Last spring I was lucky to visit the Vogue 100: A Century of Style exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, and it seems to have set a precedent. I would like to see more collections of the kind, make more noises at photographs taken by masters, and drink more Earl Grey in museum refreshment rooms. Fortunately, 2017 brings at least one ample opportunity to do just that.
From May 27th, 2017 to February 18th, 2018 the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is staging a major exhibition titled Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion. Displaying some 100 gowns and 20 hats by the designer and his successors (works by Demna Gvasalia are likely to appear), the show will demonstrate the evolution of the House of Balenciaga through the course of over a century. Garments will be featured alongside sketches, fabric samples, and photographs, which should allow to appreciate the unparalleled craftsmanship of Cristóbal Balenciaga. According to the V&A, some of the exhibits have never been on display before, and according to the Internet, this spectacle can only be rivalled by the other V&A show dedicated to Winnie-the-Pooh.
Fashion when displayed as art, given its historical and social context, lovingly preserved by curators or in private can provide some of the most accessible insights into other times and other people. The matters of what is considered attractive, how design is influenced by technology advances, and how clothes make us feel all arise to illustrate the changes in behaviour and thought. Hence the attraction of period drama, that time-travelling masquerade.
Cristóbal Balenciaga would not be a genius if he was not also a connecting point between periods; an artist borrowing from the rich Spanish culture, with its dedication to embroidery and sculptural hats, and a visionary introducing shapes and fabrics previously unknown, such as baby doll dresses and silk gazar, respectively. An exhibition dedicated to his work seems like an appropriate follow-up to the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty show that, staged by the V&A in 2015, remains the most-visited exhibition in the museum’s history. Although McQueen was prepared to shock and terrify and Balenciaga’s designs remained refined and elegant at all times, they both were influential innovators whose legacy can be felt in the style of clothes worn today. Should you own a skull-embellished balloon jacket, that garment owes its shape to Balenciaga and its textile pattern, to McQueen.
Cristóbal Balenciaga at the age of 33. If one were to continue the parallel with Alexander McQueen, one could point out that both designers found appreciation and fame when young, went to establish their own fashion houses, were excellent tailors, and were attracted to men.
Cristóbal Balenciaga was born in Getaria, a fishing town in the Basque province of Gipuzkoa, in 1895. (Geographically that means the easternmost bit of the northern coast of Spain, directly adjacent to France.) His family background was modest: Balenciaga’s parents were a fisherman and a seamstress. Yet, as a result, the professional training of the future couturier started remarkably early; from a young age, Balenciaga spent many hours by his mother’s side while she worked. At 12 he was a tailor’s apprentice and seven years later he was opening his first fashion store in the seaside resort of San Sebastián, the capital city of Gipuzkoa. His career progress came as an acknowledgment of his talent, but also as a result of Balenciaga’s attempts to help his now-widowed mother.
The success of the young man was further due to the influence of his patroness, the Marquesa de Casa Torres, the most prominent noblewoman in Getaria. At first, 11-year-old Balenciaga was permitted to copy her Parisian dresses, and later she sent him to Madrid for formal training in tailoring. The Marquesa proudly wore Balenciaga’s designs and helped to introduce him to aristocracy, many of whom subsequently became his clients.
Queen Fabiola of Belgium, née Fabiola de Mora y Aragón, wore a dress designed by Cristóbal Balenciaga for her wedding to King Baudouin in 1960. The Queen’s mother was none other than the aforementioned Marquesa de Casa Torres who had helped Balenciaga at the beginning of his career.
The wedding dress was made of white silk, tulle, and ermine fur. The gown came with a 22-feet-long train, was heavy and complicated to move. Its design became iconic, and the dress was later donated to the Balenciaga Museum in his native Getaria.
Cristóbal Balenciaga enjoyed great popularity, dressing the Spanish royal family and others who could afford his work. By 1919 he had store branches in Madrid and Barcelona, in addition to the original store in San Sebastián. He spent ‘19 years as a Spanish treasure’ before leaving the country for France in 1936, as the Spanish Civil War made his business impossible.
From August 1937, when Balenciaga staged his first runway show on the Avenue George V in Paris, until May 1968, when the designer closed his house, he was regarded as a great artist, described by Coco Chanel as ‘the only couturier in the truest sense of the word’, revered by both his colleagues and clients. Reportedly, John F. and Jackie Kennedy got into fights during his presidency over her buying Balenciaga, which he thought American public would find too extravagant. (Jackie Kennedy’s father-in-law, Joseph P. Kennedy paid her dress bills in the end.)
Cristóbal Balenciaga had the vision and the skill to match it. He continued to transform the fashion industry until his retirement which was treated as a great tragedy by those familiar with his work. It was rumoured that, upon hearing of the atelier’s closure, Mona von Bismarck, a devoted client of Balenciaga’s, ‘did not leave her bedroom in the villa at Capri for three days’. His designs were that special.
As Balenciaga’s career was decades-long and his imagination, fruitful and restless, there is no universal description that fits all of his models. The silhouette changed, the waist moved upwards or disappeared entirely, woollens and silks gave way to innovative synthetics, tailored suits were replaced by minimalist designs where a single piece of fabric would be artfully wrapped around the body. Yet, the principles of Balenciaga’s work never altered: elegance and practicality, the use of textiles best suited for the job, the emphasis on the volume and structure of a garment.
Although admired and successful in the first half of the 20th century, it was in the post-war years that Balenciaga came up with his most influential ideas. Introducing loose or semi-fitted coats and dresses, he provided an alternative to Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’. Where Dior preferred rounded shoulders, a cinched waist, and a very full skirt, Balenciaga proposed broader shoulders, draped, cascading layers of fabric and drew attention away from the natural waist. In 1953 he designed the balloon jacket, ‘an elegant sphere that encased the upper body and provided a pedestal for the wearer’s head’. This invention was followed by the tunic dress, the chemise, the cocoon coat, the balloon skirt, the baby doll dress, and the sack dress.
Since corsets first gained popularity in Europe in the sixteenth century — gradually becoming more elaborate and almost universal by the Victorian era when they were worn by women, young girls, and children — the hourglass figure has remained the fashionable female shape, with the exception of the 1920s (flappers) and the period between 1795 and 1820 (Empire silhouette). While it is an exaggeration of the natural female shape (fuller hips and chest of a pubescent woman), it has also become an often unattainable and abstract ideal.
Balenciaga invented dresses that allowed women to look fashionable regardless of their personal hips-to-waist ratio. A long-time client offered this problematic yet illuminating epitaph on Cristóbal Balenciaga’s passing in 1972: ‘Women did not have to be perfect or even beautiful to wear his clothes. His clothes made them beautiful.’
As I was researching material for this article, I was struck by the phenomenal photography that accompanied Balenciaga’s designs. His work has been immortalised in pictures taken by masters, most notably Henry Clarke, Gordon Parks, Irving Penn, and Richard Avedon. Originally featured in Vogue, LIFE, L’Officiel, and Harper’s Bazaar, these images leave an impression of playful elegance, illustrate the designer’s ideas of texture and colour contrast, as well as his use of volume. The photos are also funny (as this portrait taken by Richard Avedon), impossibly glamorous (as here, again by Avedon), and necessarily dramatic (proven by this picture by Irving Penn).
Although the modern concept of ‘supermodel’ dates from the 1980s, it would be wrong to think that before that decade — or before the 1960s introduced Twiggy, with her thin build and androgynous looks — there were no models whose appearance and style influenced the industry. Balenciaga had a number of leading ladies, including Dovima, ‘the last of the great elegant aristocratic beauties’, Lisa Fonssagrives, ‘a billion-dollar baby with a billion-dollar smile and a billion-dollar sales book in her billion-dollar hand’, Suzy Parker, ‘a redheaded force of nature, a wolf in chic clothing’, and Anne Saint-Marie, ‘elegant and distant as well as modern and fresh’. Given Balenciaga’s penchant for sophistication and grace, it was only fitting that his work is preserved, to a great degree, through photographs of those models wearing his designs.
When we talk about the women who made Balenciaga’s clothes famous, one should not, of course, forget his clients. Apart from aforementioned Queen Fabiola of Belgium, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Countess Mona von Bismarck, Balenciaga dressed Pauline de Rothschild (a writer and a fashion designer, married into the family of bankers), Grace Kelly (Hitchcock’s muse and Hollywood legend who went to become the Princess of Monaco), Princess Lee Radziwill (Jackie Kennedy’s younger sister) etc. etc. His clients were exceptionally wealthy, frequently named on the International Best Dressed List, aristocracy by either birth, marriage, or the power of the cinema: Ava Gardner, Ingrid Bergman, Marlene Dietrich, and Lauren Bacall.
In 1954 a wool suit from Balenciaga cost about £130. At the same time, the average annual income for British men was £667 and women earned considerably less. Clothes made by Cristóbal Balenciaga were an investment and a treasure, terribly expensive but, according to his customers, worth every penny.
Many of his clients, remembering their Balenciagas, spoke of ‘how easy and right they felt, as nothing has felt since,’ in the words of Mary Blume. ‘They were also curiously demanding. They required a bearing… In return, they conferred assurance.’
Susan Irvine, ‘The Mysterious Cristóbal Balenciaga’
The almost-magical garments came at the costly price of many hours of labour, by the couturier and his team of fitters, tailors, seamstresses, and protégés (Oscar de la Renta and Hubert de Givenchy, among others). Balenciaga’s designs were individual, crafted, flattering; one was not so much paying for the name, one was paying for the result.
Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, the forthcoming exhibition at the V&A will explore the designer’s work from several angles, as suggested by the themes of the show: The Salon, The Workroom, and Cristóbal Balenciaga’s Legacy. According to the press release, the exhibition will ‘take an almost forensic look at the craftsmanship and skill’, displaying X-rays, toiles, and film. It will be the most thorough study of the couturier’s designs yet.
Diana Vreeland, the original fashion editor, once proclaimed, ‘Balenciaga was incredible… I was madly infatuated with his clothes. His clothes were devastating. One fainted. One simply blew up and died.’ Whether or not that is true can be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum from May 27th, for £12 only.
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