Cristobal Balenciaga's Contemplative Couture

The best-dressed history lesson on Spain’s art, royalty, religion, and dance is currently on display at the Balenciaga And Spain exhibit at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. One can feel the pulse of Spain’s mystical heritage in Cristobal Balenciaga’s distinctive collections  that celebrate the “costume traditions” of his native country.1 The striking silhouettes of a flamenco dancer’s ruffled dress, a shepard’s Basque beret, and the bunched petticoat of a maja had a big influence on Mr. Balenciaga's haute couture.  The similarities between a villager’s work clothes and a socialite’s sophisticated suits are evident in day suits and elegant gowns.
From 1937-1968, Mr. Balenciaga worked “from his monastic ateliers on the avenue George V in the heart of fashionable Paris.” 2 Highly personalized attention with his distinguished clients allowed him to perfect his patterns during the legendary fittings.  His “instinctive command of proportion” was evident in a forgiving waist seam and a generous collar purposefully placed to flatter the figure and personality of a spirited client.3   
The carnation, Spain's national flower
The reverential quality of select designs implied that Mr. Balenciaga was mindful of the dressing rituals of Catholic clergy and matadors.  A matador risked his life 
every time he entered the ring, therefore, preparing for a bullfight was a solemn and prolonged ritual.4  Even though the costume was colorful and elaborately decorated, the matador’s safety was paramount to the functional design.  

Mr. Balenciaga’s embroidered bolero jackets shared a lineage with the matador’s “traje de luces.”   The “suit of lights” electrified the spectacular choreography in the ring, while the bolero jackets illuminated the reputations of fashionable ladies sitting ringside.  
Mr. Balenciaga’s fastidious tailoring of women’s jackets and capes was remarkable.  I admired the modern appeal of the loose fitting day suits featuring sophisticated silhouettes with 3/4 length sleeves to allow for chic gloves and jewelry.  

Tailored tunics were the epitome of casual elegance for a luncheon on the terrace.  The breezy fit ensured that women had room for deep, elongating breaths to maintain their confident demeanor.  Dual purpose capes could be wrapped around the waist as you arrived late for your grand entrance, then wrapped around the shoulders for a cloaked departure into the cool, early morning air. 
When seen as a museum collection, Mr. Balenciaga’s couture evokes the passion of Spanish culture and style.  He honored the vocations of his village by designing distinctive women’s fashion that embodied the essence of utilitarian sensibilities.  His evening gowns were imprinted with grace and prestige to add a sense of contemplative couture to the occasion. 
The companion book to the exhibit, Balenciaga And Spain by Hamish Bowles, sits on my desk inviting me to daydream about wearing the strapless “evening dress of black velvet and pink silk taffeta” featuring buoyant ruffles raised to reveal elegant pumps.5  I imagine this seductive masterpiece was one hot dress in the Winter of 1951.

Balenciaga And Spain by Hamish Bowles


Personal notes from exhibit.

1  Hamish Bowles, Balenciaga And Spain (San Francisco:  Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Skira Rizzoli Publications, Inc., 2011), p. 16.
2 Bowles, p. 4.
3 Bowles, p. 20.
4 Bowles, p. 161.
5 Bowles, p. 156.