Friday, April 1, 2011

Balenciaga: The Sculptor of Couture

Balenciaga silk evening dress, 1967. Photo courtesy De Young Museum.

I've just returned from a visit to San Francisco's De Young Museum and an exhibit there called "Balenciaga and Spain." It features the designs of Cristóbal Balenciaga, a couturier other designers called "Fashion's Picasso" thanks in part to his Spanish origins as well as his modernistic style. He had a Paris atelier beginning in 1937, when he moved to France from Spain, and remained in business there until he retired in 1968.

During those three decades, his exquisite and idiosyncratic clothes appeared on all the best-dressed women of the era: Gloria Guinness, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Ava Gardner, and Doris Duke among many others.

Scarlet silk evening coat by Balenciaga, 1950.

The exhibit traces the roots of Balenciaga's design influences to the clothing of his native Spain--the bullfighter's sequined bolero, the priest's cassock, the fisherman's simple blouse, the balloon sleeves of Goya paintings, the veils of Moorish women.

My friend and I marveled at the cut of the gowns and the tiny seams he made throughout each dress so the fabric would hang just so. He designed the clothes and then cut the costume to the customer. What a delight it must have been for these women to step into one of his dresses for an evening of--well, it would have to be an evening of caviar and champagne, one would certainly hope.

I have been under the impression for some time that the famous red and black dress Eva Marie Saint wears in North by Northwest was a Balenciaga. Something about the cut of the dress and the red roses on the black field remind me of a Spanish shawl.

Eva Marie Saint posing in her famous North by Northwest dress.

Saint says she and Hitchcock bought the famous dress when they saw it on a model at Bergdorf's in New York, and Bergdorf Goodman was a rare purveyor in America of Balenciaga designs. In any case, I can't prove it, and after several hours of researching this on the Internet I still don't know. But that dress was very Balenciaga-esque.

Saint wearing the dress in the hotel scene in the film.

I had always read that the insides of these couturier dresses were as beautiful as the outside--fitted and boned and sewn so perfectly a lady wouldn't have to wear much underneath to cinch her in or prop her up. And indeed, they displayed one dress with the zipper open, just to prove the point. (Just think of the money one would save on lingerie.)

Embroidered ivory silk evening dress with bronze silk sash, 1950.

A version of this exhibit has been shown in Spain and in New York, so it is possible it might come to a museum near you. It speaks of an era just after World War II, when women were happy to be dressing up again after the deprivations and rationing of the wartime years. Both women and fashion were in the midst of liberation and change in the 1950s and 1960s. But both were still allowed to be beautiful.

The black velvet sheath with the silver sequins down the side was owned by Kitty Carlisle Hart--star of A Night At the Opera, and, later, widow of playwright Moss Hart.

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