Cristóbal Balenciaga: The cocoon silhouette vs the New Look

Photo: MoMu Antwerp / Stany Dederen

Photo: MoMu Antwerp / Stany Dederen

Haute couture is like an orchestra, for which only Balenciaga is the conductor. The rest of us are just musicians, following the directions that he gives us. – Christian Dior

These words famously pronounced by Christian Dior in 1955, at the height of his own career, perfectly summarize Cristóbal Balenciaga’s undisputed leading role in fashion during the 1950s and 1960s. However, this didn’t always seem such an obvious development. When Dior himself captivated women around the world with the presentation of his first collection in February 1947 he was also launching the dominant silhouette of the 1950s, soon to be known as the New Look. Featuring rounded shoulders, a cinched waist, and very full skirt, the New Look celebrated opulence and a certain branch of voluptuous femininity. After years of military inspired fashions and sartorial restrictions resulting from war, Dior seemed to offer women exactly what they were aspiring to, even if this entailed reintroducing the corset in their wardrobes and in their lives. In the early 1940s Cristóbal Balenciaga had already initiated a creative path of his own, marked by a progressive experimentation with form and construction which aimed at establishing a new relationship between body and garment. Balenciaga’s introduction of the cocoon silhouette played a vital role in this process. Balenciaga’s interpretation of the cocoon silhouette was closely related to the Japonism that influenced fashion at the beginning of the twentieth century. Couturiers such as Paul Poiret, Callot Soeurs or Madeleine Vionnet incorporated the Japanese kimono into women’s dress, bringing with it an unfamiliar silhouette that would revolutionize fashion over the next few decades. The characteristic arch over the back, the collar falling back to reveal the nape, the asymmetrical long hem, shorter at the front and longer at the back: these are the most definitive characteristics of this first Japonist silhouette.

Photo: MoMu Antwerp / Stany Dederen

Photo: MoMu Antwerp / Stany Dederen

Profoundly influenced by the work of these early innovators, Balenciaga used his own interpretation of the cocoon shaped silhouette to depart from established notions of beauty and femininity in the middle of the 20th century. It was precisely in February 1947 when Balenciaga presented the so-called “barrel line”, a cocoon shaped and liberating silhouette which obliterated the waist and offered women an alternative way of moving and experiencing dress.


Balenciaga’s commitment to rethinking the silhouette and searching for alternative volumes had not always been apparent in his work. In August 1939, driven by a marked historicism that pervaded all Paris couture collections of the season, he introduced his famous ‘Infanta’ dresses, which closely replicated the silhouette of seventeenth-century Spanish court dress, with its rigid bust and a tight waist, descending with stark contrast into a voluminous skirt with full hips. Balenciaga, ever the perfectionist, did not hesitate to use the most effective methods for reproducing the desired silhouette.


Balenciaga, AW 1939, ‘infanta’-style evening dress. © Balenciaga Archives

Thus, Rosette Hargrove, a correspondent for the Newspaper Enterprise Association, reported with significant astonishment from Paris:

Wasp waists are in again – despite the scoffers. Hips are also to be cultivated, if you want to wear some of the new styles convincingly. Rounded hips, in fact, are fast showing promise of becoming one of the canons of 1939 beauty, rather than the defect women have striven so hard to eliminate these past years. Balenciaga, the most recent and very successful addition to the ranks of the top-flight couturiers, had at least three of his mannequins wearing boned corsets. These simply took inches off their waists and made their hips bulge somewhat disconcertingly to the eyes of the unprepared onlookers.

The outbreak of the Second World War and the occupation of Paris in June 1940 imposed a drastic change of rhythm upon Parisian fashion in general, and Balenciaga’s work in particular. In the summer of 1942 Balenciaga presented a three-quarter-length jacket arching around the shoulders and broadening at waist-level before gradually narrowing out to below the hips. The piece in question, its curved shape reminiscent of an enveloping cocoon, stood in stark contrast to the almost military straightness of designs typical not only of that season but of the war years in general.

Cristóbal Balenciaga, Autumn/Winter 1942. Cocoon shaped jacket.

Cristóbal Balenciaga, Autumn/Winter 1942. Cocoon shaped jacket. © Balenciaga Archives

Balenciaga was to perfect this silhouette in the summer of 1947, where three-quarter-length jackets and coats of identical profile were indisputably the stars of his collection. The cocoon silhouette became a classic on its own time and it soon established itself as a solid alternative that most couturiers endorsed in subsequent seasons, including, of course, Dior himself .


In a similar vein to the way Poiret or Vionnet’s interpretation of the kimono liberated women from the constricting hourglass silhouette in the early 20th century, Cristóbal Balenciaga’s cocoon shaped designs came to represent a liberating alternative to Christian Dior’s New Look. Beyond his masterfully tailored coats and jackets, Balenciaga introduced a graceful version of the flowing silhouette into his day and evening ensembles, subjecting his own work to a progressive aesthetic and technical refinement until his retirement in 1968.  

Cristóbal Balenciaga, Spring/Summer 1955. Bloused day ensemble.

Cristóbal Balenciaga, Spring/Summer 1955. Bloused day ensemble. © Balenciaga Archives

Game Changers. Reinventing the 20th Century Silhouette now on display at MoMu Antwerp!

Words by Miren Arzalluz


Looking back towards the future: the work of Issey Miyake

Issey Miyake 1990 - 2015. Photo by Francis Giacobetti

Issey Miyake 1990 – 2015. Photo by Francis Giacobetti

At the close of Balenciaga’s house in 1968, Issey Miyake witnessed, as a design assistant at the atelier of Guy  Laroche, the May 1968 student revolts in Paris, with the motto “sous les pavés la plage”.

The freedom and rebellious, creative spirit of these revolts inspired Miyake: when he established his own house in 1970, he did not want to create ‘classical’ fashion, but future-oriented, international clothes which could be worn universally. His approach of mixing art with science has resulted in many successful concepts: Pleats Please, APOC and 132.5 are all examples of cutting-edge design innovations with utopian ideas behind it.

Contemporary themes like gender neutrality, cutting out textile waste and the use of natural fibres in combination with high tech technologies have always played a part in his work.

Issey Miyake 1990 - 2015. Photo by Francis Giacobetti

Issey Miyake 1990 – 2015. Photo by Francis Giacobetti

The concept of ‘ma’, or the space between the body and the garment, the indeterminate space which the body inhabits, brings about a lot of freedom for the wearer. Many of Miyake’s clients feel great in his creations since they provide freedom of movement and a gentle touch, different to most form-fitting fashions of today. Freedom and a sense of fun are central to all Miyake’s creations, which incorporate cutting principles and an obsession with simplicity similar to Vionnet’s cuts, and a bold imagination. He fuses a love for tradition with a vision of the future.

Issey Miyake 1990 - 2015. Photo by Francis Giacobetti

Issey Miyake 1990 – 2015. Photo by Francis Giacobetti

His creations have been used often for dance productions, since bodies in motion show very well the lively energy inherent to Miyake’s creations. Photographer Francis Giacobetti has photographed Miyake’s Pleats Please creations from 1980 til today, creating iconic, graphic images which capture the imagination:

“His creations are like music. Music that surrounds bodies and women. His dreamlike inventions are like an invitation to dance. Miyake is the couturier who has already given shape to an elegance of the future.” Francis Giacobetti

 Game Changers. Reinventing the 20th Century Silhouette until 14th August at MoMu Antwerp


Working with the MoMu/UA Study Collection: Reconstruction of a Blouse



Blouse (1890/1915)

Materials and techniques: Cotton; Silk; Lace: chantilly; Tulle


The only original part of this blouse is the black lace, which came into the study collection in separate pieces. The main part of this exercise consisted of historical research about fashion and patternmaking at the beginning of the 20th century. A sample of the original beige silk fabric was found inside one of the seams. A reconstruction of the inner blouse was made, based on the colour of this sample, fashion plates and physical examples of the same period. A second part of the exercise consisted of the conservation of the lace: vacuum cleaning, flattening by moisture and weights and restitching of open seams.

Words by Bernice Brigou and Natalie Ortega, University of Antwerp, Faculty of Design Sciences, research group Heritage & Sustainability. Project supported by the Flemish Government.

Behind the scenes, Collection, Exhibition

Game Changers: The Conservation of a Balenciaga Dress

Photo: MoMu Antwerp / Stany Dederen

Photo: MoMu Antwerp / Stany Dederen

With our newest exhibition Game Changers, MoMu wanted to tell the story of how Balenciaga and the generations after have changed the feminine silhouette from waist-obsessed to free form. To portray this liberating story, MoMu acquired the most astonishing pieces from the Balenciaga archives. But not all of them were in the greatest conditions. Thankfully, our MoMu restaurator Kim, was able to save this dress from 1967!

One of the key features of the dress are the red flowers on top which was in bad condition. Not only were the flowers completely out of shape but also torn and wrinkled. Traces on the flowers showed that the dress was relocated several times over the years which caused the dress to look different than how it originally was. It was impossible to display the dress as it was so with the blessing of Balenciaga Archives in Paris, we decided to properly treat and conserve it.

Condition of the dress before treatment

Condition of the dress before treatment

Besides the flowers, the silk crêpeline underneath the flowers was also in poor condition. Kim decided to seperate the flowers and the crêpeline and support it with special material before putting it back together. The flowers were brought back into shape by using cold steam and pillows of fiberfill to support them. The torn leaves were supported by conservation tulle. After leaving the leaves in this position, the flowers were back in its original shape.The silk crêpeline and the flowers were then relocated to its original position which gave the dress once again it’s original appearance!


Game Changers. Reinventing the 20th Century Silhouette on display at MoMu Antwerp!

Words by Kim Verkens


UNIQLO MoMu Sundays


MoMu is collaborating with Japanese clothing retailer UNIQLO! From now on, the Japanese clothing retailer UNIQLO provides free entrance to all the visitors to the Game Changers exhibition every first Sunday. The UNIQLO MoMu Sundays take place on the shopping Sundays and start from the first of May 2016. Inspired by the ‘Free Friday Night’ collaboration between UNIQLO and MoMa in New York, it was a logical choice for MoMu to collaborate with the Japanese retailer.

Kaat Debo, director MoMu: “We are very proud to be the first museum in the BeNeLux to collaborate with UNIQLO. With the UNIQLO MoMu Sundays we hope to be able to introduce our exhibitions to more people.”

Every visitor will receive a free AIRism t-shirt when showing the MoMu entrance ticket within a week at the counter of the UNIQLO stores in Antwerp and Wijnegem. Practical: the UNIQLO MoMu Sundays take place on the shopping Sundays on 01/05, 05/06, 03/07, 07/08.


Game-Changing Moments, Paco Rabanne’s 1966 Manifesto collection

Photo: MoMu / Stany Dederen

Photo: MoMu / Stany Dederen

“I have always had the impression of being a time accelerator. Of going as far as is reasonable for one’s time and not indulge in the morbid pleasure of the known things, which I view as decay. I talk of mutation, of the unquenchable thirst for novelty, and of permanent rupture. To be fixed in a concept is to become a living corpse.” Lydia Kamitsis, “Entretenien avec Paco Rabanne”, in Paco Rabanne [Exhibition Catalogue].

Paco Rabanne’s words reflect his iconoclastic approach to fashion, marking his work from the beginning to the end of his career. His commitment to questioning established ideas about dress, his experimentation with unconventional materials, and his architectural vision were at the heart of some of the most iconic designs of the 20th century.

Rabanne’s characteristic resilience and combative temperament were forged very early in his life. After fleeing the Spanish civil war, the young Paco moved to Paris in 1952, where he initiated his studies in Architecture. For over ten years he combined his studies with his accessory design for reputed houses such as Balenciaga, Courrèges, Pierre Cardin and Givenchy. Rabanne’s mother had worked for Cristóbal Balenciaga as a head seamstress in his San Sebastian atelier before the war forced them both to leave. However, it was Paco’s determination and use of materials that encouraged Balenciaga to incorporate Rabanne’s designs into his couture creations of the late 50s and early 60s. Years later Paco Rabanne would repeatedly acknowledge his admiration and creative debt to Balenciaga’s pure and architectural vision, considering himself “one of his disciples” and “a member of his school, a school of rigour and exactitude”.

On February 1st 1966, Paco Rabanne presented at the Hôtel George V his first Manifesto Collection, “12 Unwearable Dresses in Contemporary Materials”, in which twelve barefoot models paraded clad in scandalous outfits, made entirely of rhodoïd sequins and plaques linked together with metallic rings. The choice of such an ignoble and inappropriate material as rhodoïd, was in line with the Dada and Panique movements, favoured by Rabanne in his early years. His penchant for the uncommon grew more radical in successive collections, especially from 1968 onwards, with his use of metal, the material of discomfort par excellence. His metallic dresses were viewed by many as being incompatible with the search for freedom of movement that characterized most designers of the time. Paco Rabanne explained himself.

Quidam de Revel is a Paris vintage fashion dealer, owned by Emmanuelle Chesnel and Philippe Harros,  catering to haute couture fans, museums and vintage lovers since more than 20 years: they lent the iconic Paco Rabanne metal dress to MoMu for the Game Changers exhibition. They acquired the dress over seven years ago by a German owner who got it from his mom. It looks very much like the model worn by Donyale Luna photographed by Avedon in December 1966:

Donyale Luna wearing Paco Rabanne. 1966. Photo by Richard Avedon

Donyale Luna wearing Paco Rabanne. 1966. Photo by Richard Avedon

Rabanne opened the window and showed what fashion could be in the future, he has shown audacity and  a revolutionary spirit,” says Emmanuelle Chesnel.

Game Changers. Reinventing the 20th Century Silhouette until 14th August at MoMu Antwerp

Event, Exhibition

MoMu Sessions 11|05|2016


As a little something extra to the Game Changers expo, MoMu will be organizing MoMu Sessions on the 11th May! We have invited a panel of speakers ready to tell you more about the game-changing phenomenon in fashion. Sushi and drinks will be provided to close everything off in style! Excited yet? Head over to our website to sign up for the event!


12.30pm – 1pm: Arrival Fomu
1pm – 1.30pm: Welcoming by Kaat Debo (MoMu)
1.30pm – 2.15pm: Lecture Akiko Fukai, ‘The Discovery of Abstraction in 20th-century Fashion’
2.15pm – 2.50pm Lecture Miren Arzalluz, ‘Cristóbal Balenciaga: Iconoclastic Visions of the Silhouette’
2.50pm – 3.15pm: Lecture Karen Van Godtsenhoven, ‘Body Meets Dress: A New Relationship between Garment and Body for the 21st Century’
3.15pm – 3.45pm: Break
3.45pm – 4.15pm: Lecture Hettie Judah, ‘1980s Fashion and the Feminist Sex Wars’
4.15pm – 5pm: Panel discussion. Moderator: Hettie Judah. Participants Akiko Fukai, Miren Arzalluz, Karen Van Godtsenhoven and Anabela Becho
5pm – 6pm: Transfer Fomu to MoMu
6pm – 7pm: Nocturne Game Changers at MoMu (free guided tour included)
7pm – 8pm: Drinks and sushi at MoMu

Collection, Exhibition

Installing Traditions & Dreams. Kimono from the Kubota Collection


On Wednesday 20th April, MoMu will open its newest exhibition in the gallery of the museum: Traditions & Dreams. Kimono from the Kubota Collection! Itchiku Kubota was an innovative Japanese textile artist who was anything but traditional. His spectacular creations gave new meaning to the art of kimono. His understanding of both the Japanese and the Western art forms is the secret to his amazing work. By incorporating modern textiles and dyeing techniques into traditional modes of production, he created a series of stunning kimonos that were not only wearable but also one by one pieces of art.


MoMu will showcase six kimonos of the Symphony of Light series that represents the four seasons. The kimonos are linked compositionally, with the design flowing from one garment to the next. The kimonos arrived in wooden boxes. By wrapping the kimonos in special fabric (a technique that is also used in Japan to store kimonos), the kimonos are securely protected.


’3D effect’ on the kimono

While it may look like your ordinary stunning kimono, Kubota managed to take it a step further by adding textures and colors to the kimonos by using different techniques, making it really come to life. To create these astonishing textures, large parts of the kimono are outlined with vinyl thread and pulled tightly together to create puff areas. These areas are then covered with plastic sheets and tightened with more vinyl thread. After dyeing, steaming and rinsing the kimono, the threads are then removed. This process may be repeated numerous times until the desired effect is given. Colors are added in the initial stages by immersing the fabric in a dye bath for the ground color. Other colors are then brushed on the kimono.


Breathtaking textures


Traditions & Dreams. Kimono from the Kubota Collection on display at MoMu Gallery from 20/04/2016 until 19/06/2016

Event, Exhibition, Press&PR

Heritage Day: Rituals, Traditions & Dreams at MoMu


Photo: MoMu Antwerp / Dennis Ravays

It’s that time of the year again where we celebrate cultural heritage during Heritage Day on Sunday, 24 April! This year it is all about rituals! MoMu will be organizing some great activities for you and your family & friends to enjoy!

First of all, visitors can visit our newest exhibition ‘Game Changers. Reinventing the 20th Century Silhouette’ for free! The exhibition  unites 100 unique couture and ready-to-wear silhouets by Cristóbal Balenciaga, Paul Poiret, Madeleine Vionnet, Gabrielle Chanel, but also Issey Miyake, Ann Demeulemeester, Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto, Maison Martin Margiela…

Itchiku Kubota, Symphony of Light, (c) The Kubota Collection

Itchiku Kubota, Symphony of Light, (c) The Kubota Collection

Second, you can catch a glimpse of the unique kimonos by the Japanese textile artist Itchiku Kubota in our MoMu Gallery! The exhibition Traditions & Dreams. Kimonos from the Kubota Collection in the gallery of MoMu will shows six kimono’s of his unfinished Symphony of Light series and two kimono’s from the Mount Fuji series, which will all be the on view for the very first time in Belgium. This exhibition is organized on the occasion of the festivities of 150 years diplomatic relations between Belgium and Japan and with the support of Port of Antwerp.

Third, our MoMu conservator Frieda Sorber will be giving a lecture on Japanese kimonos. The lecture will be in dutch. Places are very limited so head over to our webshop to buy the tickets!

Last but not least, MoMu offers you the chance to witness a traditional tea ceremony! Inspired by our kimono exhibition and the main theme of Heritage Day, rituals, MoMu has invited a tea master to show you the centuries-old traditions of making tea!


  • Visit Game Changers. Reinventing the 20th Century Silhouette for free, 10am - 6pm.
  • Visit Traditions & Dreams. Kimono from the Kubota Collection, MoMu Gallery for free, 10am – 6pm
  • Lecture Frieda Sorber, conservator MoMu: “The phenomenon kimono in Japanese culture, past and present”, MoMu Library, at 2pm, participation: €5, registration required info@momu.be. The lecture will be in Dutch.
  • Japanese tea ceremony, MoMu entrance hall at 10am, 11:15am, 2pm and 3:15pm.  Free Japanese tea tasting, continuously from 10am till 18pm.

Hope to you see all celebrating cultural heritage with us at MoMu!


Exhibition, Uncategorized

MoMu Gallery. Traditions & Dreams. Kimono from the Kubota Collection 20|04|16>19|06|16


On 20th April, MoMu will open a new exhibition in the MoMu Gallery!

On the occasion of the festivities of 150 years diplomatic relations between Belgian and Japan and with the support of Port of Antwerp, MoMu presents Traditions & Dreams. Kimono from the Kubota Collection! The exhibition in the gallery of MoMu will show a series of kimonos by renowned Japanese textile artist Itchiku Kubota.  Six of them are from his unfinished Symphony of Light series and two kimonos from the Mount Fuji series, which will all be the on view for the very first time in Belgium.


Conceived when the artist was in his seventies, Symphony of Light was only partly done when Kubota died. The kimonos are a powerful statement of concepts developed and refined over many years. Like all the great textiles of the world they suck the viewer from a powerful image into the intricacies of tiny embroidered, painted and tie-dyed elements breathing life into the varied textures of the woven silk cloth.

The entrance to the MoMu Gallery is free!