An exhibition organized under the esteemed patronage of Hubert de Givenchy and co-produced with the Cristóbal Balenciaga Foundation (Getaria, Spain).
A Spanish influence
Born in the Spanish Basque Country and having fled the civil war, Balenciaga moved to Paris in 1936 but kept his first three houses in San Sebastian, Madrid, and Barcelona. Balenciaga would often return to his homeland and maintained a love for its great masters of painting, its deep colors, fine materials and, of course, lace—particularly black lace.
In Balenciaga's work, the Iberian influence can be seen not only in the theatricality of the volumes and ornamentation but also in its simplicity, the taste for deep colours and noble fabrics. Lace - and black lace in particular - occupied a privileged place throughout his collections.
This cocktail ensemble in a deep black displays a certain severity. As a nod to the wardrobes of Belle Époque fashionistas, and also to religious attire and even bullfighters with their short jackets, the coordinating cape adorns the shoulders with a double lace flounce. The satin bow enhances a modest neckline with its lustre.
Balenciaga attached great importance to accessories. They provided the finishing touch to his outfits and transformed them so that they were appropriate for different times of the day. With scarves, stoles, capes, boleros, tube stoles, mantilla veils and long-sleeved gloves all made from lace or embroidered tulle, the couturier’s creations were the epitome of femininity, with an Iberian twist.
Trained in Spain and England, Balenciaga had a perfect knowledge of Parisian haute couture. Based at 10 Avenue Georges V in Paris—an address which gave its name to a perfume—he soon became a couturier who was open to all the fashions of the world. He began to establish his own style, reusing certain elements from one season to the next. He also restyled traditional pieces, such as the famous bolero and, in 1946, Balenciaga broke new ground with his barrel-line collection.
Indeed, he was one of the few couturiers of that time to master sewing and cutting techniques. When Dior’s new look saw strong lines come back into fashion, Balenciaga explored new silhouettes, which were more respectful of the body. Each of his creations hung beautifully, and with the precision of his cuts and his penchant for structural effects, he could not fail.
Hours of the day and night
An outfit for every occasion...
At a time when social obligations punctuated the lives of the wealthy but the lines were becoming less distinct, Balenciaga created different types of outfits to suit the time of day and occasion. For example, lace was used subtly on a morning suit, but for outfits worn in the late afternoon—and particularly those worn for cocktail parties—its use was much more prominent. The dress code for these fashionable events was an ensemble consisting of a dress, which was the key piece, with a coat, cape, or jacket.
...Or an outfit that transforms to suit the occasion
Reminiscent of the transformative clothing fashionable in the 1920s, Balenciaga created pieces that evolved according to the time of day. The concept of the dress and scarf combination did this perfectly. The shoulders and neck would remain covered as was required during a cocktail party only to be revealed for the soirée.
He also invented a short evening gown complete with a belt decorated with a bow which could either be worn around the waist or at the bottom of the dress, as shown on this lace and gazar piece made from a sculptural fabric and created especially for him by the house of Abraham.
Little black dress
The “Little black dress”, which began as a symbol of mourning, was launched by Coco Chanel and Edward Molyneux in the 1920s. Responding perfectly to the customs of that time, it later became a staple piece in every woman’s wardrobe around the world. Balenciaga created different variations each season, along with matching accessories to take them from day into night.
If there is one piece that is consummately symbolic of Haute Couture, it has to be the evening dress, the virtuoso showpiece for any great fashion house. It is made in varying lengths, its ornamentation and complexity dictated by the importance of the event.
The decorative harmony of this 1967 model is inspired by the eighteenth century, a period for which Balenciaga had a particular fondness. Here, he explores its chromatic and ornamental richness through the profusion of floral patterns, worthy of the finest brocades and Indian cottons of that era. Embroidered on tulle, the silky vegetation offers lightness and relief through the play of shadows on the pink satin reverse side.
Dentelle de Calais (Calais Lace)
The exhibition looks back on the old lace makers of Calais, such as Marescot, Dognin, and Brivet, who have long since disappeared. Parisian haute couture was particularly fond of this exceptional fabric. As such, for more than 20 years from the postwar period until the closure of Balenciaga’s houses in 1968, the couturier’s customers from Paris, and from elsewhere in Europe and America, adorned themselves in Dentelle de Calais (The label has changed since 2015, taking the new official designation "Dentelle de Calais-Caudry®").
Innovative materials and techniques
In the 1950s, Balenciaga offered suits in mohair lace. The downy feel of the material juggled between the codes of elegance and of informality, in the same spirit as Chanel's jerseys.
Another of his original specialties was chiffon. This weave between gathers of Valenciennes lace enhances the piece with a succession of small waves of lace, parallel and in relief (detail photograph opposite).
Laces were very often reworked. Balenciaga used re-embroidered lace, as shown in this piece where the tonal lace embroidery highlights the motif. Re-embroidering, which is a finishing step used to add even greater value to the precious fabric, is done by expert hands, even in companies where mechanical production techniques are used.
Embroidery art far exceeded mechanical re-embroidery in terms of time and complexity and could even be used to create a full motif, as on this brown tulle evening jacket. The fabrics were illuminated with colored threads, cords or thin ribbons (“comet”), rhinestones, and pearls, and sometimes even straw and raffia. Created by famous houses, such as Lesage and Rebe, embroidery art transforms an outfit into a “suit of lights” for special occasions.
The 18th and 19th centuries saw the creation of pieces bearing patterns such as peonies and pomegranates, as well as roses inspired by Chantilly. Although lace makers progressively replaced their threads with artificial and synthetic versions (silk was rare), their designs remained essentially traditional up until the 1950s.
Cut-out lace motifs
Whether created by hand or machine, lace offered a fabulous array of different shapes that Balenciaga showcased using embroidered appliqué techniques. This evening gown has been enhanced with Chantilly lace embellishments applied by hand. Cut from a Second Empire shawl, it was then sewn onto the cream satin.
The transparency of lace lends itself to experimenting with superimposed graphics. The folds of this fine black lace provide a fluid background for the stylized floral bouquets. They stand out from the caramel gown—a color of which Balenciaga was particularly fond. While the silhouette of this piece is simple and classic, the folding work brings the surface to life and gives it a blurred, hazy depth.
Transparency: the body revealed
Before the revolution of the 1960s, Balenciaga’s work was considered very modern. In 1957, he offered his international clientele designs that he created in lace in response to a new need: to look young.
The ample and flared line of the baby doll dress is superimposed over an inner fabric closer to the body. The foamy lace spreads out around the figure which is then accentuated by transparency.
Cristóbal Balenciaga explored everything lace has to offer. In his work, by turn the material takes the form of trim, accessory, little touches of embroidered pattern. When not spiralling around the body, lace hugs it, veils and even screens it in successive layers, but can equally reveal its skin tone and sinuous curves.
Fêted in his lifetime by the great fashion magazines, Cristóbal Balenciaga left a lasting legacy and continues to influence contemporary fashion design to this day.