Born in 1895 to his fisherman father and seamstress mother in Getaria the province of Gipizkoa in the Basque Country of Spain Cristóbal Balenciaga had a reputation as a couturier of uncompromising standards and was referred to as “the master of us all” by none other than Christian Dior. Dressmaking and clothing design was in his blood and as a child Balenciaga often spent time with his mother as she worked. At the age of twelve, he began work as a tailor’s apprentice and when he was a teenager, the foremost noblewoman in his town, the Marchioness de Casa Torres, became his customer and patron. She sent him to Madrid, where he was then formally trained in tailoring. Balenciaga is notable as one of the few courturiers in fashion history who could not only use his own hands or create, but to also pattern, cut, and sew the designs that symbolised the height of his artistry.
Success came easily to Balenciaga during his early career in Spain and he opened a boutique in 1919 in SAN Sebastián which then expanded to include branches in Madrid and Barcelona. With the Spanish Royal Family and the aristocracy wearing his designs, but this success was not to last. When the Spanish Civil War forced him to close his stores, Balenciaga moved to Paris and opened his Parisian couture house on Avenue George V in August 1937. Customers risked their safety to travel to Europe during World War Two to see Balenciaga’s clothing, and during this period he was known for the “square coat”, featuring sleeves cut in a single piece with the yoke, and for designs using black or brown lace over vivid bright pink fabric.
Post WW2 – the start of Balenciaga as we know it
Fashion is a playground up until a certain age. But then you have to find your own signature, and your own style.Cristóbal Balenciaga
Following the end of World War Two, the full scale of inventiveness and creativity from Balenciaga was made evident with his highly original designs. His lines became linear and sleek, which contrasted to Dior’s “New Look” with its full skirts, nipped waist and rounded bosom. The fluidity of his silhouettes enabled manipulation of the relationship between his clothing and women’s bodies. In 1951, the silhouette is transformed, as he adds broad shoulders and the waistline is dropped and raised independently of the wearers figure. As with other designers of the 1950s, this was an important period for Balenciaga as he worked to create pieces extremely representative to their own styles and fashion houses. Balenciaga soon had international recognition, and a number of notable clients including Gloria Guinness, Mona vin Bismarck and even Jackie Kennedy. During the 1960s, John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy would get into several fights as he thought the American public would see her Balenciaga purchases as too extravagant. Her haute couture bills were eventually, and discreetly paid by her father in law, Joseph Kennedy.
Over the course of 1952, notable figures Oscar de la Renta, Pierre Cardin, and Emanuel Ungaro began working in the atelier, while Hubert de Givenchy later became a protégé of Balenciaga. The decade of the 1950s saw some of Balenciaga’s most famous work. 1953 saw the introduction of the balloon jacket with volume filling the hem was said to be as light as a cloud. The Balloon Jacket was an elegant sphere of fabric which created the illusion of a pedestal for the wearers head to be presented, and this eventually culminated in the puffa jacket we all know today. In 1955, Balenciaga designed the tunic dress in direct contrast to the fitted styles of other designers in the 1950s. Lose fitting and comfortable, this style was experimented with by Balenciaga since its appearance as the “barrel” line in 1947, as defined by the man himself. The tunic and later design of the sack dress in1957 reinterpreted the female shape and eliminated the waist.
A courtier must be an architect for design, a sculptor for shape, a painter for colour, a musician for harmony, and a philosopher for temperance.Cristóbal Balenciaga
The high waisted babydoll dress, cocoon coat, balloon skirt and sack dress were all introduced in 1957 and all featured volume and liberated women from the tight fitting garments that were fashionable by moving or removing the waist completely. The sack dress initially was seen as unfashionable, especially to the Parisian public. The straight up and down wool dress was revealed at a time when clothing that hid a woman’s body was seen as radical. This all changed of course in the 1960s when the shapeless shift dresses were seen as a symbol of the carefree attitudes of the era. The cocoon coat was also seen as a radical item of clothing, as instead of clinging to the body the garment highlighted feminine, soft lines and even resembled an egg.
The previously mentioned sack dress was a precursor to the babydoll dress that was introduced by Balenciaga later on in 1957. The first bell shaped creation was made with delicate Chantilly lace and hung loosely from the wearers shoulders creating a triangular silhouette. This floaty, feminine style was universally flattering and was supremely comfortable as it didn’t require a corset or shapewear. The trapezoidal structured dress would dominate the next decade of fashion, with Balenciaga creating different visualisations of this style until the end of his career. The babydoll dress enhanced and exaggerated the fluid and vague lines of the sack dress. The original Balenciaga made harmony out of a paradox as it simultaneously erased and enhanced the waist line. Under the sleeveless, trapezoidal babydoll dress in sheer fabrics such as lace, the wearer would wear a more form fitting dress that highlighted the contours of the body.
By 1959, the journey of Balenciaga resulted in the Empire Line range. The Empire Line is probably best described as the Babydoll’s older sister, with coats and dresses cut straight like kimono with a high, gathered waistline under the bust. Whilst not invented by Balenciaga, he made a compelling case for the Empire Dress as a symbol of evening elegance, one that still holds true today.
A woman has no need to be perfect or even beautiful to wear my dresses. The dress will do all that for her.Cristobal Balenciaga
Challenging the fashion press
As with traditional women’s dress, Balenciaga also challenged the standard conventions of the fashion industry. In 1957, Balenciaga famously decided to show his new collection to the press a day before the clothing retail delivery date, at a time when the standard time was four weeks before. This was controversial, but by keeping the press unaware of his new designs, Balenciaga hope to curb the ongoing piracy of his work. The press resisted, and claimed it was impossible to get their work in print by the deadlines, but Balenciaga and his protege Givenchy didn’t back down which affected their coverage and press of this era. Some supporters of Balenciaga would claim that Dior would gain acclaim from copying the Balenciaga silhouettes, but eventually the two designers reversed their decision and joined the traditional press schedule in 1967.
Against the Chambre
Balenciaga defiantly resisted the rules, guidelines, and status of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne. Coming from humble beginnings, Balenciaga despised the bourgeois nature of high-fashion—an ideal reflected in his attitude towards Dior, whom Balenciaga often thought took too much sheer pleasure from fashion instead of viewing it as an art. The elitist nature of the Chambre Syndicale and the actions they took following France’s surrender to the Nazis disgusted Balenciaga. He refused to be part of an organization that valued its reputation more than the people they employ. Although he is spoken of with immense reverence, Balenciaga couture was never technically haute couture.
1960s and the closure of his fashion house
Throughout the 1960s, Balenciaga continued to demonstrate his love of innovation by means of fabric selection, yet he failed to encapsulate the imagination that his previous dresses were able to. His experimental use of bold materials, heavy cloths, and ornate embroideries led him to work with the Swiss fabric house of Abraham. The two developed silk gazar, a refinement which miraculously combined fine texture, thickness, and stiffness and allowed Balenciaga to sculpt dresses without artificial support. Balenciaga also began using special materials like mohair and chenille and occasionally he would reinforce the thread with horsehair. However, while Balenciaga was continuously innovating his garments, critics found the dresses so overwhelming that they “dwarfed the woman,” but Balenciaga continued designing despite this growing criticism.
Balenciaga once again found himself in an uncompromising position and halted all wholesale. His individual clientele flourished, but with the recent death of Dior and growing criticism of his work, Balenciaga was an increasingly disillusioned. He no longer felt the same passion for his trade that he used to, and this, coupled with new tax rules and labor regulations, made it disagreeable for him to run his business. Balenciaga retired and closed his business in 1968, declaring “There is no one left to dress”