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Cristobal Balenciaga comes to Bendigo (near Melbourne)

Born in a small fishing village in Spain’s Basque region, Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895-1972) began studying dress­making at 10. The tragic early death of his maritime father forced his mother to support the family by sewing; luckily her clients in­cluded the best dressed women in the village.

At 12 Cristobal began a proper tailoring apprenticeship in the summer resort of San Sebas­tian. In 1917 it was there he est­ab­lish­ed a fashion house. His first trip to Paris inspired him to become a top couturier, and within a few years he’d became famous. Balenciaga became Spain’s leading couturier, first in San Sebastián, then in Madrid & Barcelona.

In 1937, when the Spanish Civil War brought chaos to the country, he quickly emigrated to Paris. For the next 30 years his collections featured sumptuously elegant dresses and suits. Balenciaga helped popularise the trend toward capes, and flowing clothes without waistlines, in the late 1950s.

Apparently the Master obsessively tried to perfect the clean lines and cuts of the fabric, with equal skill in each hand. Focusing on broader shoulders and new volumes, he developed a luxurious sil­houette, oft­en making the detailed backs of garments the heart of his shows. His craftmanship was exquisite and his designs were innovative.

Balenciaga's Spanish heritage influenced many of his most iconic designs. His wide-hipped Infanta dresses from the late 1930s drew on the portraiture of the C17th Spanish artist Diego Veláz­quez. He loved flamenco dresses, matador outfits and black lace, seen in the traditional mantilla shawls worn by women during Spanish Holy Week.

The Spaniard’s house on Avenue Georges V quickly be­came Paris’ most expensive and exclusive couturier. And because of his early train­ing, he knew his craft inside out; he was adept at every stage of the process, from pattern-drafting to cutting, assembling and finishing a garment. For him, the design process started with the fabric, proving that he knew how to ex­p­loit materials to their maximum.

Wedding gown, 1952

Seamless dress, 1957

In the 1950s Balenciaga pioneered new shapes in women's fashion. These radical designs evolved gradually, as he reworked the same ideas over time. Volume fil­led the balloon hems of his early 1950s dresses, and was then used at the back of his semi-fit lines in the mid-50s i.e dresses and jackets fitted at the front but with loose roomy backs. He shocked the fash­ion world in 1957 by introducing the sack dress, a straight up and down shift dress which comp­letely eliminated the waist. At a time when Christ­ian Dior's hour-glass shaped New Look was still dom­in­ant, the sack was met with hostility at first. But like many of Balen­cia­ga's most radic­al designs, this look eventual­ly filtered into the main-stream, and the sack dress predicted the 1960’s mini-dress.

The baby doll dress, characterised by its trapeze-shaped silhouette without a marked waist, owed its name to the short dress worn in 1956 in an Elia Kazan film. So while it was not an invention of Bal­­enciaga, it WAS the Spaniard who, in the late 1950s, had the baby doll contours defined. Thereafter, the style was released in many different shapes, sizes and materials, an inspiration to those who followed. [I wore a baby doll dress for years!]

Balenciaga dressed some of the most glamorous women of the 1950s & 60s including Hollywood actress Ava Gardener, fashion icon Gloria Guinness and Mona von Bismarck, one of the world's wealth­iest wom­en, who commissioned everything she needed. The balloon jacket, tunic dress, empire lines and baby dolls all contributed to a fluid and feminine look. His work was much loved for its simple geometric quality, its pre­cise angular quality and its textures. Finally note the gentle curve of the shoulder line and capacious impression given by this cape coat, 1961. 

Cape coat, 1961

Envelope dress, 1967

Balenciaga closed his Paris business in 1968 and Cristóbal retired, before dying 4 years later (at 77). The news shocked his clientele who reported a real feeling of loss. In one sense, it was the end of an era. Yet the mas­ter's innovative patterns, use of new mater­ials and bold archit­ect­ural shapes have remained influential. Eventually a new wave of designers arrived, to bring the brand into the modern era.

Listing dresses and coats to stockings, plus the most luxurious fabrics and col­our combinations, fashion editor Diana Vree­land credited Cristóbal Bal­enciaga for creating the future of fash­ion. He had led a revolution in fashion, revered by his colleagues eg Christian Dior & Coco Chanel. French designers Emanuel Ungaro and Andre Courrèges, both Balenciaga protégés, took forward their teacher's minimalist aesthetic and modernism into space-age chic.

In 1972 London’s V&A created a groundbreaking exhibition Fashion: an Anthology by Cecil Beaton. Today the Balenciaga pieces are some of the most frequently studied in the Fashion collections, remain­ing a source of inspiration for the next generation of fashion designers. Now two more modern exhibitions have examined the work and legacy of infl­uential Spanish couturier Cristóbal Bal­enciaga. London’s V&A holds the largest collection of Balenciaga garments and hats in the UK. Many pieces were sourced for the Mus­eum by society photographer Cecil Beaton, who used his contacts to ass­em­ble a prestigious coll­ect­ion of C20th couture. In 2017-18 the V&A showed 100+ pieces crafted by the Master of couture, his students and contemporary designers working in his innovative tradition.

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion is at the Bendigo Art Gallery near Melbourne, until mid Nov 2019 . Bendigo is exhibiting 100+ garments and hats crafted by Balenciaga in the 1950s & 1960s, arguably the most creative period of his career.


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