Balenciaga at the Kunstgewerbemuseum Berlin
Spanning three centuries, the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Berlin houses one of the most comprehensive collection of fashion in Germany. With the acquisition of one of the world’s most important private fashion collections formerly owned by Martin Kamer und Wolfgang Ruf in 2003, key items of the 20th century including a selection of dresses and hats by Cristóbal Balenciaga became available for the public audience. The small but exquisite collection of Balenciagas designs captures the genius of this outstanding designer in a nutshell. Day and evening wear highlight his innovative design which is crowned by an early example of his craftsmanship from 1939/40.
Portrait of Cristóbal Balenciaga (1947) by UnknownKunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
After an apprenticeship as a tailor, Balenciaga, born in Guetaría in Northern Spain, opened his first couture house in San Sebastián in 1917. Further branches followed, first in Madrid (Eisa) and later in Barcelona. In 1937, at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, Balenciaga left Spain and founded a new business in Paris. He had a resounding success with his very first collection. Cristóbal Balenciaga is one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th century. His elegant creations of almost sculptural simplicity are the expression of his constant search for perfection, both in the cut and in the workmanship. Unlike Christian Dior Balenciaga did not launch a new line every season, to which the customers had to adapt. He was interested in developing lines which produced fundamental solutions for his customers.
Balenciaga’s work is marked out by complex construction of simple patterns masterfully executed in exquisite fabrics. His day wear of coats and suits was of an ascetic simplicity that only reveals its secrets on closer inspection.
Spain, ca. 1955
For this warm headgear, wool jersey was arranged in soft folds and fixed to a crown of stiffened linen. The turban has an ‘Eisa’ label, which means that it was bought in Cristóbel Balenciaga’s Madrid store.
Green Mohairdress (1959) by Cristóbal BalenciagaKunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Paris, ca. 1959
This dress has just two parts, which overlap each other and are connected by just one small seam, hidden by the bows. The front part is tailored closer to the body by means of darts, while the back part drops loosely.
Olivegreen Ladies Coat (ca. 1963) by Cristóbal BalenciagaKunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Olivegreen Ladies Coat
Paris, ca. 1963
He perfected successful ideas, such as the Sack line (1957) and the Empire line (1959) and returned to them time and time again.
This narrow coat with batwing sleeve is made from one piece of cloth. One seam under chest and arm was sufficient for Balenciaga to give the coat its three dimensional form.
Woollen Suit (1965) by Cristóbal BalenciagaKunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
This businesslike suit is lent a jaunty look by the addition of pocket flaps, while the collar away from the neck and the three-quarter length sleeved give it a very feminine appearance. The knee-length skirt is gathered around the waist by a wide waistband and falls straight.
This suit also illustrates Balenciaga’s minimalistic art of omission. The back and the sleeves consist of one piece, forming the round shoulders and the straight back, Balenciaga was aiming. The simple skirt is made of a single length of fabric worked as a parallelogram and thus has simply one diagonal on the back running seam, and the zipper has been inserted into this.
Balenciaga’s evening creations reveal extraordinary imagination and surprise with their diversity of forms, fabrics and decorations.
Eveninggown with Black Lace (ca. 1940) by Cristóbal BalenciagaKunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Evening Gown with Black Lace
Paris, ca. 1940
Diego Velazquez‘ painting Las Meninas inspired Cristóbal Balenciaga several times for dresses in the so called Infanta-Style. The black lace-ribbon accentuates the vertical line of top and skirt.
Pink Silk Taffeta Ball Gown with Separate Belt (1955) by Cristóbal BalenciagaKunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Ball Gown of Pink Taffeta Silk
Often inspired by historical models Balenciaga here offers a modern interpretation of the late 19th century bustle. For this short evening gown he draped the light, yet solid silk taffeta to lush bowl wrinkles. They coat skirt and corset and are taken back together to form a cascade.
The gown comes from the possession of Elisabeth Firestone (1897-1990). In 1921, she married Harvey S. Firestone Jr. of the American dynasty of tyre manufacturers. She was voted bestdressed woman of the year several times and counted amongst the long-standing customers of the house of Balenciaga.
As if momentarily swept up, pink silk taffeta drapes in luxuriant transverse shirring over a narrow waist.
A triple trim of white machine lace is visible beneath the silk taffeta hemline.
Short Evening Gown (ca. 1955) by Cristóbal BalenciagaKunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Short Evening Gown
Paris, ca. 1955
In sharp contrast is this fragrant ball gown, made of black tulle woven with flowers. Inspiration came from the mantillas of black lace, that already Francisco de Goya represented in his portraits.
Evening Hat of Black Ribbon
Paris, ca. 1955
The cap is extensively covered in short silk ribbons and cites the black lace mantillas of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s native Spain.
Balloon Dress with Pink Polka Dots (ca. 1958) by Cristóbal BalenciagaKunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Balloon Dress with Pink Polka Dots
Balenciaga drew inspiration for the cut and decoration of this billowing ball gown from the costumes of the flamenco dancers in his native Spain.
The billowing form is a result of the voluminous taffeta, which gathered loosely at the knee. The skirt is shorter in front, and a transverse shirring with a bow offers structure to the mass of fabric.
Pink Sling-Back Pumps by R. Delicata
Elisabeth Firestone (1897-1990) wore these sling-back pumps, covered in bright pink taffeta, with Balenciaga’s polka-dot dress.
Cocktail Dress with Collar
For this pure cocktail dress of monastic strength Cristóbal Balenciaga combined the simple nun’s collar with a seductive low-cut neckline.
Grand Evening Ensemble, Dress with Coat (ca. 1955) by Cristóbal BalenciagaKunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Grand Evening Ensemble
Paris, ca. 1960
Monastic formality also characterizes this evening dress in princess line. It is worn under a wide coat without closure, made of double folded crêpe Marocain.
The corsage bodice is adorned with a bow - a recurring detail in Balenciaga's designs.
Evening Hat with Feather Trim
Paris, ca. 1960
Here a long pendulous tail of green ostrich feathers fixed on tulle is attached at the back of a small cap of black silk satin. Narrow strips of reflective green foil are attached to individual feather tufts.
Evening Gown with Train
Paris, ca. 1965
On the hip-length, simple top a slightly ruffled skirt in Peacock-Line is attached. The stiff silk fabric called Gazar lends the dress its sculptural quality.
Yellow Evening Ensemble (ca. 1966/1967) by Cristóbal BalenciagaKunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Yellow Evening Ensemble
The rigid silk fabric Gazar developed for Cristóbal Balenciaga by Swiss textile firm Abraham required a minimalist cut that lends architectonical clarity.
In 1968 he closed down his business and retired to Spain.
This small focus exhibition on Cristóbal Balenciaga comprising just 12 models and three hats shows examples of the major features of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s art. As Christian Dior said of him, “He is the master of us all.”
Text: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Christine Waidenschlager
Concept: Christine Waidenschlager
Editing / Realisation: Merle Walter
Translation: Übersetzungsbüro Nastula / Catherine Hales and Stephan Schmidt
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz www.smb.museum