Cristóbal Balenciaga spent most of his career where he belonged, as an acknowledged master in the haute couture world capital of Paris. But his Spanish homeland was the ever-present lifeblood of his work, nourishing every phase and aspect of his art.
“The impact of Spain remained extraordinarily potent in his work,” says Hamish Bowles, the curator of the de Young Museum’s Balenciaga and Spain exhibition. In his sustained and richly varied acts of transformation, the Basque-born couturier turned what Bowles calls an “aching nostalgia” for his native turf and culture into an act of perpetual refraction and reinvention.
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“Balenciaga’s inspirations came from the bullrings, the flamenco dancers, the loose blouses the fishermen wear, the cool of the cloisters,” wrote the fashion writer and editor Diana Vreeland, who mounted the first major Balenciaga show, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1973.
The current exhibition, which features 120 pieces from both museum and private collections, sets out to document the impact of the Spanish culture and aesthetic on the designer’s work. As such, it is full of echoes, harmonies and layered chords. Here are some of the major notes in this richly chromatic composition.
Among the abundant riches of Madrid’s Prado Museum are several galleries of Velázquez paintings. A number of them, including the enthralling “Las Meninas” (detail, right), depict the royal infantas, or crown princesses, in their exquisite dresses with tight bodices of jewel-like embroidery and trimmings. Not only did Balenciaga fashion his own infanta dresses, but he also appropriated the lacework from one Velázquez portrait for a 1938 day suit in this show.
“Goya, whether Balenciaga is aware of it or not, is always looking over his shoulder,” Vogue editor Bettina Ballard said. Black lace, mantillas, silk tassels and other details evoke works such as “The Duchess of Alba” by that Spanish master. In the transfixing treatment of drapery by the 17th-century painter Zurbarán, Balenciaga found a touchstone for the luscious gathers, bunching and folds in some of his more opulent dresses.
If Balenciaga and Spain visitors can’t hear the infectious pounding rhythms and seductive songs of flamenco, they’re just not listening closely enough with their eyes. It’s all there in the notelike flurries of lunares (polka dots), the melodic sweep of a curved and ruffled hemline and the fluttering grace notes of flounced skirts.
Characteristically, Balenciaga found his own tunes to play from the traditional ruffled-train bata de cola dress — using a single flounce here, a wild explosion of lunares there, a voluptuous long train somewhere else. No detail escaped him. He borrowed from the male flamenco dancer’s garb in wittily reworked hats and torso-hugging forms. Balenciaga utilized the foliate embroidery pattern from a flamenco dancer’s shawl in one dress and a red-carnation print in another.
Balenciaga himself detested bullfighting and rarely visited the bullrings. But the glamour and sleek lines of the costumes were irresistible. As early as 1939, his collections featured overt reworkings of the matadors’ traje de luces (suit of lights), that glittering focal point of confrontation between man and bull. The taut bolero jacket, with its braid trimming and borlones (pom-pom tassels), turned up again and again in his work.
In later years, Balenciaga scattered bullfighting allusions widely, using a row of pom-poms on an evening gown, adding a dramatic cape or playfully expanding and contracting the dimension of the matadors’ headwear — the black montera or knotted silk headwrap.
Bullfighting remained an integral force in Balenciaga’s thinking. When Adolf Hitler considered moving the couture houses to Germany during the occupation of Paris, the designer remarked that he “might just as well take all the bulls to Berlin and try to train bullfighters there.”
To an outsider, the sober, cloaklike drama of some Balenciaga designs conveys a sculptural purity. “Ecclesiastical and clerical clothing based on simple shapes and austere styles lent itself to modernist interpretation outside Spain,” Lesley Ellis Miller writes in Balenciaga (2005). But for the designer himself, religious belief and inspiration were powerfully internalized.
He once thought he would become a priest, he attended Mass faithfully and he displayed crucifixes and religious
statuary at home.
For Bowles, “the dress of the clergy and of devotional Madonna figures has extraordinary resonance” in Balenciaga’s work. The use of rich capes, simple cassocks, nuns’ sculpted wimples, monastic hoods and embroidered chasubles captures what Bowles calls “the dual nature of Spanish Catholicism, characterized by the extreme contrasts of severe austerity and extravagant luxury.”
Tn lavish wedding dresses, ornate theatrical costumes, evening dresses and infanta gowns, Balenciaga drew on five centuries of Spanish royalty to fuel his imagination. For a 1960 wedding dress, the designer worked in bands of white mink to invoke the 15th-century Queen Isabella’s love of ermine. The deep, pure blacks in some of Balenciaga’s work summon the 16th-century piety of King Philip II.
And then there were his costumes for a 1942 production of a Don Juan drama. Called on by the lead actress to create an “orgy of colors” in a “riot of fabrics,” Balenciaga turned to 16th- and 17th-century court portraits for a visual vocabulary of velvets, satins, silk failles and ermine tails. Plumed hats, blooming hooped petticoats (known as farthingales), armorlike embroidery and ruff collars all found a place in Balenciaga’s royally inflected artistry.
From his extensive travels in Spain, Balenciaga had direct and intimate knowledge of his homeland’s regional dress. He never forgot it, working native forms, materials and embellishments into his own designs throughout his career.
Fashion historian Colin McDowell described Balenciaga as “a man homesick for his own land to whom visual memories keep returning.” From his own seaside town of Guetaria, he could summon up the loose-fitting blouses worn by fishermen. In Navarra, he found the shepherds’ garb he would later rework into expansive mohair pelt coats. The velvet bands he recalled from Santander nursemaids turned up in a 1949 strapless evening gown.
Bonnets, fringed shawls and other accessories all had their origins in some Spanish province. Balenciaga always kept his distance from the press, but he might well have relished Le Figaro’s account of the “bunched-up effect, washerwoman style” of his 1941 summer skirts.
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