Fashion, according to the American heritage dictionary, can be defined as the prevailing style or custom, as in dress. There are many eras’ in fashion. One day something can be popular, and the next day it is old news. Nevertheless, this does not mean that certain styles cannot become popular again. Fashion runs in a cyclical pattern and many of today’s styles are reinvented creations from artists of the past. One person who has made such an impact on fashion is Cristobal Balenciaga. His designs have been used repeatedly throughout fashion in the 20th century. But first, let us learn how he came into the fashion industry.
Balenciaga was born in 1895, in Guetaria in the Spanish Basque country. His mother was a dress maker and taught him to make clothes at an early age. The Marquesa de Casa Torres was friends with the Balenciaga family and noticed Cristobal’s interest in fashion. This is what led to his employment as a tailor in 1913. He was employed by ‘Louvre’ in San Sebastian. In 1919 he opened his own studio under the name Balenciaga. He closed it soon after and opened another in 1920 under the name ‘Eisa’ after his mother. He managed to open three fashion houses which all fell by 1931 because of the fall of the Spanish monarchy. (Jouve, 1997) It reopened in 1932 and was managed by his sister. Cristobal still had a passion for his work and decided to move to France to begin anew. (Walker, 2006)
In 1937, Cristobal moved to Paris and it became the center of his activity. He spent his time observing haute couture and learning the way of the French. (Jouve, 1997) This was during the time of WWII and the world of fashion as they knew it came to an abrupt halt. All the fashion houses were closed to help with the war front. That was until 1947 when Christian Dior opens his fashion house and then comes the ‘New Look’, which was the beginning of couture again after the war. There were a few setbacks when it came to Balenciaga. He was a very personable fellow, and when majority of his clientele abandoned him for Dior’s ‘New Look’, he felt betrayed and even made plans to close the house of Balenciaga. It was Christian Dior himself who convinced him to keep it open. Designers were back and Balenciaga, Dior, and Chanel generated international fame that was unknown for a fashion house. Balenciaga himself seemed to stand out for his creative designs and structure.
Balenciaga made a name for himself because of his unique designs. He used a creative silhouette, which was a unique, extra space between the garment and body and exquisite colors. He also loved using stiff fabric to create form. Some of his fashion innovations include the sack dress, balloon dress, and kimono-sleeve coat. He also came up with round collared suit and slightly fitted, beltless tunic dresses of 1950’s, which were the basis of female garments. Since his works were like art he became known as ‘the master’ of haute couture. His clothes were also comfortable since they did not require under garments to mold the body. (Phaidon Press Limited, 1998) Many of his pieces also showed his Spanish upbringing such as Bolero Jackets and Flamenco style dresses. (The Collection of Kyoto Costume Institute Fashion: A History from the 18th to the 20th Century, 2005).
In 1968 the house of Balenciaga closed and he retired to his house in Spain. He had been making plans to retire around this time, since he offered two of his best pattern cutters to Givenchy. When they said they wanted to stay with him he told them that he would be closing his fashion house within the next couple of years, and that they would be better off with Givenchy. He always kept that spark and love for fashion nonetheless, and made beautiful garments up into the day he died in 1972, shortly after designing the bridal gown for the Dequesa de Cadiz. (Jouve, 1997)
Cristobal was called the master of twentieth-century fashion. (Walker, 2006) Balenciaga has influenced many designers such as Givenchy and Oscar de La Renta. Hubert de Givenchy was known as the true heir to Balenciaga and his works have a great deal of his affluence. (Walker, 2006) Givenchy was also a big fan of Balenciaga growing up and used him as inspiration to create his own works. He met him in New York and despite his own fame found himself to be a bit star struck. Many of his designs can be found from the runway all the way to your local department store. Not only did he change fashion, but our culture of comfort and colors itself. Today Tunic dresses are another basic that can be found on shelves every season and everywhere from all price ranges. The same goes for sack dresses, kimono sleeves, and baby-doll dresses.
Balenciaga had a big influence on not only the design aspect of fashion, but also in textiles. He prided himself on using unique fabrics that worked well with his very architectural designs. He had a very close relationship with his textile supplier in Switzerland who created a fabric especially for him called gauze. His garments were more stiff and lightweight, which was a surprise many of his customers. And what was even more surprising was that they were comfortable. One of his sayings were “The dress follows the woman’s body; it’s not the woman that follows the dress.” (Walker, 2006) This was interesting because even his designs represented elegance from the 17th century with ruffles and bustles. But this time period was known for very uncomfortable clothing. Balenciaga gave this time period a twist and made it his own.
Balenciaga definitely made a name for himself in more than one way, but he also proved that fashion itself is something that repeats and is used over and over again. While there are many styles that are popular one day and out the next, Balenciaga proves that some designs are ahead of their time and therefore are timeless. They never go out of style, and are used year after year in different variations. Balenciaga definitely proved himself to be the master of us all.
Jouve, M.-A. (1997). Universe of Fashion: Balenciaga. New York: Universe Publishing.
Phaidon Press Limited. (1998). The Fashion Book. New York: Phaidon Press Inc.
The Collection of Kyoto Costume Institute Fashion: A History from the 18th to the 20th Century. (2005). London: Taschen.
Walker, M. (2006). Balenciaga and His Legacy. New York: The Meadows Museum.