The Kimbell Art Museum is opening an exhibit of haute couture fashion Sunday. This is a first for the institution and a natural fit. “Balenciaga in Black” is an exhibition of more than 100 garments created by the Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895-1972).
Even though he laid down his tape measure and walked away from his altelier 50 years ago, he is considered the finest craftsman of fashion to have lived. Still.
Designers Coco Chanel and Christian Dior were his contemporaries during the mid-20th century. While Chanel was making comfortable knits suits, the de rigueur daywear for the ladies-who-lunch set, and Dior was infusing his designs with voluminous skirts and nipped in waists, Balenciaga was crafting garments of structural genius.
His training in design, pattern-making, cutting and assembling a garment from start to finish was a rarity then and is almost unheard of today. He was generous with his knowledge, sharing it with students who included Oscar de la Renta and Hubert de Givenchy.
His skills were such that his competitors were generous in their praise. Chanel said he was “a couturier in the truest sense of the word … the others are simply fashion designers. Dior referred to him as the “master of us all.”
To illustrate his deft constructions that resulted in unusual silhouettes every piece in the Kimbell’s exhibit, which runs through Jan. 6, is shown in black.
The cocktail dresses, evening gowns, suits and accessories are from the Palais Galliera, the Paris fashion museum, and the archives of Maison Balenciaga, along with a few pieces from the University of North Texas fashion collection. The exhibit was orchestrated by Kimbell curator Jennifer Casler Price.
The single-color palette would seem monotonous, but for Balenciaga, it had infinite possibilities. By juxtaposing matte and shiny, transparent and opaque, lace overlaying crepe, pairing boucles with satins, he stretched the visual vocabulary of black into a myriad of textural nuances.
The color black has two Latin descriptions: niger, a lustrous black, and ater, matte black. Niger was positive and ater carried negative connotations and this duality can be seen in all manner of artistic expression, especially in the hands of a couturier.
The exhibition opens with the tools of a couturier. Patterns, or toiles, are drawn on muslin. For his black clothing, Balenciaga used black pattern fabric. Brightly colored inks delineate the seams, darts and placement details, such as pockets.
For his soft, sensuous dresses, Balenciaga often began by draping the fabric on the mannequin to see how it would hang. The more constructed pieces made of stiffer fabric often had intricate patterns with invisible seams, or few seams, as he liked to flex his ability of architectural construction.
“With fabrics we do what we can. Balenciaga does what he wants.” — Christian Dior
There is a common denominator in the Balenciaga exhibit and that is that the garments are as interesting, if not more so, from the back than they are from the front. Balenciaga allowed the woman’s head and neck to be the front-facing focus with framing collars that stood away from the neck. Sleeves on jackets were usually three-quarter length for ease of movement and comfort but also for making his suits permissible for day wear with gloves (remember this was the 1940s and ‘50s) and for evening wear as cocktail attire with a significant bracelet.
The evening wear is spectacularly constructed. From the front, a simple black shift will have a sweep of fabric that wafts away from the body with the wearer’s movement.
For his famous envelope dress, which looks much like an ice cream cone, the hemline is very snug around the knees and flares out to two large folds at the shoulders in the front, and two large folds in the back.
The only obvious support is afforded by the two jeweled shoulder straps that can only be seen from the back. The dress was problematic. One of the two customers who dared to buy something so unusual returned it, because it was impossible use the restroom, as the hem circumference was so small.
As the exhibition progresses through the galleries, the dresses become more elaborate and the fabrics more extreme. In one case, a triple layer of fabrics each encrusted with beading from large marble-sized orbs on the bottom layers to delicate tracery of tiny beads on the top gives the fabric an extreme depth of dimension.
Another evening dress has row after row of lace circling it. Balenciaga sheared the lace to less than a half inch in length so that it stood away from the body, resembling a caterpillar’s hair.
Animal fur is used as a contrasting color element on coats and evening gowns.
One strapless, velvet ball gown with a large train festooned with ermine tails is from the University of North Texas fashion collection. Texan Claudia Heard de Osborne was one of Balenciaga’s loyal clients, along with Grace Kelly, Jackie Kennedy, Bunny Mellon and Doris Duke. She left her extensive wardrobe of Balenciaga couture garments to the university and several of them are in this exhibition.
Balenciaga had the expected stable of movie stars and royalty for clients but he did not seek fame for himself. He was quite reticent in public, granting only one interview during his lifetime and never appearing at his collection presentations. He preferred to let his clothing be the focus of attention.
In the galleries of the Kimbell, under subdued light to protect the aging fabrics, the black dresses against black walls seem like something from the dream time. They are obviously of another age, as their luxurious fabrics and hand-work detailing are rarely seen anymore.
Many of the most sumptuous pieces are behind glass vitrines to protect them from inquisitive fingers that reach out to touch the fabric, to feel the stiffness of gazar, to feel the softness of the crepe.
Response to fabric is a tactile one and the exhibition is a torment because of this, and so are the reflections in the vitrines. The desire to touch the gowns, to hold them up to a bright light to drink in every detail of their construction is overwhelming.
It’s a frustration that must be reckoned with because the antique clothing is so fragile, but the viewer leaves the museum regretting the lack of intimate knowledge.
Some art forms, and Balenciaga’s dresses are certainly that, have to be worn, if not lightly touched, to be truly appreciated.
‘Balenciaga in Black’
Oct. 7-Jan. 6, 2019
Kimbell Art Museum, 3333 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth, 817-332-8451
Admission: $14-$18, $10-$14 tickets are available all day Tuesdays and 5-8 pm. Fridays
Holiday closures: Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day