Christobal Balenciaga (1895-1972), a Spaniard who gained great fame in Paris after World War II, was one of the greatest couturiers of the twentieth century. As a child in Spain, he worked along side his seamstress mother and learned how to sew, drape and cut dresses; he was in fact one of the few couturiers who was able to both design and assemble his marvelous creations.
His clothing was intricate and complex, but was not as structured as the work of other post war couturiers like Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain. A typical Dior gown of the early fifties was characterized by its complex underpinnings like corsets and crinolines to give the gown shape; Balenciaga used no such understructures in his creations. Through his masterful cuts and use of stiff fabrics like silk gazar, Balenciaga was able to create volumous silhouettes that did not restrict the body.
Through analyzing Balenciaga's work, it becomes apparent that the artist returned time and again to specific themes and silhouettes. Here is my brief analysis of three Balenciaga essentials.
1. The Color Black
Balenciaga, being a Spaniard, drew heavily on his culture's historical love affair with the color black. As far back as the Middle Ages, Spanish aristocracy wore head to toe black ensembles (there is a plethora of historical portraits that support this fact). There are dozens of surviving black Balenciaga suits and gowns; although some are heavily embellished the all black palette gives and air of sophistcation and effortless chic.
2. Use of Lace
As with black clothing, lace fabrics held special cultural significance for Balenciaga. One has to look no further than Francisco de Goya's early nineteenth century portraits of Spanish majas to see the beautiful lace mantillas that undoubtedly inspired the couturier. Although Balenciaga often used black lace, there are colorful examples in museum collections as well.
3. The Trapeze Silhouette
Through using stiff silk gazar, Balenciaga was able to achieve this volumous and unrestrictive silhouette. Characterized by its dropped waistline, full skirt and often asymetrical hemline, the trapeze gowns of Balenciaga are found in endless stylistic variations and colors.
One particular trapeze gown of importance is Balenciaga's wedding gown from the mid 1960s. With its stark simplicity, clean lines, and fabric truly dictating form it is a Modernist masterpiece. In my opinion, this exquisite gown is proof that fashion can be viewed as art.
Today, the house of Balenciaga is under the creative direction of Nicolas Ghesquiere. Ghesquiere is a talented designer whose work is characterized by technological inspiration and hard edged chic. Unfortunately, the designer has largely ignored the stylistic tradition of Christobal Balenciaga himself. Perhaps the closest Ghesquiere has come was with his Spring 2008 collection; the floral prints were pulled directly from the Balenciaga archives, and the architectural silhouettes were reflective of the master's particular aesthetic.