Guest Edited by Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood of the Textile Research Centre, Leiden
The Kunstmuseum's current exhibition, Balenciaga: Meesterlijk zwart (‘Balenciaga: Masterly black’) can be seen until the 5 March 2023.
The Balenciaga exhibition stresses the black creations of the Spanish fashion designer Cristóbel Balenciaga Eizaguirre (1895-1972), which date from the 1930s to the 1960s. The exhibition has been organised in collaboration with the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris, and Paris Musées.
Balenciaga was the son of a fisherman and a seamstress living in Getaria in the Spanish Basque land. When he was 12 he was apprenticed to a tailor and later had a formal training in tailoring in Madrid. He was a professional who knew his craft, literally from thread, cloth, pattern cutting to the end product and this knowledge and skill are clear in the nature of the garments that he designed and helped produce.
Balenciaga opened a boutique in San Sebastian in 1919 and later expanded his ‘empire’ with ateliers in Madrid and Barcelona. As a direct result of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) he closed his Spanish stores in 1937 and moved to Paris. Following the Second World War (1939-1945) his work became well known, raising him as an international figure in Western fashion. He made garments for the wealthy, well-known (such as actress Grace Kelly) as well as royalty (including the wedding dress of Fabiola de Mora y Aragón, the wife of King Boudewijn I of Belgium). He later retired in 1968 and died in 1972.
Past exhibitions haved stressed Balenciaga's use of bright and varied colour combinations, but the Kunstmuseum deliberately exhibit garments made from plain and textured cloth in a wide range of blacks. At the beginning of the exhibition there are several items from the archives that show how a garment was designed, cut, stitched and finished using actual garments and trial pieces rather than simply illustrating this process using sketches and fashion drawings.
Thanks to the size of the Kunstmuseum galleries, it is possible to have a small number of garments per room and visitors can really enjoy viewing Balenciaga's sculptural creations them from all angles so to appreciate the technical skills, construction, drape and silhouette. Some of the garments appear to be simple, but the displays help to stress different shades of black, the use of a variety of textures (such as mat and shiny black velvet), the inclusion of beading, embroidery and lace, as well as the nature of the cut and silhouette(s).
From simple to deliberately sculptural, such as the star of the exhibition, an opera cape with very large hood created from a length of cloth that is draped and formed over the head.
Photographs and text provide insight into the thought processes behind the garments and Balenciaga but there still remains mystery to his dark creations.