THE SILHOUETTE OF THE CENTURY The first UK exhibition of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s creations at the V&A is a timely tribute to the master couturier
Combining sculptural artistry, conceptual creativity, and a brilliant understanding of how to make women feel at ease in their clothes, Cristóbal Balenciaga was revered by his contemporaries and competitors as the master of couture. As the first British
The V&A’s latest exhibition, ‘Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion’, marks the centenary of the opening of the legendary Spanish couturier’s first fashion house in San Sebastián and the 80th anniversary of the launch of his famous brand in Paris. But it is also timely, given the remarkable renaissance of Balenciaga under its new creative director, Demna Gvasalia, who has explored the label’s archives in his latest collection, to dramatic effect. The finale of the show – a highlight of Paris Fashion Week in March – consisted of nine spectacular couture dresses; Gvasalia’s interpretation of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s extraordinary designs of the 1950s. ‘At first, we tried to do things with them, but I thought it was too much,’ said Gvasalia at the time. ‘So I wanted to keep it pure.’ That the resulting gowns – a column of fluttering white feathers; a sophisticated, strapless black sheath, wrapped with a giant ribbon; floating tiers of raspberry satin – looked so compelling and contemporary is, of course, a testament to Gvasalia, but a reminder, too, of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s enduring legacy.
The couturier referred to as ‘the master of us all’ by Christian Dior was born in 1895 in Getaria, a village on the Basque coast of northern Spain. His father, a fisherman and sailor, died when Cristóbal was 11, leaving his mother to support her three children by working as a seamstress. At 12, Cristóbal began his apprenticeship as a tailor, having already been taught to sew by his mother; he subsequently launched his own dressmaking establishment in San Sebastián in 1917, and expanded his business to Madrid and Barcelona. When the Spanish Civil War forced him to close these premises, he moved to Paris, where his debut in 1937 was watched by Carmel Snow, the influential editor of Harper’s Bazaar. In her memoir, she declared that ‘a great light burst on the fashion world when I saw the first Paris collection of Cristóbal Balenciaga. I wasn’t to know well that reserved, mysterious Spaniard until after the war, but my first glimpse of the severe elegance of his clothes made me eager to follow his development.’ As Snow observed at the time, ‘his very individual style was too new, too different, to be widely appreciated’ – but she championed him from the start, and his distinctive designs were soon to form the majority of her wardrobe. Under her direction, Bazaar was fulsome in its praise of his earliest Paris collections, but also captured the sense of surprise that the audience felt at these shows. In 1938, for example, Bazaar reported that ‘at the new Spanish house Balenciaga… the black is so black that it hits you like a blow. Thick Spanish black, almost velvety, a night without stars, which makes the ordinary black seem almost grey… [Balenciaga] abides by the great rule that elimination is the secret of chic.’
After the outbreak of World War II, Balenciaga left Paris for Madrid – where Snow duly visited him in 1944. (Such was her desire to return to her beloved Paris, after the Liberation, that she undertook a dangerous and circuitous route from New York to France, via Miami, Trinidad, South America, West Africa, Lisbon and Madrid.) Her friendship with Balenciaga deepened in the summer of 1946, and the following year, he invited her to stay with him at his house in San Sebastián, where they shared stories of their childhoods. Both had lost their fathers too young, and Snow’s mother had also taken up dressmaking, after being widowed, in order to make ends meet.
In retrospect, Snow described ‘the part that Bazaar played in Balenciaga’s career [as] the achievement I’m proudest of ’; and gave a memorable account of witnessing the show in the winter of 1951 that launched what was, in her words, ‘the great suit of our time – the suit with the loosely fitted jacket and the collar that stands away from the neck’. The billowing silhouette – used to similarly radical effect by Gvasalia in his latest collection for Balenciaga – was diametrically opposed to the prevailing fashion for an hourglass figure. As Snow recalled in her memoir: ‘Dior’s New Look was still firmly entrenched: the eye of the fashion world was trained to appreciate tight waists and snug fits. Buyers and editors looked aghast at Balenciaga’s collection of unfitted suits. They sat there hating them – “Why should a woman look like a house?” – you could feel the hate in the room. Instead of the “Bravos!” that greeted Dior, there was an uneasy silence when the showing was over.’
The loyal Snow, seated as usual in the front row, stood up and began to clap, alone. ‘No one joined me. I simply continued to clap, slowly, deliberately, loud…’ From then on, her friendship and backing remained absolute, and she wore Balenciaga suits in every possible shade, most often with a little white pillbox hat (needless to say, also by Balenciaga). Richard Avedon, who had started his career as a photographer for Bazaar during the 1940s, and made regular trips with Snow to cover the Paris collections until her retirement in 1958, remembered her in a Balenciaga suit the colour of watermelon, vivid against her lavender-tinted white hair.
In September 1957, she once again proved her foresight and fidelity; as The New York Times reported: ‘Carmel Snow, editor of Harper’s Bazaar, defended [Balenciaga’s] controversial new chemise dresses… by saying they were neither “sad sacks” nor “sexless”.’ By this point, however, Balenciaga already had a devoted coterie of soignée clients, including the Duchess of Windsor and Diana Vreeland, Bazaar ’s then fashion editor. Vreeland admired ‘his wonderful sense of colour… his violets, his magentas, and his mauves’. Every summer, she said, she would take the same ‘four pairs of slacks and same four pullovers’ – all designed by Balenciaga – to wear in the Hamptons. ‘Then one year, I went down to Biarritz. I laid out exactly the same four pairs of slacks, exactly
His clothes were seen on the most famous celebrities of the century –
Ava Gardner, Jackie Kennedy and Grace Kelly
the same four pullovers… and I’d never seen them before! It’s the light, of course – the intensifying light of the Basque country. There’s never been such a light. That was Balenciaga’s country.’
His fame spread during the 1960s, when his sculptural designs were regarded by many admirers as akin to art; as Cecil Beaton wrote: ‘He brilliantly creates a solidity out of the fleeting.’ His clothes were seen on the most famous celebrities of the century – Ava Gardner, Jackie Kennedy, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Marlene Dietrich and Lauren Bacall. Yet such was his ability to make women of all ages, shapes and sizes look and feel beautiful that he dressed several generations with equal success. At the wedding of Carmel Snow’s daughter Brigid, both the bride and her mother wore Balenciaga: Brigid in a graceful white gown, Carmel in a red suit of silk brocade.
Balenciaga’s house models reflected the different ages and body types of his clients – there was never any insistence on slender young mannequins – and he was famed for his ability to make pieces that were as comfortable as they were elegant; for like Coco Chanel, he believed that clothing should bestow a sense of freedom, rather than being constrictive. At the same time, his tailoring was also transformative. His friend and protégé Hubert de Givenchy told a story of one such transfiguration: ‘I remember one day we were looking at the dummies of some of his clients; one was the shape of an old woman, her back was stooped with rounded shoulders and she had a big stomach and hips. While I watched, Balenciaga took a piece of muslin, pinned it to the dummy, and began to work with it. By seaming and cutting on the bias of the fabric he gradually made the stooped dummy straighten, the round hips and stomach disappear. The proportions became almost perfect. It was like a miracle.’
When Carmel Snow died in 1961, she was buried in one of her favourite Balenciaga suits; and the most striking of the floral arrangements at her funeral was in the shape of her signature white Balenciaga hat with a red rose. The great couturier closed his business seven years later, in 1968; he was 74 years old, and felt the time had come for him to retire, now that fast fashion seemed to be eclipsing the perfection of haute couture to which he had devoted his life. In March 1972, he died at home in Spain; the following year, Diana Vreeland mounted an exhibition devoted to his work at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the striking designs juxtaposed with paintings by Goya, Velázquez and Picasso. But quite aside from this recognition of the couturier’s great artistry, Vreeland also noted – with some prescience, perhaps, given Demna Gvasalia’s current status as a visionary leader of contemporary urban cool – that what people thought of as street fashion had in fact already been created by Cristóbal Balenciaga. This was a phenomenon that Vreeland had previously remarked upon in the early Sixties: ‘I didn’t go much for this streetup business, because it seemed to me that I’d always seen it at Balenciaga… Balenciaga, for instance, did the first vinyl raincoats, like the gendarmes wear in the winter in Paris. The cape and the boots and the short skirts and the elaborate stockings…’
What, one wonders, might Vreeland, or indeed Cristóbal Balenciaga himself, make of Demna Gvasalia, who showed vinyl raincoats and capes in his spring/ summer 2017 collection, styled with original pieces of jewellery from the house archives and neon Spandex stocking-boots? Certainly, I felt a jolting sense of being challenged by the shock of the new while watching that particular show, combined with an unsettling feeling of déjà vu.
An intensely private man, Balenciaga was too enigmatic, and diplomatic, to give much away about his views on other designers; though one of his last public appearances was at Coco Chanel’s funeral, to pay his respects to a couturière he had long admired. As it happens, Chanel tended to dismiss all her rivals, except for Balenciaga, saying that he alone was ‘a couturier in the truest sense of the word… the others are simply fashion designers’.
But perhaps the last words should go to Cecil Beaton, whose collection of Balenciaga pieces forms the substantial part of the V&A exhibition, and whose interpretation of the couturier’s genius remains as perceptive now as when he first wrote about Balenciaga, in The Glass of Fashion, in 1954. ‘If Dior is the Watteau of dressmaking – full of nuances, chic, delicate and timely – then Balenciaga is fashion’s Picasso. For like that painter, underneath all his experiments with the modern, Balenciaga has a deep respect for tradition and a pure classic line…
‘Proud, Spanish, classical, he is a strange rock to be found in the middle of the changing sea of fashion, and one which will endure long after the capricious waves of the moment have done their best to dislodge him.’
‘Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion’ opens at the V&A (www.vam.ac.uk) on 27 May.
A Bazaar illustration from February 1945