reinventing the 20th century silhouette
The exhibition combined MoMu archive pieces with loans from Palais Galliera, the V&A, FIT, the Balenciaga archives in Paris, SAIC Chicago, Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, Groninger Museum, MKG Hamburg, Kunstgewerbemuseum Berlin, Modemuseum Hasselt.
The show was curated by Miren Arzalluz and Karen Van Godtsenhoven.
Enter the exhibition and discover the highlights!
The introductory theme to the exhibition is called ‘Tiger’s leap’ and consists of two game-changing silhouettes, one by Cristóbal Balenciaga and one by Rei Kawakubo.
The phrase ‘tiger’s leap’ comes from the German concept ‘Tigersprung’ by philosopher Walter Benjamin, who describes fashion as something which is oriented towards the future, but at the same time looks back at the past for inspiration: innovation through re-visiting the past is a guiding principle throughout the exhibition.
Rei Kawakubo’s iconic padded ‘Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body’ Spring/Summer 1997 silhouette, shows how the western hourglass silhouette is challenged by 20th century designers, paving the way for new shapes, curves and constellations in the 21st century.
MoMu acquired this dress in the Didier Ludot couture auction of July 2015. MoMu collects Belgian designs and international avant-garde designers such as Comme des Garçons by Rei Kawakubo.
Balenciaga’s most iconic silhouettes broke away with the prevailing hourglass ideal in 20th century fashion: the barrel line, the semi-fitted look (1951), the tunic (1955), the sack dress (1957), the four-corner dress (1968), and the trapezoid baby doll of 1958 which marked the beginning of his most abstract phase, where progressively conceptual garments of architectural quality clothed an unrestricted, freer body.
In 1942, during the restrictive period of the Nazi occupation of Paris, Balenciaga embarked on a process of experimentation with form with unprecedented results.
The same year (1947) Christian Dior captivated the world with the ‘New Look’, Balenciaga presented a novel silhouette of fluid, curved lines which enveloped rather
than constricted the body.
This group looks into the adoption of kimono principles in Western fashion.
An important element of change and innovation in 20 th century Western fashion, comes from Eastern notions of dress, and especially Japanese. Japan opened its doors to the West only in the second half of the 19th century: a widespread mania for Japanese decorative arts called Japonism ensued. In opposition to European fashions which are intricate and cut close to the body, shaping a woman’s curves, Eastern notions of dress focus on rectangular pieces of fabric which are wrapped around the body, creating a ‘more gentle outfit’.
Japanese designers of the end of the 20th century such as Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake create international fashions which are presented in Paris.
The influence of Japanese aesthetics such as wabi-sabi, and the principle of the kimono, the idea of wrapping fabric around the body are present in their work and have been taken up by many contemporaries.
Photographer Peter Lindbergh captured some of the most iconic garments by Rei Kawakubo in this series of 1983 (see also next picture).
This group shows how at different times in the 20th century, in the 1920s and 1960s, the curved S-shaped silhouette gave way to a more straight, modern line.
The fashionable sinuous silhouette of the late 19th and early 20th century, at its height in the Art Nouveau and characterized by an extremely small waist and ample bosom, gradually gave way to the straighter lines of the reform dresses at the start of the 20th century.
The garçonne wore short hair, straight chemise dresses and had a boyish figure.
Balenciaga reinterpreted the straight line in his celebrated 'tunic' silhouette of 1955, a simple knee-length garment worn over a straight, longer skirt. The outfit suggests the silhouette’s outline while the space between the wearer’s body and the garment affords free movement. Its elegant simplicity ensured instant success and impact.
Balenciaga’s reinterpretation of the tunic soon became a new classic in his work and it reappeared in every Balenciaga collection, from February 1955 to the last one in February 1968.
The revolutionary spirit of the 1920s is echoed in the 1960s with similarly straight silhouettes, symbols of freedom and modernity for the Space Age generation. The ‘youthquake’ and futurist designers of the 1960s eliminated the 1950s waist and presented, once again, a gamine silhouette instead. André Courrèges and Paco Rabanne were involved with apprenticeships or worked for Balenciaga’s label and took over his pure geometric forms.
French photographer Peter Knapp was a close collaborator of André Courrèges and created some of the most remarkable Space Age images in the 1960s.
The body, once released from the corset, was ready to take on a new role with regards to the garment at the end of the 20th century.
In Spring/Summer 1997, Rei Kawakubo took the idea of ‘rethinking the body’ a step further and launched her famous ‘Lumps ‘n Bumps’ collection, called ‘Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress, and Become One’: a collection which integrated organic padded shapes, thus de- or reforming the human body.
“Not what has been seen before,
not what has been repeated, instead,
new discoveries that look towards the
future, that are liberated and lively.”
— Press release Comme des Garçons 1997
Choreographer Merce Cunningham, who worked with the collection in his Scenario production, simply states: “the lumps are familiar shapes we can see every day, a bike messenger with a bag over the shoulder, a tourist with fanny pack, a baby on a mother’s arm.”
Similarly, the work of Georgina Godley, a British artist and fashion designer, escapes the representation of the female body as either sexy/sexless: she opted for the ‘third way’ instead, worshipping the female body, inspired by African
fertility goddesses as well as the women of Vermeer.
Martin Margiela playfully deconstructs the Western idea of the woman as a ‘living doll’, or the doll as a more perfect version of woman: his collections featuring tailoring dummies turned into waistcoats (Spring/Summer 1997, Autumn?Winter 1997–98), and a 1950s adaptable metal wire dummy jacket (autumn-winter 1989–90).
By clothing the actual, living body in a dummy, which acts as a fetishized version of the female body, he shows how foreign the standardized dummy is to the real living body.
“Dolls... this is what many men want
women to be... just dolls.”
— Yohji Yamamoto
To place the body at the centre stage in the exhibition, MoMu created a holographic video, directed by photographer Daniel Sannwald (graduate of the Royal Antwerp Academy of Fine Arts). In a choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (Eastman) and featuring a selection of Balenciaga archive pieces selected by Demna Gvasalia, current artistic director of the house of Balenciaga — and graduate of the fashion department of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts.
These archive pieces are accompanied by game-changing designs by Issey Miyake, Ann Demeulemeester, Maison Martin Margiela, Comme des Garçons and Gvasalia’s own label Vêtements.
In an evocation of the pre-linguistic phase of human life (13 months), in which there is no ‘I’ and no distinction between the child’s own body, the mother’s body and the external world, the abstract garments and living bodies merge into new constellations.
The back of the female silhouette became a focal point in the work of Cristóbal Balenciaga. The neckline falling gracefully at the nape of the neck, or lower on the back, formed a characteristically flowing drapery.
Balenciaga was inspired by the traditional kimono neckline, incorporating collars cut away from the neck that gently expose the nape in his tailored suits and day ensembles.
In Japan, the nape of the neck is considered one of the most beautiful features of a woman’s body.
Therefore, the back of the kimono collar is dipped to expose the nape and make it appear longer.
In contrast with the fluid lines of the collar, the kimono is secured tightly around the chest and is adorned with other prominent accessories at the back, such as the bulky obi knot and the high chignon hairstyle decorated with combs.
Balenciaga would also incorporate his personal interpretation of these elements into his most celebrated designs of the 1960s, such as the pink evening gown from his Autumn/Winter 1965 collection, also on display in this exhibition.
The chemise dress or baby doll, which takes its name from the 1950s loose-fitting negligée, was first introduced by Balenciaga in his Winter 1957 collection.
It was a trapezoid-shaped cocktail design made in lace and worn over a tight-fitting dress that outlined the wearer’s real body shape, resulting in a compromise between an expression of the waist and its denial.
Balenciaga’s late couture work has been said to be ‘out of touch’ with the prêt-à-porter boom of the 1960s, but in fact his progressive body abstraction and pure lines can be found in the creations of the generations which followed him, including Pierre Cardin (sometimes reproached for his mushroom shapes and abstraction), Issey Miyake and later generations of international designers including Sybilla (Spain), Hussein Chalayan (Cyprus), Junya Watanabe (Japan) and the 3D printed dresses of Iris van Herpen (The Netherlands).
They push fashion further forward in a tradition of innovation just like their predecessors. This way, the ideas of the past collide with the shapes of the future in an eternal Tiger’s Leap.
He conjures up emblematic designers of the 20th century, such as Chanel, Dior and Balenciaga, and puts his own stamp on them. The typical houndstooth motifs of Chanel and Dior changes on this dress into a bird print, signature of McQueen.
The caterpillar-like dress from Balenciaga grows into a dramatic blown-up volume.
Thanks to the many photographers for allowing the inclusion of their images:
Stany Dederen (MoMu Collections photoshoots)
Thanks also to the Balenciaga Archive for their kind image and object loans