A true fashion innovator, Cristobal Balenciaga radically altered the fashionable silhouette of women in the mid-twentieth century. With the methodical skill of an expert tailor, he created garments of fluidity and grace. Unlike many couturiers, Balenciaga was able to drape, cut, and fit his own muslin patterns, known as toiles. He was respected throughout the fashion world for both his knowledge of technique and construction, and his unflinching perfectionism.
Balenciaga was born in the small fishing village of Guetaria in the Basque region of Spain on January 21, 1895. From his early years, he spent many hours by his mother’s side as she worked as a seamstress. In his teens, the most prominent woman of his town, the Marquesa de Casa Torres, became his patron and client, sending him to Madrid for formal training in tailoring and proudly wearing the results. Balenciaga found early success in his native country. He opened branches of his boutique Eisa in Madrid, Barcelona, and the fashionable seaside resort of San Sebastián. His designs were favored by the Spanish royal family and fashionable members of the aristocracy. When the Spanish Civil Warforced the closure of his boutiques, Balenciaga moved his operation to Paris, the acknowledged fashion capital of the world. There the talented designer joined the ranks of Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Mainbocher, among other established couturiers. In August 1937, Balenciaga staged his first runway show at his Avenue George V atelier, showing a collection that was heavily influenced by the Spanish Renaissance. Balenciaga interpreted numerous historical styles throughout his career. His “Infanta” gown was inspired by the costumes of the young Spanish princesses from portraits by Diego Velázquez, while the short, heavily ornamented “jacket of light” traditionally worn by toreadors in the bullfighting ring inspired much of his evening wear.
By 1939, Balenciaga was being praised in the French press as a revolutionizing force in fashion, with buyers and customers fighting to gain access to his collection. During World War II, clients risked travel to Europe for Balenciaga’s designs, especially his celebrated square coat—in which the sleeve was cut in one piece with the yoke—and anything shown in his unique color combination of black and brown or black lace over bright pink. In the postwar years, Balenciaga’s designs became streamlined and linear. The clothing he created was different than the popular, curvy hourglass shape that Christian Dior promoted with his New Look. Balenciaga favored fluid lines that allowed him to alter the way clothing related to a woman’s body. Waistlines were dropped, then raised, independent of the wearer’s natural waistline. In 1953, he introduced the balloon jacket, an elegant sphere that encased the upper body and provided a pedestal for the wearer’s head.
In 1957 came the creation of his high-waisted baby doll dress, the gracefully draped cocoon coat, and the balloon skirt, shown as a single pouf or doubled, one pouf on top of the other. Neither the sack dress, introduced in 1957, nor the chemise of 1958 had a discernible waist, but both were considered universally flattering and were copied by a large number of ready-to-wear manufacturers at every price range. With these design innovations, Balenciaga achieved what is considered to be his most important contribution to the world of fashion: a new silhouette for women.
Throughout the 1960s, Balenciaga continued showing collections of unparalleled technique and beauty. His innovative use of fabric—he liked bold materials, heavy cloths, and ornate embroideries—led him to work with the Swiss fabric house of Abraham. Together they developed silk gazar, a stiffer version of the pliable fabric that Balenciaga used in suits, day dresses, and evening wear. Loyal clients such as the Duchess of Windsor, Pauline de Rothschild, and Gloria Guinness continued to appreciate the discreet but important touches he provided in his clothing: collars that stood away from the collarbone to give a swanlike appearance and the shortened (seven-eighths-length) bracelet sleeve, so called because it enabled the wearer to better flaunt her jewelry. When the Balenciaga salon closed in 1968, the occasion marked the end of the career of a great artist whose influence is still being felt in the twenty-first century. The modern look that he created has been sustained by André Courrèges and Emanuel Ungaro, who both apprenticed at his atelier, and by Hubert de Givenchy, among others. Balenciaga died on March 24, 1972, at home in his beloved Spain. A longtime client offered a fitting epitaph: “Women did not have to be perfect or even beautiful to wear his clothes. His clothes made them beautiful.”
(Courtesy of Beth Duncuff Charleston,
The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)