“In a Balenciaga you were the only woman in the room, no other woman existed”

My first homework from the other’s day class at fashion history was to make a file for each grand designer I’m about to study and his/her approach. Since yesterday, I’ve been tumblin’ and stumblin’ upon pictures of Mr. Balenciaga‘s work everywhere on the web, and saved everything that draw my attention.

There are still very few images of the man’s work from early ’60s. At least for free.

balenciaga 1960

Branded as the couturier of couturiers, Cristóbal Balenciaga’s legacy as one of the world’s greatest fashion designers is preserved by means of his timeless designs of sultry elegance.

Born in the small village of Guetaria, Spain in 1895, it was unlikely that Cristóbal Balenciaga would become a leader in haute couture as a French designer. Needless to say, his fortunate tryst with couture started at the age of thirteen when he gave praises of elegance to the Marquise of Casa Torres. Impressed with his complimenting candor, she requested that he make a replica of her outfit, which he nervously accepted. Once he made it, the Marquise returned the compliment by wearing his design. As a result, his passion for fine couture blossomed. [www.essortment.com]


balenciaga charlotte gainsbourg

Balenciaga pursued his career as a couturier by making fashion pilgrimage to France. While there, he was inspired by collections of Parisian fashion notables Doucet, Drecoll, and Worth. He took his Parisian influences and opened a couture workshop that introduced female Spaniards to the styles of French. His motivation as a designer did not reflect his young age. With every action he took, it seemed as though he was a veteran. In 1919, he established his first couture house bearing his name, Balenciaga, in San Sebastian. In the years to come he opened another house in Paris and Madrid. Nonetheless, Balcenciaga’s fashion houses would serve as his home base to produce some of the finest pieces of haute couture that would change the face of fashion.

“Dior, a charming if exceedingly plain-looking dilettante, came to couture late and by chance through his skill as a draftsman. Whereas a joshing glamour characterized the atmosphere at the House of Dior, silence and intense concentration governed the House of Balenciaga. “It was like entering a convent of nuns drawn from the aristocracy,” Marie-Louise Bousquet, the Paris editor of Harper’s Bazaar, remembered. It’s often facilely argued that Dior’s and Balenciaga’s strikingly different styles—the former fanciful, the latter austere—sprang from the designers’ opposing temperaments. It would be more accurate to say that the differences emerged from their opposing approaches to their craft. For Dior, the dress evolved from sketches; for Balenciaga, it evolved from the fabric (an indifferent sketcher, he would often design by draping cloth over his models’ bodies). Dior made the fabric conform to his vision, by having his workrooms stiffen, line, and back the cloth using the traditional methods of dressmaking; Balenciaga’s innovations in cutting techniques allowed him to respect the fabric’s inherent qualities.

Most important, behind the differences in their conceptions of design lay profound differences in their conceptions of women. An intensely romantic and nostalgic vision of femininity impelled Dior’s New Look. But that Platonic ideal required a notorious if finely crafted armature—padded hips, underwire bustiers, horsehair petti­coats, girdles, and built-in corsetry. To achieve the pretty, youthful “new softness,” women reshaped their bodies to fit the requirements of the dress. One model told Snow: “It is the most amazing dress I have ever seen. I can’t walk, eat, or even sit down.” In contrast, one of Balenciaga’s “absolute pronouncements,” as Givenchy recalls in an essay in the recently published collection Balenciaga and His Legacy, was “The dress follows the woman’s body; it’s not the woman’s body that follows the dress.” He designed for a time and a society in which young women strove to look 20 years older, a time that valued attributes that came only after 35: a sense of style and an intelligent beauty dependent on what the great fashion writer Kennedy Fraser called “a kind of nerve-end understanding that life is often very sad.” His garments, in their legendary range of grays, browns, and blacks, and influenced by the clean lines of ecclesiastical dress, were supremely beautiful, never pretty. They weren’t for the undeveloped, for they projected assertiveness, authority, and sexuality. His streamlined styles—the tunic, the chemise, the empire—flattered both the svelte and those with curves and a stomach (“M. Balenciaga likes a little stomach,” one of his fitters famously said), since they overlooked the waist. With wit and a graceful, vaguely exotic convex line, his elegant, superlatively comfortable “semi-fitted” suit—his most- imitated creation—banished Dior’s wasp waist. His shift barely skimmed a woman’s body; his barrel dress enveloped it. His skirts, usually somewhat gathered into the waistband at the front, accommodated no-longer-flat stomachs. What Yves Saint Laurent defined as “the ease of Balenciaga” was based on what was universally recognized to be his unrivaled knowledge of the female body (“he builds clothes for the Woman, not for the Headlines,” Snow wrote)—a fact that makes his clothes deeply erotic, especially for the woman wearing them. [Couture Clash, Atlantic Monthly, January/February 2008]

*the title quote is by Diana Vreeland


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