To the uninitiated, haute couture might conjure up images of haughty snobs sporting wildly-impractical clothing or ankle-breaking six-inch stilettos. The elusive nature of high fashion makes it difficult to categorize—often toeing the line between wearable and absurd, Balenciaga’s designs muddle this already contentious definition. Balenciaga: Master of Couture, on display from now until Oct. 14 at the McCord Museum, seeks to establish a definitive vision of high fashion for its audience.
Master of Couture highlights the work of prolific designer Cristóbal Balenciaga, and the subsequent movements that the fashion icon inspired. Near the entrance, museum-goers can pick up programs with over 150 informative blurbs corresponding to the attire on display. The x-ray dissections are particularly notable, revealing the clothing’s internal compositions and illustrating the groundbreaking technique and clever structural details within Balenciaga’s designs.
The collection itself combines an eclectic array of colours, fabrics, forms, and functions, containing illustrious ball-room gowns, subdued office suits, and seasonal casual wear. Nearly every piece of clothing is proof of Balenciaga’s purposefulness, his eye for detail, and fearless experimentation. The exhibition conveys all three of these values in one specific garment: A loose fitting knee-high dress cinched at the waist with forearm-length sleeves. Balenciaga intended to give the wearer comfortable maneuverability and ample room for showing off jewelry and accessories without compromising aesthetics.
The exhibition encourages audiences to engage with the artist’s work. An otherwise straightforward timeline of Balenciaga’s life features a silver garment next to a mirror titled, “Cape or Skirt?” The question invites patrons to try on the item in order to find out. It’s difficult to maneuver, but the item can, in fact, be worn as both. The garment highlights Balenciaga’s interest in multi-functionality—he wanted garments to be used differently for every occasion. Viewers can also take a cut-out paper template to make a miniature “One-Seam Coat” at home. These interactive elements highlight the importance of practicality, making the art more accessible.
Surprisingly, none of the clothing is as comically-outrageous as one might expect. Balenciaga’s sense for a functional design, if at times too lavish for casual use, never feels too ridiculous to actually wear. However, the portion of the exhibition dedicated to designers influenced by Balenciaga, such as Nicolas Ghesquière, Alexander McQueen, and Demna Gvasalia, pushes the bounds of absurdity. Here, viewers can find dresses shaped like broccoli stalks or clock tower bells. Like Balenciaga, these designers bring their own spin to conventional wear, and their outlandish costumes are meant to push the boundaries of convention.
Above all, Master of Couture illustrates the importance of artistic intent. Balenciaga’s approach to fashion, and his involvement in every facet of the creative process, exemplify his prowess as a creative genius.
Balenciaga: Master of Couture runs from June 15 to Oct. 14 at the McCord Museum (690 Sherbrooke St W). Student Tickets $14.