“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 was one of the best fashion designers of the twentieth century. He had a quiet and reserved personality with a tremendous drive for success. Balenciaga’s competition looked up to him and sought after his designs for inspiration. He had an eye for detail that placed him above his competitors. He used his Spanish heritage to influence his eloquent French designs making his clothing unique like the women who wore them. Balenciaga loved sophistication; he loved making women look and feel their best. Still today, modernized renditions of his work grace the couture runways of fashion. Many considered Balenciaga the best of his time and continue to appreciate his clothing works of art and the impact he made on the world of fashion.
Balenciaga did not have an easy childhood. He was born on January 21, 1895, in Guetaria, Spain. There are many stories that were fabricated about Balenciaga’s childhood, for example, many believed his father was the captain of the Spanish royal yacht.1 In reality, he grew up in a seaside community where his father was a fisherman and his mother was a seamstress. Balenciaga’s father passed away when he was eleven years old. His mother was left to support the family of three. His mother’s occupation had a great influence on Balenciaga’s future career. He developed a passion for sewing early in his life and after completing his required elementary schooling, Balenciaga undertook an apprenticeship as a tailor at just twelve years old.2 Balenciaga was in a perfect location to learn and grow as a designer. San Sebastian was the closest large town to Guetaria. This town came to be the home of the Spanish royal family who brought much tourism and activity to this area. The growing city brought tourist from all over to shop, sight see, and vacation. This also meant Balenciaga had an opportunity to learn about international fashion, luxury clothing and other products, as well as having immediate access to new clientele. These opportunities led Balenciaga to open couture houses of his own. He established a tailoring business with sponsorship of the Marquesa de Casa Torres in San Sebastian in 1915 until 1921. He was the founder and designer of the Elsa fashion house (named after his mother) in Barcelona from 1922 until 1931 as well as in Madrid from 1932 to1937.3 Balenciaga continued his career in Spain into Paris.
Due to the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Balenciaga was forced to close his three couture houses in Spain and move to Paris. Very soon after his arrival, he was able to open a couture house on the Avenue George V and present his first collection in August of 1937. Paris instantly noticed Balenciaga’s style and talents leading to the recognition and acceptance of his reputation in Spain. Radio station 37 said the collection was enchanting, focusing on the Infanta dresses and raving about Balenciaga’s use of bold colors. The Courrier de la Mode called “his little dresses a masterpiece of haute couture.”4 It was clear from his first collection that Balenciaga was going to make an impact on the way women dressed from then on.
When it came to the media, Balenciaga was anything but open. He declined to be interviewed by journalists and would not comment on his competitors’ designs nor would he comment on their new lines of clothing. Balenciaga was considered a very quiet, hard working person. In August of 1971, Balenciaga finally agreed to a one-on-one interview with Prudence Glynn. The Times considered the interview a “World Exclusive”5 as it was the only interview recorded about Balenciaga’s career. In this interview, Glynn approached the obvious question about his avoidance of the press. In his response, Balenciaga made two main points about his reasoning. He found it impossible to explain his work and techniques to the media partly because of the radical fashion changes taking place in the 1960’s. Second, if he had tried to explain his work he would be losing a certain amount of discretion when it came to his unique inspiration and ideas for his clothing. Balenciaga’s silence was reason for the media’s curiosity. He did not release his collections when other rival designers, like Dior, did after 1956. As a result, Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue sent their journalists back to France and published a second issue of their magazine to cover specifically Balenciaga’s collections of the season. This benefitted both the magazine sales and Balenciaga because this sold more copies of the publishing and gave Balenciaga plenty of publicity. Along with bringing in more media attention with his silence, he also gained the respect of his competitors. Instead of making judgments about Balenciaga’s character or personality, his rival couturiers were forced to focus on the unique perfection of his collections. “Haute couture is like an orchestra, whose conductor is Balenciaga. We other couturiers are the musicians and we follow the directions he gives,”6 Dior was quoted saying in reference to Balenciaga’s work (Miller). This quote shows that designers such as Dior in this period were taken aback by the perfection of Balenciaga’s work along with his mysterious personality.
Balenciaga was a master of his work. He designed his clothing not only for beautiful women, but also to make women beautiful. He handcrafted every piece of work with a variety of fabrics, some that had been made especially for his use. He used classic blacks along with an array of beautiful colors adding polka dots, stripes, and other patterns, all to embellish and enhance his pieces.7 He used embroideries that were unique to his Spanish background along with details of French couture. He was also a master of illusion. The waist of any garment Balenciaga made could be low, high, or even hidden. He made his garments three-dimensional so that the piece could touch the body, or flow away from it. He made jackets that flattered a woman without a perfect figure; his evening gowns took the spotlight in any room. He indeed was a master of his trade and earned the title by his devotion to his work.
Balenciaga was involved in every aspect of his clothing. He sketched his designs, he chose the fabric of the garment, oversaw the production of the collection, decided on accessories, and made sure every piece was perfection. It was typical for Balenciaga to take apart and remake an entire garment. He insisted that the shape, fit, size, and proportion be of impeccable measure. Because he was involved in each aspect of his collection’s process, his designs gradually became more innovative and slowly took on a newer look as his thirty-year career progressed. He began accomplishing new feats with his designs, for example, his one-seam coat in 1961. Balenciaga accomplished this coat by different cuts, darting, and as little seaming as possible. As technology in fabrics progressed, the forms and shapes of Balenciaga’s clothes slowly took to a different look as well. His shapes became stiffer; this may have been due to his previous work in tailoring which always played a key role in his designs. Throughout his career, Balenciaga stayed true to his experiences regardless of the changing fashion trends. He always kept in mind his Spanish heritage, allowing it slip into his French designs.
Balenciaga’s collections were hard for the media to categorize. He did not give his garments memorable names, and he did not drastically change his look from season to season. Because of his traditional, unnamed look, the media had to make up their own names for his collections and distinguish the differences from one season to the next. During the 1940’s Balenciaga had one main competitor, Christian Dior. At the time, it seemed that Dior and Balenciaga were polar opposites. Balenciaga was known for classic daywear consisting of tailored suits and coats. His waists were fitted, the shoulders were square, and the skirt was just below the knee. This made movement in his clothing easy and comfortable. Dior, however, was producing collections that were bold and molded the bodies of women in his daywear. This separated consumers between the two couturiers and provided the press with many opinions to discuss. However, Balenciaga’s eveningwear was a complete opposite to his daywear. Balenciaga let his imagination take over his designs for his gowns and eveningwear collections making use of corseting along with three-dimensional lines and stiff over coats making comfort and easy movement a sacrifice for high fashion. This was a contradiction to why consumers and the media saw such a difference between the two designers. Balenciaga provided the competition to Dior’s ‘corolle’ line. Both designers provided similar jackets challenging the traditional waistline of previous seasons. Balenciaga designed collections into the 1950’s that made headlines. These collections included the middy line of 1951, the tunic line of 1955, the sac or chemise of 1957, and the Empire line of 1958.8 These collections all deterred from the traditional waist emphasis and moved it to either the hip or the bust. Balenciaga’s creativity and expertise captured the media’s attention after every season. He gradually changed his styles and shapes but kept his technique and expertise visible in his collections.
It seemed that Balenciaga was a self-inspired couturier; however, his inspiration came from various people and parts of the world. In 1971, he acknowledged his debt to French couture. He specifically mentioned designers Coco Chanel, Vionnet and Louseboulanger.9 He looked to these designers in the 1920’s and 1930’s for his inspiration and followed in traditional styles. After World War II, Chanel was the only of these designers remaining and therefore Balenciaga and Chanel began to be compared by the media. Both designers made remarkable suits for their clientele, seeming to be similar in design. However, Chanel’s suits were embellished with gold necklaces and lavish trimmings, where Balenciaga’s suits were understated and simple. The difference was made clear through Balenciaga’s talents in tailoring. The dedication to Balenciaga’s tailoring came from his Spanish background and trips to London. He became obsessed with tweeds and wools and aspired to create the perfect sleeve for his suit. This led to his success with British and American collections, which contained many more tailored suits than ball gowns. He was influenced by many different areas of the world that led to different types of garments. He created sari dresses and a Kabuki coats that were of Japanese and Indian inspiration. Besides locations, Balenciaga continued to find his inspiration through paintings. He looked to Spanish art that was influential to try to broaden his horizons with couture. He was particularly inspired by the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. Artists such as Velasquez inspired Balenciaga to create a collection of squared skirts and basqued jackets right before there was an exhibition of Spanish art in France. His timing was impeccable for this collection because the art exhibition had an impact on the other French designers as well. Religion was also a major source of inspiration to Balenciaga. The sculptures of religious figures gave him ideas for designs that had large quantities of fabric and simple shapes, as well as the idea to belt and gather fabric rather than using darts or seams.
Balenciaga had a philosophy on fashion. He relied on his materials, his expertise, and his experimentation with different designs. He had demanding personal standards for himself as well as those who worked for him. Balenciaga understood and sympathized with women. He knew that not all women had a perfect figure and he would create designs to allude that they did. He felt that couturiers made a difference in the history and direction of fashion but also believed it was their job to understand the need of how a woman needed to look at a given time. He believed that, “a fashionable woman could only be elegant if she knew herself sufficiently to patronize a single dressmaker, and not to seek out mere novelty, the fashion of the moment.”10 Balenciaga’s fascination with tailored suits confirms that his taste in classical, practical garments was his greatest contribution to fashion. He believed that his clothes should be easy to wear, his garments required little fastening or buttoning unlike his competitor Dior’s did. Balenciaga also designed his garments to fit any size woman. Many of his designs ignored the waistline leaving room for women with curves or a thicker abdomen to wear his designs. He was also considerate of the elements the modern woman would face. His sleeves were three-quarter or seven-eighths length so they would not get dirty and his evening gowns were shorter in the front and floor length in the back to avoid the hazards of the pointed toed stilettos that were popular in that era. He also kept in mind the temperature of the weather. He created designs for warm coats and jackets along with knee high boots to accommodate the mini skirt in the 1960’s. Balenciaga was mindful of his clients and did all things necessary to make sure they were both comfortable and fashionable at the same time.
Balenciaga was truly an extraordinary couturier. He started from what seemed like nothing, following his mother’s example, to one of the greatest designers in history. He developed his skills in tailoring through an apprenticeship at an early age continued his skills and developed a name for himself. He defeated the odds amidst a world war and found himself in France impressing those around him with his impeccable designs. He kept to himself throughout his career, which rather than deter the media it brought them to him. He gained the respect of his fellow couturiers through his collections and unique designs. Giving his only interview he gave his reasons for his silence and alluded on the methodology of his work. He was known as a master of his work and brought styles with bold, beautiful colors to the runway. He was known for his flawless suits and his ability to cater to any size woman. He looked to many different areas for inspiration including fellow designers like Coco Chanel, as well as locations around the world, and inspirational pieces of art. He had a philosophy that fashion should be wearable and worn with elegance. He adapted his collections to suit his wearer’s needs and provide a classic practicality. He had short sleeves and brought up the front of his dresses to avoid getting dirty or torn. He was an intelligent designer that affected those around him. Balenciaga demanded the attention of the media without saying a word. He was sought after by the elite of Paris to make them look and feel beautiful. In his thirty-year career, he changed the way fashion was perceived and continues to be inspiration for designers today. When Balenciaga retired, his followers were devastated. However, the House of Balenciaga still remains today and is at the front lines of couture fashion. Still keeping to Balenciaga’s style with modernized fashion, his couture house will be around for decades to come.
CSR 32700 History of Fashion
February 26, 2010
1. Charleston, Beth Duncuff. "Cristobal Balenciaga (1895–1972)". In Heilbrunn Timeline
of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.
http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/bale/hd_bale.htm (October 2004).
2. Golbin, P. (2006). Balenciaga Paris. New York: Thames & Hudson Inc.
3. Jouve, M.-A. (2008). Balenciaga. New York: Assouline Publishing.
4. Martin, R. (1997). The St. James Fashion Encyclopedia . Michigan: Visible Ink Press.
5. Miller, L. E. (1993). Cristobal Balenciaga. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc.
6. Miller, L. E. (2007). Cristobal Balenciaga. New York: V&A Publications.
7. Stegemeyer, A. (1996). Who's Who in Fashion. New York: Fairchild Publications.
Model #123, Winter 1948 Atelier Sketch, Winter 1943
Harper’s Bazaar, May 1940 Arum Evening Gown, Winter collection, 1965
Model #102, Winter 1959 Vogue Paris, October 1957
Harper’s Bazaar cover, Nov 1955 Vogue Paris, November 1954
Title Page Cristobal as young designer. “Balenciaga by Marie-Andree Jouve, pg 15”
Coat Autumn/Winter 1957. Photo: Taishi Hirokawa. Kyoto Costume Institute
Cristobal Balenciaga: Evening dress 1980. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000
Balenciaga, C. Infanta Evening Dress. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Le Chou Noir evening Cape, 1967. “Balenciaga Paris by Pamela Golbin, pg 149”
Dress of Feathers, 1950. “Balenciaga by Marie-Andree Jouve, pg 31”
Atelier Stencil, Summer 1957. “Balenciaga Paris by Pamela Golbin, pg 106”
Vogue cover, 1964. “Balenciaga Paris by Pamela Golbin, pg 134”
Trapeze-line wedding gown, 1967. “Balenciaga Paris by Pamela Golbin, pg 147”
Sporty ensamble, 1967. “Balenciaga by Marie-Andree Jouve, pg 63”
Four-sided cocktail dress, 1967. “Balenciaga by Marie-Andree Jouve, pg 47”
Page 10 Model #123, Winter 1948. “Balenciaga Paris by Pamela Golbin, pg 61”
Atelier Sketch, Winter 1943. “Balenciaga Paris by Pamela Golbin, pg 51”
Harper’s Bazaar, May 1940. “Balenciaga Paris by Pamela Golbin, pg 43”
Arum Evening Gown, Winter, 1965. “Balenciaga Paris by Pamela Golbin, pg 139”
Page 11 Model #102, Winter 1959. “Balenciaga Paris by Pamela Golbin, pg 117”
Vogue Paris, October 1957. “Balenciaga Paris by Pamela Golbin, pg 107”
Harper’s Bazaar cover, Nov 1955. “Balenciaga Paris by Pamela Golbin, pg 102”
Vogue Paris, November 1954. “Balenciaga Paris by Pamela Golbin, pg 99”
Cristobal Balenciaga, Coat Autumn/Winter 1957Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute,
photo by Taishi Hirokawa
1 Stegemeyer, A. (1996). Who's Who in Fashion. New York: Fairchild Publications.
2 Miller, L. E. (2007). Cristobal Balenciaga. New York: V&A Publications.
3 Martin, R. (1997). The St. James Fashion Encyclopedia . Michigan: Visible Ink Press.
4 Jouve, M.-A. (2008). Balenciaga. New York: Assouline Publishing.
5 Miller, L. E. (2007). Cristobal Balenciaga. New York: V&A Publications.
6 Miller, L. E. (2007). Cristobal Balenciaga. New York: V&A Publications.
7 Golbin, P. (2006). Balenciaga Paris. New York: Thames & Hudson Inc.
8 Charleston, Beth Duncuff. "Cristobal Balenciaga (1895–1972)". In Heilbrunn Timeline
of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000
Miller, L. E. (1993). Cristobal Balenciaga. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc.
Miller, L. E. (2007). Cristobal Balenciaga. New York: V&A Publications.