Thursday, April 26, 2012

Balenciaga Exhibit, Les Docks de Paris

It took an effort and a half to get to the 'Cristobal Balenciaga: Fashion Collector' exhibition yesterday. Not only is the Musée Galliera (la Musée de la Mode et du Costume) closed for renovations and its exhibits distributed around town, I couldn't find an address for this mysterious "Les Docks" anywhere. On top of that, I got out of Gare d'Austerlitz and walked about a kilometre in the wrong direction before realising my mistake and by then it was raining. When I did get to the very sleek, converted storage depot/exhibition space, I couldn't find the gallery actually showing the Balenciaga. So I wandered around aimlessly for a while, trying to look cool and collected while rain dripped off my hair into my eyes, under the scrutiny of the security guards who observed as I walked halfway down the stairs, scoped out the carpark there (note to self: not the gallery) and then walked nonchalantly back up, as if my behaviour was totally inconspicuous. Une vraie Parisienne, moi.

Fortunately, my traipsing was not in vain. Quite the opposite: what I found was an exhibition curated with restraint, carefully displayed to let the clothes speak for themselves. And speak amongst themselves, as it seemed at times, as items from Cristobal Balenciaga's own collection (mostly taken from Spain, where he was born) were displayed alongside the couture they inspired.

If you can, do make your way to this exhibition (learn from my mistakes- turn RIGHT out of Gare d'Austerlitz and keep walking until you see the lime green wall across the street, cross and walk to the back right. Then die a million deaths of wonder at the handworked lace.) If this is an impossibility, please live vicariously through my million photographs. Let me walk you through...
Vintage collet from 1895. All of the items from Balenciaga's own collection were in exemplary condition, as you'd imagine they would be. All of these opulent examples, as well as Haute Couture from the Balenciaga archives were displayed in metal and glass boxes in a long gallery, the sleek Modernist minimalism of them reminiscent of Balenciaga's aesthetic under the hand of Nicholas Ghesquiere. That said, the sleek simplicity framed the clothes beautifully, contrasting with the carefully constructed silk taffeta dresses and the incredible handiwork of lace garments such as the one above. The clothes were rendered specimens, pinned and spread to their best advantage under the lights.

Balenciaga Cape du Soir Haute Couture 1960 (one of the items I most wanted to steal home with me.)

A sketch from the house displayed alongside the garments (left) and images when modelled (right).
This Balenciaga evening ensemble (bustier and skirt) was displayed flat, like a woman lying on her back on a bed. The broad bust sat up as if its wearer was unable to relax, taking only a momentary repose. The bustier fanned out into a peplum that lay flat, suggestive of the waist and hips it was designed to conceal. And the skirt! Pleats standing at attention, the fabric like the curves of roofs, or ice-stilled waves, or hills viewed from a great height. As unyielding and eternally formed, elliptical, made as it was from tulle, cabochons, black sequins, black silk. 

L: Balenciaga robe du soir Haute Couture Autumn/Winter 1951: satin, brocade, tulle and sequins; R: Balenciaga robe du soir Haute Couture Autumn/Winter 1951 (prototype)

Balenciaga Cape du Soir Haute Couture Spring/Summer 1949 side-by-side with Balenciaga Bolero Haute Couture Autumn/Winter 1959.

Three diaphanous Balenciaga Haute Couture dresses from 1961, 1962 and 1956.

O HAI Spring/Summer 2012 RTW! (Originally a chapeau de mariée from S/S 67)

A folkloric hat from Caceres, Spain from the 20th Century.

I look at this photograph and think, 'In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michaelangelo'. The white garment on the left is a mantle from 1840-45 and the buff garment on the right is a Polonaise from 1869-70.

Two evening dresses go head to head. Only one can triumph. 
I jest, I jest. (But just quietly, my money's on the aqua number from the Balenciaga Haute Couture collection of A/W 1957. Who could overcome all those bows?)

The most beautiful handbeaded lace collar from 1900. Way ahead of the neon tred, FYI.

'Cristobal Balenciaga: Fashion Collector' at Les Docks April 13- October 7. 6€ Admission , 3 if you're 26 or under.


  1. It's possible because we're photographing the malacology section at the Australian Museum, but that evening ensemble (the one displayed flat) looks like a giant, jewel-encrusted shell, the way you've photographed it. :)

    Stunning. Thanks for sharing!

  2. You're welcome! It was like a shell, now you mention it. Maybe it was the combined effect of the stiff tulle and the beading and sequins, but it was kind of fragile and encrusted and hard at the same time. Impermeable. What a cool job, though! Are they for a catalogue? (i.e. can I see some of your shots?)

  3. They're not really that sort of shot; it's part of a volunteer-based digitisation project, to create an digital database of the Museum's collection, with funding from the Atlas of Living Australia (the projects are here: The shots all have to be laid out in a certain way, which makes them very boring, and many of the volunteers aren't as crazy as me about lining all the specimens/labels/shots up perfectly (it drives me absolutely mental, to be honest).

    That said...when I manage to get a drawer of specimens to myself (particularly with the shells) I do have a bit of fun within the guidelines. And I have the dubious honour of being told I created one of the best-looking set of photographs for a drawer. After which they changed the guidelines for the photographs to closer match what I did. Yay?