress into the Golden Age drama I had studied at undergraduate level before I had any inkling of what the plays might have looked like on stage. That research also allowed me to understand the paintings and sculpture I had seen in art gallery, church and street in Castile during the time I had lived there, and the impact they might have had on contemporaries. At the end, I knew that I wanted to pursue research to PhD; that I didn’t want to work in a museum; and that teaching was how to share my newfound passion.
How did your time at The Courtauld make an impact upon you? Can you tell us about your PhD at Brighton University?
The Courtauld Institute and Brighton University were poles apart, the former a small, specialized monotechnic with an exclusive focus on art history (and conservation), quite precious in many ways and isolated from the wider University of London geographically and socially (those were its days at Portman Square). The latter was a polytechnic in which the Art and Design Faculty was developing what became an influential BA in Design History that encouraged the study of and debate around designed objects of all sorts, not just those of top quality for the highest level of society. Indeed, the study of elite art and luxury was at that time rather frowned upon, and study of the silk industry not obviously a happy fit with the more democratic principles of the institution. I was fortunate, however, to have Lou Taylor as my champion and supervisor, she having proposed the project on the basis that British designers and manufacturers from the 18th century onwards always bewailed the excellence of French design over their own. Their assumptions on why this was the case needed investigation. The Research Assistant’s post that I occupied for four years required a small amount of teaching – lectures for first year fashion textile students and the supervision of a few third year dissertations. These duties punctuated periods of research in France. Never having set foot in an art school in my life, I was not best equipped to understand the needs of these students – but was fortunate to have a mentor in Lou who alerted me to the desirability of thinking about my audience and how to engage it. Courtauld-style content and presentation were not going to do the trick!
You taught the History of Design for over 20 years – how did the field change over this time?
As you say, I did teach Design History for many years, and still do, though now only through my own particular specialism (textiles, dress and museology). Indeed, I was lucky to teach not only studio-based design students, but also Design History and Humanities undergraduates, Textiles and Dress History post-graduates (I went to Winchester in 1991 to help Barbara Burman set up an MA in Textile and Dress History, which continues in a slightly different form today in Glasgow under the able stewardship of Sally Tuckett) and Textile Conservation students. When I started out, the secondary literature was very limited, so we often had to work from primary sources – and thus my awareness of object-centred study evolved. Today, there is not only a good range of reliable texts introducing the field, but multiple theoretical approaches to the subject. Earlier historical periods have gradually assumed their place in the literature (in the early days Design History was almost exclusively 19th and 20th-century in focus) and luxury production is no longer denied. The ‘material turn’ in mainstream history is also informing the field, and now, ‘Material Culture History’ provides a more inclusive term for describing what all art and design historians do, alongside archaeologists, anthropologists, and some historians, all with slightly different inflections.
You’ve produced a lot of fascinating work on the 17th and 18th centuries, with an emphasis on silk – how did your research interests develop?
My interest in the early modern period developed through my MA special subject and dissertation, and then led directly into my PhD – and I have never let go. My initial interest in designers in the Lyon silk industry has gradually broadened into an investigation of other trades in manufacturing, notably that of manufacturer and that of salesman. Of course, my greatest pleasure is burrowing into archives to find the elusive documents I haven’t yet read – or to explore in more depth the manufacturers who emerge from my work on V&A objects. A classic example is my recent introduction to a facsimile of a merchant’s sample book of 1764, kept in the V&A collections. The identification of manufacturers’ initials in this book has given me the perfect excuse to frequent that great French gastronomic centre again – and appreciate how archive-management has evolved. Thirty years ago, I couldn’t quite believe that anyone would stick with the same subject for a life-time. Now, I understand the addiction – and, of course, now, it is much easier to travel and do research efficiently in short bursts, armed with laptop and digital camera instead of simply pencil and paper. Nonetheless, a prolonged period of time getting to know the place of production or consumption, as well as its archives, is invaluable. Silk is a very seductive fabric on which to focus, but, at the end of the day, it is the people who designed, made and wore silk that fascinate me.
You wrote a wonderful monograph on the Spanish fashion designer, Cristóbal Balenciaga. What led you to focus on Balenciaga? What do you think of the house today?
Ironically, my monograph – not wonderful, but certainly one of the first serious attempts at an analytical approach to understanding a fashion designer’s reputation through his work and context – was the result of failure. Thanks to Aileen’s recommendation, as I was finishing my PhD, Batsford commissioned me to write a book on dress in Golden Age Spain, one of a series on Dress and Civilisation. Unfortunately, the first two books in the series did not sell as well as anticipated, and since I was lagging behind (PhD dissertations never take as little time to write as one imagines), my contract was cancelled. Within a month, however, Batsford decided to launch its Fashion Designer series, asking me whether I might like to take on Balenciaga. I had French and Spanish and some knowledge of the corresponding cultures and their art, and had much appreciated the pioneering Balenciaga exhibition at the Musée des Tissus in Lyon in the first year of my PhD, which underlined the designer’s debt to textiles. Understanding of historical dress was fundamental in the case of a designer whose oeuvre owes a great debt to dress from 17th – 19th centuries. I accepted with alacrity, on the pragmatic basis that I needed to develop understanding of 20th-century fashion and textiles, if I were to teach in an art school. It is salutary to realise that in 1993, when the first edition of my book was published, there was only one other monograph on Balenciaga and little substantial on couture history. Now, one trips over such literature astoundingly frequently – and the number of student dissertations on Balenciaga is legion. As I prepare the third edition, to coincide with the V&A exhibition on Balenciaga’s Craft to open in 2017, I look forward to reflecting on the expansion in ‘Balenciaga Studies’ and to exploring with new eyes – mine and the exhibition’s curator Cassie Davies-Strodder – the expanded riches of the V&A collections. This is an exciting time for the House, as a new designer has just been appointed. Will he have the impact that Nicolas Ghesquière had in reviving its fortunes in the 1990s? Will we know by May 2017?
How have your academic studies contributed to or shaped your professional activities? What does your role at the V&A involve? What is your favourite aspect of it?
My academic studies are at the heart of all I have done and all I do in my professional life, and probably all I will do when I retire. They gave me the incentive to explore in detail objects and images in museums and documents in archives and libraries, and to be rigorous in analyzing them to formulate an argument or story. Fortunately, over the years, a great variety of different approaches to my subject have come from the tutelage of or discussion with inspiring colleagues, and I have been obliged to go through periods of being a generalist as well as a specialist, though I am a specialist by nature. My current role as Lead Curator of the Europe 1600-1815 Galleries refurbishment has been salutary in this respect, reminding me that dress and textiles do not exist in isolation, demanding that I think about them holistically and justify why I think it’s important to include them in these galleries. What I have enjoyed most about this five-year project is the teamwork collaborating with colleagues across the Museum, all with different specialisms, ideas and skills, all thinking about how we communicate with different audiences. At this stage in my career, both as Senior Curator for Textiles and Fashion at the V&A and Professor of Dress and Textiles Histories at Glasgow University, it is my pleasant responsibility to facilitate the development of the next generation of textile and dress specialists, whether through sharing subject expertise or advising on professional practice.
Could you share with us some of your goals for the future?
As you probably know, working in a museum means that institutional priorities dictate to a large extent what one’s goals are, and they can change from one year to the next. For me, a third edition of Balenciaga, this time with a focus on the V&A collections will be a short-term goal, once the Europe galleries open on 9 December. It is very exciting to imagine how beautiful this book will look in comparison with the first edition – and how much more accurate the V&A catalogue will become. I will also return to my role as one of the three specialists in the early modern period in textiles and dress, caring for the collections and ensuring both physical and intellectual access to them.
Then, of course, there are other projects that will come to fruition in the longer term, informed by my past research and executed largely in my own time: the annotated translation with my Courtauld friend, art historian Katie Scott, of a translation of the first manual of silk design published in Paris in 1765. Do look out for the small exhibition of 18th-century textiles from the Courtauld’s very own Harris collection next Spring outside the library, and the conference Fabrications that we are running on 5th March in the Research Forum. Then there is the completion of a monograph on 18th-century Lyonnais silk designer-manufacturers, and of a collaborative book project on European silks during the period of French dominance between 1660 and 1815. And, finally, in retirement, I hope to be back on the road to Spain and Portugal to continue my slightly strange academic perambulations.
Finally, do you have any advice for budding dress historians who aspire to have a career similar to yours?
Budding dress historians have to be persistent, prepared to take risks and grab opportunities, some of which may not seem terribly enticing at the time, either because of where they are or what they are. Just remember that menial and repetitive tasks often prepare you in a way that is not immediately obvious for intellectual as well as practical goals. Developing a reputation for working collaboratively and courteously is crucial.
As our subject is young and enticing to a variety of audiences, avoiding academic snobbery is a very good idea, whilst maintaining meticulous attention to detail in all you do. Aileen Ribeiro’s greatest advice to me was to learn to write at a variety of levels, in other words for different audiences – a stricture I probably didn’t appreciate at the time, but do now. I would add to that advice, that keeping on writing, even when you don’t actually have to prepare material to submit for deadlines, is important. And, of course, for ‘writing’, you could substitute ‘speaking’.
I have been lucky to have two careers, the first in teaching and the second in a national museum. I would not have been suited to the latter at the time I took up the former, so I would advocate open-mindedness as to what the future might hold. Don’t feel you have to do the same forever – even if you do want to retain your specialism, and do look beyond both museums and academia for opportunities. My main mantra may be contentious, but here it is: you can’t do dress without textiles satisfactorily, nor contemporary fashion without a background in historical styles and practices.