A Fashion Student’s Experience of Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion exhibition

Written by Tazmin, a current Level 3 Fashion and Textiles student. Thank you Tazmin!

If you’re planning on going to London any time soon, you might want to consider stopping by the Victoria & Albert Museum and taking a look at the Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion exhibition. I visited the exhibition recently with my classmates from the Level 3 Fashion and Textiles course here at Farnborough College of Technology.


The V&A museum is known for its showstopper fashion exhibitions but the Balenciaga is an exhibition which everyone not just the fashion enthusiast could get involved in. As soon as I stepped foot into the exhibition space my eyes were drawn to a bright green dress with tiered balloon like shapes that went all the way up the dress. All I could think to myself was that’s one fantastically ugly dress! But this idea of something being ugly is actually quite trendy, nowadays you find famous fashion designers mismatching colours or introducing excessive finishes such as ruffles and beadwork why? To make a statement? Well Balenciaga was one of the most influential designers who I think made ugly fashionable.

“I think when things are a bit more ugly or a bit more subversive they are much more beautiful in many ways” – Molly Goddard, V&A inspired by Balenciaga video

The exhibition displays Balenciaga’s work from the 1950s to 1960s as it was his most creative era. At this time he was designing and dressing for many celebrities including actress Ava Gardner and fashion icon Gloria Guinness. Dotted around you can also see sketches, photos and catwalk footage which demonstrated the whole process of making and gave a very detailed insight into the designers life.

The show features over 100 garments and 20 hats, many of which have never been on public display before. Even the way the garments were displayed was inspirational, I didn’t know a spinning dress could be so fascinating (I basically looked like a four year old in a sweet shop!). The way they displayed it was very clever as you could get a 360 degree view of the dress this was supported by an x-ray image of the dress demonstrating how much went on underneath the fabric. For example, a very simple long draped dress on the outside once you can see through the dress you discover uneven seam allowances, a whole corset (breaking previous myths that Balenciaga didn’t do corsets) and pins left in from the original dress makers. The x-ray was created by collaborating with x-ray artist Nick Veasey who built his own mobile x-ray studio to accommodate the precious garments.

“Haute Couture is like an orchestra whose conductor is Balenciaga. We other couturiers are musicians and we follow the direction he gives” – Christian Dior

I also liked how the V&A got visitors involved in the exhibition by giving out free one seam coat patterns and you could even try on an example of one of Balenciaga’s genius convertible garments! A skirt and cape in one which was made from a blue/grey gros grain fabric. The way this garment was worn depended on how you tied it and guests are encouraged to try one on, in this picture you can see us having a go!

When walking around the exhibition it was clear to see that bold colours, abstract architectural shapes and the clever manipulation of fabrics such as silk or wool are typical of Balenciaga. In his earlier teenage years Balenciaga did an apprenticeship as a tailor. Here Cristobal Balenciaga learnt core pattern cutting knowledge which he used in his collections to create brilliantly cut fabrics that draped perfectly. This demonstrates why he had such a lasting impact on fashion and I’m so glad I get these pattern cutting sessions on my course!

On the upstairs floor of the exhibition you’ll find garments that are dedicated to ‘Balenciaga’s Legacy’. The ‘Legacy’ section features the work of over 30 designers from the last 50 years, many of these were Balenciaga’s apprentices or partners in previous projects. I liked how their work reflects Balenciaga’s attention to detail and minimalism which the brand as a whole has always been associated with.

Being able to see how other designers were inspired by Balenciaga gave us a much wider range of inspiration and content which I found really useful. Upstairs the real stunner for me had to be Gareth Pugh massively oversized pink frill dress with an incredible silhouette. Even though the dress was pink and frilly to me it came across as more of a strong/power-full/armoured soldier piece to me instead of a girly outfit. The wide broad shoulders and strapping going across the body.

“Working with fabrics and allowing them to inform the end result … It’s a very modern approach” – Gareth Pugh

Another one of my favourite pieces had to be Alexander Mcqueen’s gold dress. It was not one of the most aesthetically pleasing dresses but that was the point and I liked it. McQueen’s training at a Saville Raw tailors gave him the confidence to be more experimental with traditional shapes and cutting. This was a very similar background to the training Balenciaga had done. The discomfiting imbalance of this dress is achieved through skillful pattern cutting and construction.

After visiting the Balenciaga Exhibition we had a break for lunch and then we had been scheduled into two talks, ‘How to become a Costume Designer’ and ‘How to become a Fashion Designer’. The first talk was more specifically about hat making for costume designers which I found very engaging because you learnt about the whole entire process of hat making from start to finish. A small hat worn in The Swan Lake Production was mesmerising with little crystals sparkling all over it. The second talk I found more intriguing for me because I could relate to the fashion design part more. Bethany Williams was the designer talking about her eco-friendly and sustainable approach to fashion. I liked her unique way of sourcing materials from rubbish or models from the food-bank.

Overall, I really enjoyed the day as it felt very relevant to the work I am currently doing and has given me loads of ideas. In particular I enjoyed drawing the Balenciaga garments and listening to Bethany Williams. This encouraged me to be more thoughtful about waste in the fashion industry.

The exhibition Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion runs from 27 May 2017 – 18 February 2018.

Want more information about starting a Fashion course with us? Visit this page.

To see more of Tazmin’s work,  please follow her blog at www.tazmintalks.com. Please note, this is an external blog to the College and therefore does not represent any views of the College (although we do think it’s ace).

You can view work from the fashion students on our Instagram account, FCOT Fashion.

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