Fashion as Refined Art
Balenciaga’s devout religious beliefs also reflected upon how he worked—with a focused discipline and an obsessive exactitude, especially in regard to his legendarily uncompromising fittings.
The name Balenciaga has become a definition of timeless, classic elegance, synonymous with the exquisite beauty and rigorous perfectionism that his designs exemplified within the realm of twentieth-century haute couture. He is often credited with having elevated fashion to the level of a refined art. His life and dictums of style are a fascinating study in contrasts, an interplay of nostalgic Spanish themes and provocative innovations, which he synthesized and transformed with the consummate skill and brio of a masterful precision tailor. He created a distinctive vocabulary of calibrated shapes in somber blacks and earth tones offset by vibrant color choices and theatrical, often surprisingly playful flourishes, all evocative of his Iberian heritage and homeland, and expressive of a rare creative talent.
Coco Chanel, who was initially his mentor of modernity, stated that all other designers of the era, including his numerous protégés1 were indebted to him as “the only couturier. He is the only one who knows how to cut a fabric, and mount it and sew it with his own hands. The others are just draughtsmen”2 who emulated the master. Even Christian Dior—who as a young man, served as his sketch artist, then became his admiring rival—echoed this view when he commented that “Haute Couture is like an orchestra, for which only Balenciaga is the conductor … the rest of us are just musicians, following the directions he gives us.”3 Revered by his worldwide customers, his salons were renowned for their church-like atmosphere of solemnity and for their air of hauteur and exclusivity.
San Francisco’s de Young Museum has mounted a stunning retrospective consisting of one hundred twenty of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s (1895-1972) signature fashions. The striking installation, which can be seen through July 4, 2011, emphasizes the powerfully enduring and haunting impact that Spanish culture and arts had on the fashion icon’s spiritual life and aesthetic. The sequence of this evolution is traced with dramatic groupings of mannequins that graphically bring to life such influences. The sumptuous gowns and sleek satin cocktail dresses, sculpted coats and lush capes, structured suits and short bolero jackets are juxtaposed against murals of the bullfights, flamenco dancers, regal portraits, or regional costumes—and are displayed near examples of the types of textiles, liturgical vestments and shawls—that all served as inspirations for his reinterpretations of native sources.
Balenciaga was born of humble origins in Guétaria, a medieval fishing village along the rough Basque Atlantic coast. He was raised within a very structured late nineteenth-century society, a provincial milieu of social constraint, formality and deep religious devotion. In 1906, he was strongly affected by the death of his sailor father, leaving him surrounded by a family of women in dark mourning garb. Black became the primal color of his childhood memories; he used it extensively throughout his career, and to great acclaim in his first Paris collections of 1937, which featured radical shapes accented by velvety blacks. It was also the color of royalty, dignity and privilege, whose connotations permeated everything that he fashioned.
His mother had to support the family as a seamstress. Young Cristóbal displayed an affinity for his mother’s skills; when he was just six he created his first coat—for the family cat! His mother’s stitchery services granted him access to a local noblewoman, Marquesa de Casa Torres. At age eleven, he confidently asked if he might copy one of her Parisian suits—which he accomplished so well, that she wore his version.4 She became a gateway for him to the world of fashionable European designers, and a conduit to others of her patrician class. He eventually developed a clientele that included the Spanish royal family who were his primary patrons until their exile in l931.
Balenciaga lived in an age where learning a trade was essential to getting ahead. He embarked on a rapid trajectory toward his fashion career beginning at age thirteen when he left school—apprenticing to a tailor, learning this craft thoroughly, then opening his own dressmaking shop by the age of nineteen in San Sebastian, where he created stylish attire for the denizens of the casinos and beach entertainments. He always considered himself a craftsman and continued to call his work a métier, rather than art or fashion—for him, designing was truly akin to a “religious vocation.”5 By the age of twenty-five, he had also established couture houses in Madrid and Barcelona, but was finally forced to flee in 1937 due to the Spanish Revolution. He ended up in Paris for the duration of his life; yet despite occupying the center of the French couture world, he always remained sustained by the sensibilities and culture of his native land.
He was profoundly impressed by two divergent aspects of the Catholic Church that dominated his boyhood town—both by the splendor of its ecclesiastical vestments and by its austere religious strictures and monkish clerical garments. The earliest surviving outfit that he designed, at age seventeen, for a cousin is a travel suit of patterned black silk with a frilly white lace jabot. It already prefigured his signature style, combining restraint with fanciful, shyly seductive detailing, and structural lines in a stiff, dark fabric played against a pliable pale and soft accent. This is seen in every phase of his career, as in an ornate evening dress of ivory silk—with its startling crown of thorns embroidery and rhinestone insets, a contrast to the chaste wedding gowns that he created in his earlier periods—and in his last, post-retirement 1972 design, as “a stately coda to his career,”6 a fitted white satin dress with a simple columnar shape, lavishly edged with pearl-encrusted vertical seams, made for General Franco’s granddaughter.
Balenciaga’s devout religious beliefs also reflected upon how he worked—with a focused discipline and an obsessive exactitude, especially in regard to his legendarily uncompromising fittings. He was notoriously press-shy and reluctant to seek publicity; his salon associates also cultivated a protective aura about him, which surely enhanced his reputation and mystique. A complex personality, Balenciaga was also reticent about interacting directly with any but his most refined clients, although he befriended some of the more famous and wealthy, which provided him with an intuitive comprehension of what would flatter their mature and often curvaceous figures. He did not care to cater only to the lithe, trendier set—nor later, to engage in the ready-to-wear youth market—instead, developing tricks of proportion that would address a wide range of body types and physical shortcomings, such as waist seams that arced upwards or swooped backwards to elongate the torso, or collars that stood away from the nape to disguise or lengthen a short neck.
His clothes were impeccably constructed, incorporating their own clever customized structural underpinnings, yet customers reported that they were extremely easy to wear and supple to move in. According to his ultimate protégé, Hubert de Givenchy, he was truly “the architect of Haute Couture.” Despite his dour and retiring demeanor, the clothes that Balenciaga presented were daringly assured in shape and color, with touches of a dry wit. These vivacious accents also often appeared as tiered flounces, giant bows, pleated tulle, or scalloped and overlaid lace; or as the poufs, pom-poms, passementerie, braiding, faux gemstones, and outsized floral appliqués that delighted the critics. These details also turned up in his whimsical hats.
During his early years, Balenciaga had first paid homage to French designers like Coco Chanel and Madeleine Vionnet, purchasing and adapting their forward-looking designs, but modifying them for his more conservative Spanish clients’ tastes. He admired the modernity and ease of movement in Chanel’s clothes. He concurred with her notion of looking “exceptional but not outrageous”7 nor vulgar, a keynote of his approach. By the time he had relocated to Paris in the late 1930s he had already spent twenty years in Spain establishing his name and refining his craft. During this period he combined multiple influences, developing body-hugging shapes with gentle fullness at the hips, derived from the luxurious styles, fabrics and figures depicted in the paintings of some of Spain’s foremost artists. He looked to the opulence in formal portraits by Francisco de Goya of the Spanish royals and dignified Majas and Dueñas in their fluffy lace or brocade gowns, accentuated by decorative red bows; also appropriating their dove grays, oyster whites, shiny ink blacks, and intense scarlet hues. The dramatically bunched black silk gazar chou (cabbage)-wrap over a silk crêpe evening dress is an oblique interpretation of Goya’s Duchess of Alba wearing a black lace mantilla. His 1939 Infanta evening dress, in ivory satin with graphic black velvet arabesque trim is more directly inspired by Diego Velazquez’s (1653) Infanta Margarita. The brooding religious imagery of El Greco and Francisco de Zurbarán were ripe sources for the sheen and painterly treatment of his fabrics.8
In the early 1950s he based many of his forms on hieratic bishop’s chasubles, on the humble robes, hoods, capes, and cassocks of monks; also embracing the glittering traje de luces (suit of lights) and short tasseled, pom-pom, bead and braid-embellished bolero jackets of the matador. Even though bullfighting itself repelled him, he was drawn to its romantic atmosphere—the brilliant colors, flash and bravery of the sport. He then explored more fluid lines as well as a boxy angled geometry, and also incorporated the sinuous hourglass shapes, tiered ruffled cascades, exuberant hues and large polka dots of the Flamenco dancers’ flamboyant costume, known as the Bata de Cola. By the late 1950s he presented the first tunic and baby-doll dresses, the dropped hip-level waistline, the balloon skirt (1957), and in 1952, pioneered the pillbox hat, a wry nod to the cleric’s skullcap or the biretta, a Spanish version of the beret. Throughout the 1950s to early 1960s he modeled suits with short jackets and a higher waist, sports outfits with boots, and evening gowns in lush fabrics and vibrant colors, as well as floral prints and embroidered cocktail dresses reiterating the extravagant splashes of multicolored blooms on Mantons de Manila, the imported silk fringed Chinese shawls that were both a frequent Flamenco accessory and popular with stylish ladies. A recurrent motif in his work was the carnation—the national flower of Spain—which he wove into intricate fabric patterns and inserted into embroidered details. In his final (1968) collections he featured increasingly abstract inventive shapes, unexpected color combinations and the contrasts of textures that had become his trademark.
Complementing his ubiquitous and persistent use of black or white, he favored a strong palette: fiery blood reds, from crimson to a redolent burgundy-wine; pinks that spanned the scale from pale shell and raspberry to hot fuchsia; sumptuous royal purples, from prune to violet; antique aqua to sapphire and navy blue; a range of beiges and yellows from straw and amber to bright lemon and blazing gold; verdant tones from muted olive to emerald greens; peach and apricot oranges; and distinctive shades of saddle tan or cinnamon that became known as Balenciaga brown. The impact of these splendid hues resonates throughout his oeuvre.
In 1958 Balenciaga had worked closely with firms in Scotland and Switzerland developing new fabrics such as gazar silk—stiffly woven gauze and a duchess satin—to support his sculpted shapes and crisp silhouettes. These fabrics and his definitive stylistic influence are still very much in evidence, as clearly referenced by Catherine Middleton’s recent royal wedding gown in a creamy white satin gazar with its delicate, custom-embroidered floral lace overlay, fitted bodice, nipped-in waist, full angled skirt and bustled train.9
He ceased doing business abruptly in 1968, when the student riots disrupted Paris. He had intended to settle quietly in Spain after his retirement, but died in March 1972 before this could occur. Women’s Wear Daily aptly exclaimed “The King is Dead”—granting him the stature of a legend, yet offering an appropriately succinct and fitting eulogy for the celebrated couturier who had made his mark on the fashion world with a spare, sophisticated elegance and chic good taste grounded in both classical style and indigenous traditions, all based on meticulous tailoring, yet always with an ingenious, salient detail or a piquant touch of fancy subtly bursting forth.
Tamara W. Hill has worn many hats during her career as an artist, designer, writer, teacher, and photographer. She served as a contemporary art critic for Artforum magazine, and contributes to many publications such as Art in America, Hali and Ornament. Hill curated a number of exhibitions on costume and textiles, and has lectured and taught art history with a specialization in Himalayan Buddhist arts and symbolism. A collector of ethnographic jewelry, folk arts and textiles, she is fascinated by the work of couturier Balenciaga, whose meticulous dedication to his craft she aspires to accomplish in her own creations.
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