Last week was a bit of culture binge. A marvelous retrospective of the master of haute couture, Christobal Balenciaga opened at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute at 680 Park Avenue. It is an exhibition initiated by Oscar de la Renta who started his career in design at the house of Balenciaga in the 1950’s. Hamish Bowles, European Editor at large for American Vogue is the curator behind this multi-layered show of iconic dresses, suits and gowns along with films of collections dating from the 50’s and 60’s. This show is fantastic in its depth and scope. The oeuvre that was Balenciaga’s is richly displayed with mannequins dressed in his creations in front of backdrops that put in context his references and recurring inspirations. Spanish art, its historic royal dress, the garments and ritual associated with the Church, the visual spectacles associated with the bullfight and flamenco dance are all represented literally and figuratively throughout his collections. Bowles has beautifully staged an exhibition that gives voice to a period that shaped modernist design. Shape, cut, and flawless technique are the hallmarks of these exquisitely understated clothes. We see the drama of a profound statement in dress devoid of superfluous artifice and tricks. These creations acted as foils for the innate mystery and beauty of women. Balenciaga’s reverence for the inner life of cloth is matched by his respect and regard for the female form.
Two floors are devoted to still-life presentations of the clothes which included day dresses, suits, beaded and embroidered jackets, hats and gowns. Many of the pieces are from Hamish Bowles' private collection along with loans from the Met's Costume Institute, and from private persons. On the top floor we have the unique pleasure of sitting and watching filmed presentations of his collections. Unlike today where the average number of exits for a collection is 60 outfits lasting 10-15 minutes, he typically showed 200-plus exits lasting often 2 hours or more. It’s fascinating to see the myriad ideas he displayed for day dresses and suits culminating in a tour de force onslaught of evening gowns.
Watching these shows reminded me of collections at Givenchy in the early 80's. One of my early tasks as an apprentice assistant was to sketch the whole collection in miniature, matching Monsieur's style of drawing and including details of the fabrics and embroideries. It was an endless job with often 50 or more suits for day, endless day dresses in patterned wools, silk printed dresses in multiple colorations of the same print and evening gowns that went on and on and on. It seemed like a job with no end but it taught me how to sketch and to sketch quickly. You'll notice that the style of walking and overall presentation of the clothes is a far cry from today's soulless parade of homogeneous child women. I heard a woman say to her companion that the models looked "so classy". It's true, they did. They had allure, mystery, and a subtle sex appeal.This exhibition is a wonderful chance to see the way fashion used to be created and displayed. It is a time long past but still one that informs so much of what we enjoy today. A beautiful program and book accompany the show with information and images also compiled by Hamish Bowles. You’ll want to add it to your collection.