Exhibition Review: “Fashion Game Changers, Reinventing the 20th-century silhouette” at the MOMU, Antwerp

by César Imbert

botw_71jkfwadgllFrom Diana Vreeland’s exhibition “The World of Balenciaga” in 1973 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the most recently opened “Cristobal Balenciaga Museoa” in Getaria, Spain, much attention has been given to the life and work of this couturier1. Balenciaga’s tremendous contribution to the fashion industry acted as a bridge between the haute couture tradition of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the “youthquake” outburst of the 1960s2. The new “Game Changers” exhibition held at the MOMU in Antwerp deepens this appreciation of Balenciaga’s work and goes beyond previous exhibitions pertaining to the designer.

In 2011, the Palais Galliera mounted an exhibition entitled “Paris Haute Couture,” which aimed at charting the history of French haute couture and featured the great names of French high fashion. Throughout the exhibition, garments from different historical periods were paired together to show stylistic similarities, and to demonstrate how designers have constantly looked back at previous generations of couturiers to inform their own designs. At the beginning of the exhibition, a Balenciaga ensemble called “Scarabée bleu” dating from 1962 was shown with a dress designed by Charles-Frederick Worth almost a hundred year before, in 1869. The visitor was able to see how the silk taffeta used by Balenciaga and Worth created the same impression of fullness around the wearer’s body. Later on in the exhibition, a Balenciaga dress from 1960 was displayed next to a design by Yves Saint Laurent made in 1966. Yet again, the similarities between the two pieces were obvious. Both dresses were made of stiff fabric, creating stark silhouettes; the dresses were intricately embroidered and featured precious stones and Swarozky crystals on their bodices. The purity of form of Saint Laurent’s dress, combined with luxurious embellishments, recalled Balenciaga’s earlier model3. In the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, connections between designers were made more tangible thanks to a “genealogical tree” of couturiers4. In Balenciaga’s case, the reader could identify Courrège and Ungaro as direct heirs to the master because of the position they held in Balenciaga’s studio at the beginning of their career. Similarly, in an essay written by Myra Walker for the 2006 exhibition “Balenciaga and his legacy” at the Meadows Museum of Art in Dallas, the author emphasized Balenciaga’s influence on other designers such as Michael Mouratidis, Oscar de la Renta or Hubert de Givenchy5. Balenciaga’s legacy is therefore a well-documented topic within fashion studies. Nevertheless, the new “Game Changers” exhibition held at the MOMU in Antwerp shed a new light on Balenciaga’s oeuvre, showing that his legacy was manifold and deserved to be addressed in even greater detail.

Opening up Balenciaga’s genealogy

Open to the general public from March, 18 until August 14, 2016, the MOMU exhibition aimed to display the work of fashion designers who revolutionized the field. As stated in the introductive panel, “the designers presented in the exhibition were conceived as a family tree of innovators” with Balenciaga at its core, seen as “a pivotal figure” in the history of fashion6. Along with Balenciaga pieces, works by other groundbreaking designers who influenced or drew from the Spanish master were also displayed. The visitor could look at, for example, Lanvin and Chanel dresses from the 1920s and 1930s as well as garments by Japanese and Belgian designers of the 1980s and 1990s such as Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, Comme des Garçons, Ann Demeulemeester or Martin Margiela. As such, the exhibition opened up Balenciaga’s traditional genealogy and included new followers from the 1980s onwards. Like no other exhibition before, the MOMU display demonstrated a legacy far greater than that which had hitherto been attributed to Balenciaga and examined current fashion endeavors that owe directly to Balenciaga’s work.

Welcoming the visitor were two dresses by Cristobal Balenciaga and Rei Kawakubo. Made in the same shades of blue, but forty-four years apart, both garments encapsulated the conceptual thread linking the designers. The Balenciaga dress from 1953 was a perfect example of the couturier’s evolution towards a more abstract fashion. On the other hand, the Comme des Garçon dress, from the famously know “Lumps ’n Bumps” collection, was the epitome of Kawakubo’s experimentations dealing with the relationship between body and dress. The combination of those two dresses showed “how the western hourglass silhouette is challenged by both modern and post-modern designers, paving the way for new shapes, curves and constellations.”7 This striking introduction helped the visitor to clearly understand the intent of the display. Furthermore, a very thorough intellectual backdrop underpinned this preliminary section. Walter Benjamin, one of the great thinkers of the twentieth century, was referred to in order to contextualize the dresses, thereby linking fashion with art, modernity and aesthetics. Benjamin’s “tiger’s leap” concept was cited to explain how Balenciaga looked back at historic shapes to create innovative designs. For Benjamin, the “tiger’s leap” stood for “a cyclical phenomenon which evolves and moves forward while at the same time looking backwards for inspiration.”8 This idea can be applied to many other designers such as Rei Kawakubo.

This harmonious merging of an appealing display with a coherent conceptual background could be found throughout the exhibition with sections as beautiful and didactic as the “Technical Mastery” case.9 Here, a pink Balenciaga dress from 1965-66 was displayed with its pattern. The case engaged the visitor in understanding Balenciaga’s whole creative process. Many scholars such as Lou Taylor have argued that studying patterns gives a wealth of information and can be very useful for dress historians. This approach to dress history is centered on the analysis of construction methods and dressmaking techniques. As stated by Taylor, it is upon this meticulous way of studying dress that cultural theory can later be viably applied.10

Another way in which the exhibition engaged the visitor both visually and intellectually was the display of Balenciaga garments on spinning mannequins. Surrounded by static models, these mechanisms helped the visitor to immediately identify the Balenciaga dresses and draw stylistic analogies between them and nearby garments made by other designers. This display emphasized how influential Balenciaga was upon younger designers or, in some instances, how he himself was influenced by others. Thanks to these rotating dresses, the Balenciaga dresses stood out and the visitor, just by comparing the garments visually, could understand why Balenciaga was of crucial importance in the development of an alternative silhouette in the 20th century. A telling example was the “Kimono” section, which displayed garments from Poiret and Vionnet all the way up to Kenzo, Margiela and Yamamoto, with a bright green Balenciaga evening coat from 1965 revolving at the center. This section stressed the impact of the Japanese kimono in 1920s fashion and showed how it was passed down to Balenciaga and then reinterpreted by contemporary designers.

Beyond Balenciaga’s legacy

As the exhibition unfolds, the visitor discovers that the display is not focused on Balenciaga’s work. Indeed, through Balenciaga’s legacy, the curators, Karen Van Godtsenhoven and Miren Arzalluz, decided to tackle current themes in today’s fashion, making the display even more interesting. By doing so, the exhibition took flight from the mere analysis of Balenciaga’s achievements and also displayed the work of cutting edge designers. For instance, the section entitled “Rethinking the Body” did not display any garments made by Balenciaga but highlighted the groundbreaking experiments of Georgina Godley, Merce Cunningham, Rei Kawakubo and Martin Margiela on our perceptions of the body, through dance and fashion.

In the last section, called “Ultimate Abstraction,” the most abstract pieces by Balenciaga were displayed alongside designers at the forefront of innovation such as Iris Van Herpen, Hussein Chalayan and Junya Watanabe. As explained on the section’s panel: “The extremely architectural, body-independent shapes by recent designers have led to the label of ‘conceptual’ or ‘fashion as art’ labels, indicating these are show-pieces, unfit for wearing. Most of the designers included here, however, stress the fact that they make real clothes for women to wear. They are simply pushing fashion and our understanding of what a garment should look like further forward, in a tradition of innovation just like their predecessors.”11 By looking at the dresses on display, the visitor could grasp the importance of new materials and new technology in order to create those novel shapes. The dresses designed by Chalayan, Watanabe or Miyake are indeed manufactured with man-made fibers. Furthermore, the Iris Van Herpen dress on display pinpointed how 3D printing is now used to create increasingly innovative volumes and proportions.

The absence of Nicolas Ghesquière’s designs from this section, and in fact from the whole exhibition was, however, a surprise. As creative director of the Balenciaga house from 1997 to 2012, Ghesquière reinvented many of the shapes Balenciaga implemented in his career. Nevertheless, it can be argued that the MOMU, with its forward-looking approach to the subject, was not eager to reproduce something that had already been addressed before. Indeed, in 2006-07, Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris put on an entire show which focused on Balenciaga’s couture house and displayed many garments by Ghesquière in order “to demonstrate the continuity of design in the house.”12

Alongside the MOMU’s dedication to shedding new light on “Balenciaga Studies,” the curators of the exhibition also tried to innovate in the field of curatorial practice. Indeed, in the tenth section entitled “Human Sanctuary,” a holographic video directed by photographer Daniel Sanwalds and choreographed by Sidi Larbi Charkaoui was shown. The video presented a naked model, Hannelore Knuts, putting on and taking off pieces from the Balenciaga archives as well as game-changing designs by Issey Miyake, Ann Demeulemeester, Comme des Garçons, Maison Martin Margiela and Demna Gvasalia, current artistic director of the Balenciaga house. This choreography was completed with sequences showing the model interacting with a dancer. The aim of this video was to “put the human body at the center stage of Game Changers,” and so it did.13  With this holographic performance, the MOMU explored a new path in fashion curation, as the Palais Galliera did a few years ago: The MOMU’s “Human Sanctuary, in its intent, is indeed similar to the “Impossible Wardrobe” designed by Olivier Saillard, director of the Palais Galliera.14 In this performance open to the public, the actress Tilda Swinton handled a selection of garments in a poetic and romantic manner, making “a treasure out of an ordinary garment.”15 Both performances tried, each in its own way, to experiment with new strategies of experiencing collections housed in fashion museums and archives.

This avant-garde approach to fashion curating fits very well with the MOMU’s exhibition policy which “assumes an important laboratory function: the freedom to experiment with different interdisciplinary approaches, to take time out for research and to give the public time to dwell on the various aspects of fashion.”16  As stated by the director of the MOMU herself, Kaat Debo, the MOMU’s main aim is to support innovation, which was exactly the purpose of this exhibition.17 Thus, this display makes a significant contribution to Balenciaga studies, which are currently booming.18 The V&A is indeed planning a major exhibition for 2017 on Balenciaga’s craft. 19 Let’s hope this exhibition will be as good as the MOMU display and add, once more, to the unprecedented current focus on the topic.

  1. See  N. J. Stevenson, “The Fashion Retrospective ,” Fashion Theory, 12:2 (2008): 226 for a discussion on the impact and aftermath of Diana Vreeland’s exhibition “The World of Balenciaga”.  See Charlotte Nicklas, “Tradition and Innovation: Recent Balenciaga Exhibitions,” Fashion Theory, 17:4 (2013): 431-44  for an insightful review of the Cristòbal Balenciaga Museoa which opened in 2011.
  2. Myra Walker, “The Balenciaga legacy endures,” in Balenciaga and his legacy, ed. Myra Walker (New Haven : Yale university press, 2006), 132. In a recent article, Miren Arzalluz highlights the influence Balenciaga had on Paco Rabanne when he launched his fashion career in the 1960s. Mirren Arzalluz, “Balenciaga et l’école espagnole à Paris,” in Fashion Mix, mode d’ici, créateur d’ailleurs, ed. Palais Galliera (Paris: Paris-Musées, 2014), 80-82.
  3. Evening Dress, Yves Saint Laurent, Palais Galliera, http://www.palaisgalliera.paris.fr/en/work/evening-dress-yves-saint-laurent (accessed August 19, 2016).
  4. Guillaume Steffanus, “Arbre généalogique de la haute couture,” in Paris Haute Couture, ed. Olivier Saillard, Anne Zazzo (Paris: Skira Flammarion, 2012), 250-51.
  5. Myra Walker, op. cit., 2006, 134-6
  6. Introductive panel of the exhibition “Game Changers Reinventing the 20th century silhouette” seen on the 3rd August 2016 in Antwerp.
  7. Panel of the 1st section of the exhibition entitled “Tiger’s leap.”
  8. Ibidem
  9. Valerie Steele, “Museum Quality: The Rise of the Fashion Exhibition,” Fashion Theory, 12:1 (2008):14. In this article, Steel advocates that fashion exhibition can be both beautiful and intelligent, entertaining and educational.
  10. Lou Taylor, The study of dress history (Manchester : Manchester University Press, 2002), 12.
  11. Panel of the 18th section of the exhibition entitled “Ultimate Abstraction.”
  12. N. J. Stevenson, op.cit, 2008, 226.
  13. Panel of the 10th section of the exhibition entitled “Human Sanctuary.”
  14. “The impossible wardrobe”, Palais Galliera, http://www.palaisgalliera.paris.fr/fr/actualites/impossible-wardrobe (accessed August 19, 2016).
  15.  Olivier Saillard and Tilda Swinton, The impossible wardrobes and other coutures, (New-York: Rizzoli, 2015), 3.
  16. Jeffrey Horsley, “A Fashion “Muséographie”: The Delineation of Innovative Presentation Modes at ModeMuseum, Antwerp”, Fashion Theory, 19:1, (2015): 46.
  17. Ibidem
  18. Charlotte Nicklaus, op. cit., 2013, 431.
  19. “Alumni Interview Part 12: Lesley Miller, Ma (1982), Phd (Brighton, 1988)”, Documenting Fashion, A Dress History Blog, http://blog.courtauld.ac.uk/documentingfashion/2015/12/18/alumni-interview-part-12-lesley-miller-ma-1982-phd-brighton-1988/ (accessed August 19, 2016)

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