A rare chance to see gowns by Cristobal Balenciaga in new Paris exhibition

The show offers a look into how the couturier created bespoke looks for his clients

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Storied Spanish luxury house Balenciaga is staging a rare exhibition this weekend, as part of the 2023 Journees Europeennes du Patrimoine (European Heritage Days) event in Paris.

Called The Woman Behind the Dress, the show brings together never-seen-before looks mid-construction and offers a glimpse into the gilded world of clients of the label's founder, Cristobal Balenciaga.

A master of construction, Balenciaga’s work remains hugely influential, both as the man his contemporaries Christian Dior and Hubert de Givenchy considered a genius, and also for the new shapes and silhouettes he created around the female body.

A dress mid-construction, shown as part of the Balenciaga Heritage Days show in Paris. Photo Balenciaga

Even more than fifty years after his death, quite how he crafted many of his looks remains elusive. Case in point, when the Victoria & Albert Museum staged an exhibition of his work in 2017, it had to X-ray the gowns to unravel some of the mysteries of how they were put together.

Now, the inner workings of his pare being put on show, along with information about the women who commissioned them.

As custom looks, each was made to fit the precise measurements of one woman's body and as a result, echo the deeply intimate bond between customer and couturier. It was to Balenciaga each women confided her body-centric insecurities, and for whom the designer created bespoke solutions.

The padding by Balenciaga is shown on a mock up look for Anne Moen Bullitt, who was a client between 1948-1952. Photo Balenciaga

Clients including the Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman, Princess Grace of Monaco and socialites Francine Weisweiller, Elizabeth Parke Firestone and Mona Von Bismarck all turned to Balenciaga to create one-of-a-kind looks.

A glimpse inside a monied universe that few will ever be part of, it is a fascinating journey through cutting-edge fashion – showcasing how skillful construction is used to draw the eye around a look, and to disguise one area by highlighting another.

Displayed as toiles, an early version of the dress made onto the tailors' dummy, each shows how Balenciaga created balance and form with padding that would eventually sit under the finished gown. It shows the very hand of the designer as he tried to cater to the very real demands of his clients.

Actress Ingrid Bergman during a fitting at Balenciaga's atelier in 1956. Photo Balenciaga

Conjuring new shapes that redefined the female form, Balenciaga ushered in a new era of design and gave his clients confidence by reinventing silhouettes.

The Woman Behind the Dress exhibition is running at 40 rue de Sevres, Paris on Saturday and Sunday

Updated: September 16, 2023, 7:02 AM