reinventing the 20th century silhouette

Discover the game-changing designers who radically innovated the 20th century silhouette.

The Game Changers exhibition took place at MoMu from March 2016 to August 2016. The show consisted of over 130 silhouettes by game-changing designers, with Cristóbal Balenciaga as the protagonist.

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!

Tiger’s leap
Looking backwards toward the future

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.

As you can see in this asymmetrical taffeta dress from Balenciaga’s Autumn/Winter 1953 collection, the use of both historicist shapes and innovations makes his work an example of the tiger’s leap principle.

Balenciaga’s Icons
The most iconic silhouettes by Cristóbal Balenciaga

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 four corner silk gazar dress of 1967 was one of the most abstract sculptural creations of Balenciaga at the end of his career and remains one of his most iconic garments.

The sack dress broke away from the structured, body-conscious silhouettes of 1950s couture and freed the body in an elegant and comfortable way.

The loose garment was a shocking evolution which announced the easy and minimal silhouette of the 1960s.

Kimono
“I learned from the space between body and fabric from the traditional kimono... not the style, but the space.”— Issey Miyake

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’.

French couturière Madeleine Vionnet became an avid collector of kimonos and ukiyo-e prints which were to profoundly influence her work.

She said: “The dress must not hang on the body but follow its lines. It must accompany its wearer and when a woman smiles the dress must smile with her.”

Vionnet’s kimono inspired technical innovation and aesthetic assimilation were to have a fundamental impact on the work of Cristóbal Balenciaga, lying at the heart of his alternative vision of the silhouette in the 1950s and 60s.

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).

Oversized Volumes

Maison Martin Margiela’s blow-up versions of archetypical garments made in an Italian size 78, deconstruct the notions of both haute couture (made to measure) and prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear): they do not fit the wearer’s body and do not come in predefined commercial sizes.

Margiela’s oversize garments deconstruct the fashion system, in which pre-made, industrial garments are produced for a multitude of different body types in standard sizes: these garments erase the idea of a standard body type with the premise of ‘one (over)size fits all’.

The Straight Line
A modern aesthetic

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.

Chanel not only ‘liberated’ the New Woman, she also imposed a new slim beauty ideal, of which the echoes can still be felt today.

Sportswear influenced haute couture, and designers like Chanel, Jean Patou, Madeleine Vionnet catered to the liberated New Woman who was sporty and chique.

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.

Rethinking the body
Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress, and Become One, Rei Kawakubo S/S 1997

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.

Kawakubo called it simply "rethinking the body", whereas the press dubbed the collection Quasimodo, or worse "the ugliest collection of the year".

“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.

Seen from the back
“I can only see a woman as someone who passes by, a person who disappears.I think clothes should be made from the back, and not the front.” — Yohji Yamamoto

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 babydoll
The road to abstraction

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.

In the following Summer 1958 collection, Cristóbal Balenciaga went one step further and exaggerated the volume in full dresses where any reference to the body was radically eliminated.

Waist, hips and breasts went unnoticed inhabiting the new empty space that mediated between body and garment.

The baby doll can be considered the last of the landmarks in Balenciaga experimentation with form during the 1950s.

The trapezoid shape of the babydoll is a grateful starting point for contemporary designers.

Ultimate Abstraction
The final stage

In 1968, Cristóbal Balenciaga closed down his house, after having given the world his most creative and pure designs in the 1960s, which led to a maximal body abstraction, as can be seen in his Le Chou Noir or his iconic four corner dress, both part of his Winter 1967 collection.

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.

The closing silhouette comes from ‘Horn of Plenty’ by Alexander McQueen, this collection is the last collection that McQueen created “before he was ready”, in his own words, “dealing with fashion history and could begin as a mature designer”.

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.

Credits: Story

Thanks to the many photographers for allowing the inclusion of their images:
Peter Lindbergh
Yannis Vlamos
Peter Knapp
Daniel Sannwald
Stany Dederen (MoMu Collections photoshoots)

Thanks also to the Balenciaga Archive for their kind image and object loans

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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