Woman as 'Christmas cracker'

Balenciaga: Masterpieces of fashion design
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

The recent Balenciaga exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria was in one sense a splendid treat and in another quite an anticlimax. In comparison to the sensational, iconic fashion photographs of the designer's works by Norman Parkinson, Richard Avedon, lrving Penn and Tom Kublin, some of the garments seemed quite bland. One looked in vain for the flawless abstraction of the photographs, the crisp slickness of shape, the formal starkness of black on white and the drama of posturing models. When garment was shown in conjunction with photo image, as with the phallic black gazar 'Cabbage Cape and sheath' of 1967 and photograph by Kublin, their differing sets of meanings were vividly highlighted but were equally quite troubling. Ultimately, where does the aura or cult value of Balenciaga lie–in object or image or both?

Yet the aesthetic dilemmas posed by such juxtapositioning did not detract from the glorious spectacle of the du luxe evening wear for which the designer is best known. This is the sort of fashion at which the French have traditionally excelled and the curator, Robin Healy, has done full justice to these theatrical pieces. Admittedly the impression was especially stunning as the large 'salon' space devoted to these garments was entered through a dispiriting display of wool suits and coats which, we were told, changed design standards for such garments forever. The reasons for this are explored in the well produced and informative catalogue but not at all clear to those simply indulging in looking. In spite of this and the rather motley array of models-some with anachronistically stockinged but shoeless feet there was a dramatic recreation of catwalk glamour, with gowns of pale yellow, cream, turquoise, and deep camellia pink starkly illuminated against black walls. Balenciaga's famed sculptural quality was shown here to great advantage.

The evening gowns fit entirely with the Gallery's policy to categorise fashion as aesthetic object. Yet the rationale for the show in its entirety (plus suits, swatches and working toiles) was never made entirely clear. Was it to acknowledge and perpetrate the myth of the couturier as inspired 'aesthetic genius'? We were told that it was an exhibition of probably the greatest couturier of the 20th century, whose technically perfect costumes were worshipped by fashion and design students. Whilst this canonisation is in itself inherently problematic, if such acclaim is being accorded, we certainly need to know in greater detail why the particular chosen garments were so significant when compared with other designers. Why too was the outsized housecoat included and was the theatre costume so unusual? And surely no one believes that Balenciaga invented the three-quarter length sleeve.

Essentially the exhibition lacked a certain contextual sophistication. The major pieces were fascinating and it is an absolute treat to have this kind of exhibition in Australia. But can it be said that Balenciaga was really that revolutionary in the history of haute couture? Perhaps fashion history has relied too heavily in the past on the extravagant publicity rhetoric of Vogue. Has the tendency to measure Balenciaga against the benchmark of formalist American abstraction, prevented a more penetrating assessment of this designer? Differentiating his work more subtlely from that of Dior, say, might have allowed a more nuanced understanding of the nature of Paris designed mystique, for the Dior publicity machine was promoting him as the greatest of all French couturiers. There are important unexplored links as well between Balenciaga and Australia. Myers (Melbourne) had a fashion parade in 1940 called 'An Afternoon with Balenciaga' in which, amongst a number of fantasy gowns, one inspired by a tree was shown with a bustled burgundy skirt foamed from the waistline and a clear green velvet bodice. If only we knew more.

Most importantly what was the relationship between "the shy Garbo of fashion", his female clients and their clothes? Clearly in psychological terms this was not all that straightforward. Frequently his evening gowns did not transform women Pygmalion-like into delectable feminine confections for the pleasure of the male spectator/ creator. Balenciaga's clothes symbolically masked the female form, especially in the '50s and '60s. Dior revelled in women's excess, sheathing their bodies or taking the orthodox signifiers of femininity, like the small waist, the rounded hips and full skirts, and fetishising them in the 'New Look'. But Balenciaga often by-passed women's bodies with 'tents', 'sacks' and 'shifts'.

He imposed garments, often without reference, making of women sometimes troubling and outlandish figures, rearranged as 'parceled' appearances. Although we were told his garments were easy to wear, they often seem the reverse. The sinuous but cumbersome sheaths, the frothy trilled headwear or the huge window dressing cape sleeves and the vestment-like gowns were perhaps the main reason why his design house closed so abruptly in 1968. Yet it is the '50s and '60s garments that have really ensured Balenciaga's entry to the designer hall of fame.

The public was quite rightly asked not to touch the garments for conservation reasons. Constant touching by thousands of visitors would cause deterioration. This reinforced the sense in which this show condoned the idea of Balenciaga garments as holy relics, infusing those who came near them with special 'designer' magic. Ironically these heavy silk gowns are the antithesis of touchable artefacts–their cool, detached quality makes them ritual objects to be seen from afar they do not invite the laity to draw near. They refuse personal interaction. Balenciaga's startling evening garments for an ultra rich clientele are also clearly the other side of the supposedly freedom-loving '60s. These are not the wiry, nervous twig-girls of Mary Quant or the splay-legged space-age constructs by Cardin (although Balenciaga too made Baby-doll dresses), but they are equally disturbing. They are regressive and indeed repressive garments. There is a sense in which garment takes complete precedence over the wearer. What remains for the viewer is surface packaging–only a fictive 'appearing' and a surfeit of 'confection'.

Cristobal Balenciaga, Day outfit and black tulle hat, 1960. Balenciaga Archives, Paris. Photo: Tom Kublin. 

Cristobal Balenciaga, Cabbage Cape of Black Gazar and black crepe sheath dress, 1967. Balenciaga Archives, Paris. Photo: Tom Kublin.