This year marks the centenary of the opening of fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga’s first atelier. To mark the occasion, the Victoria & Albert Museum is holding a blockbuster exhibition of the Spaniard’s work. But who was Balenciaga? And what does modern fashion owe to him? Here, Stylist’s Head of Digital Features and resident fashion historian, Harriet Hall, reveals five items we all have in our wardrobes that were inspired by his designs.
The stiff sheen of silk zaberdine balloons out like a tent to create a perfect A-line silhouette. Its thickness and the cut of the garment prevent the fabric from caving in or flouncing when the wearer walks. The asymmetric hem falls to the knee and slopes down at the back into a thick train. At first glance, this gown is utterly simple, minimalist. A closer look reveals the complexity of the design, considered seams and immaculate craftsmanship. Innovative in its modernity and yet somehow - impossibly - utterly timeless. It is a Cristóbal Balenciaga creation and a phenomenal piece of fashion history.
Nicknamed ‘The Master’ by his contemporaries, Balenciaga (1895-1972) was a true fashion innovator and one of the most important designers of the 20th century. His architectural designs are considered masterpieces – and for good reason. Their sculptural quality elevating the wearer to new levels of grandeur, and fashion itself to the status of fine art.
Born in the Basque region of northern Spain, Balenciaga learned to sew at the age of 11 and began an apprenticeship with his seamstress mother at the age of 12 – an experience that would inform his lifelong expertise in cut and construction that would shoot him miles above his contemporaries.
Moving to Paris at the outbreak of the civil war in 1936, the height of his career would be the fifties and sixties, an era of dress hugely informed by his designs and one that earned him a reputation as the ‘King of Couture’.
Sometimes using single pieces of fabric to create the impression of seamlessness and at other times masterfully tucking and concealing, his garments display a forensic attention to detail that earned him legions of followers from celebrities (Marlene Dietrich; Helena Rubinstein) to royalty (Grace Kelly; the Duchess of Windsor). His clothes were so beautiful that there were reports of women weeping at his shows. Coco Chanel famously said that Balenciaga was “a couturier in the truest sense of the word… The others are simply fashion designers.”
A male designer who understood the reality of women’s lives, Balenciaga’s clothes celebrated the natural female form – never attempting to mould it. Instead, he built around the figure like a sculptor, transforming bodies with just fabric in clothes that suited everyone.
While Christian Dior’s highly feminine designs were criticised by some for taking women back to pre-war domesticity with corseting and yardage of fabric, Balenciaga did the opposite. He sought complete ease, comfort and freedom of movement in his garments.
A famously enigmatic man, Balenciaga avoided the limelight, never bowing after his shows and only giving one interview during his lifetime. And yet, over the course of an impressive 50-year career, the Spanish couturier created clothes that continue to influence designers today, 100 years after opening his first atelier.
Here, we chart the five things in everyone’s wardrobe that descended directly from ‘The Master’.
1. BELL SLEEVES
Walk into any high street store at the moment and you’ll be spoilt for bell-sleeve choice. From jumpers to blouses, dresses and coats, this lantern-shape is the trend of the moment thanks to Serbian designer Roksanda Ilincic’s signature ‘Margot’ style.
But we can actually thank Balenciaga for it. His experimental shapes of the sixties revelled in sleeves. He was obsessed with them. When his seamstresses finished a garment and the sleeve wasn’t quite right, Balenciaga would shout la manga! (the sleeve) ensuring that the sleeve was perfected.
The design for the lantern sleeve was the result of new fabrics that held their shape without the need for supportive structures. While Ilincic’s fluid bell sleeves elegantly drape, Balenciaga’s style was stiff, however much the wearer flapped their arms. This lightweight gauze cotton became a signature fabric for the designer.
2. BABY DOLL DRESSES
It’s hard to believe there was a time when a baby doll dress didn’t exist. But there was – and it’s earlier than you’d expect.
Balenciaga designed the style in 1958, presenting it to a wave of controversy. At a time when Dior had proclaimed the waist and an hourglass figure the ultimate, Balenciaga completely removed it. The sheer lace hangs loosely over the body rendering the figure invisible.
Despite initial resistance, the Baby Doll has endured, inspiring Nineties grunge style.
Most recently, fashion world darling Molly Goddard has made a name for herself by reviving the Baby Doll in electirc, zesty colours, showing it to be a fun, playful item.
3. THE HIGH/LOW HEMLINE
The high/low hemline is quintessential Balenciaga. The designer began adopting the asymmetrical hem in his Flamenco-inspired designs, eventually taking the style into his pared-down minimalist dresses.
Although the hemline wasn’t his own creation, it was what Balenciaga did with it that made it so unique, creating architectural shapes that remain visible in modern styles.
Now you can expect to find this injected subtly into garments across the high street – perfect for summer wedding outfits.
4. OVERSIZED DRESSING
From big sweatshirts to boyfriend jeans and Vetements shirts, oversized styles are the fashionable’s go-to chuck-on uniform of choice. But it didn’t just come from borrowing your boyfriend’s tops or eighties sportswear.
Balenciaga was doing oversized before all that. Adoring fabrics that would retain their shape rather than drape over the body, he designed so-called barrel-back jackets that puffed out into a curve, and cocoon dresses and coats, as well as tiered dresses and layered ensembles that influenced the most avant-garde of designers such as Rei Kawakubo.
His voluminous clothes are some of his most magnificent designs, and so much a part of his aesthetic that the designer is said to have switched around the labels on items, in order to encourage smaller women to wear larger sizes.
5. SHIFT DRESSES
Balenciaga didn’t name his dresses, journalists did. So the insulting moniker ‘sack dress’, given to his 1957 design, rather describes how the garment was received.
Again created during a time when the waist was fashion’s focus thanks to the dominant fifties hourglass silhouette, the sack dress was met with horror, its tubular shape removing any curves from the figure.
And yet, here we are some 60 years later and living in the same shape: the shift dress. The design the fashion world so fervently abhorred has in fact become a fashion staple.
Images: Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum