Balenciaga and Spain, the current exhibition at San Francisco’s de Young Museum, focuses on the influence of Spain’s art, history and culture on one of the most significant figures in 20th-century women’s fashion. It showcases the work of designer Cristóbal Balenciaga from the opening of his Parisian fashion house in 1937 to his retirement in 1968.
Diana Vreeland, columnist at Harper’s Bazaar and editor-in-chief of American Vogue from 1963 from 1971, commented that Balenciaga “remained forever a Spaniard… His inspiration came from the bullrings, the flamenco dancers, the fishermen in their boots and loose blouses, the glories of the church and the cool of the cloisters and monasteries. He took their colors, their cuts, then festooned them to his own taste.”
This perspective informs the exhibition. Hamish Bowles, current European editor at large for American Vogue, is a guest curator, and the pedigree of every girl’s favorite aspirational glossy is evident. The collection encompasses six themes: Spanish art, the royal court, religious life, dance, the bullfight and regional dress. It features some 120 garments and accessories, a number of which are on loan from the archives of the fashion house and have not been seen in public for decades.
Anyone with even a half-hearted interest in fashion will find plenty to ogle. This is the stuff of elegant, irreverent fantasy; all of it unabashedly feminine. Commanding, wasp-waisted dresses with full flounced skirts invite stamping feet and clattering castanets. Sumptuous gowns of sumptuous velvet, silk and lace are showcased beneath the paintings of Goya and Velázquez that inspired them – though many would not look out of place on a red carpet today. The designer’s play with volume in the collections from the 1960s is particularly arresting. Not every woman could pull off a floor-length dress that encompasses her head and shoulders in a “hedgehog inspired” cocoon of black silk. Nor indeed an armless green evening ensemble that bears more than a passing resemblance to a peapod. The exhibition celebrates couture in all its resplendent impracticality, and is a thoughtful, intelligent showcase of a unique vision.
The exhibition runs until 4 July 2011.