Cristóbal Balenciaga: A Timeless Legacy

By Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa

Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa

An insight in the principal characteristics of Balenciaga’s work and his crucial contribution to the history of fashion and design from the perspective of Cristóbal Balenciaga Museum's Collections.

Cristóbal Balenciaga (1968)Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa

Cristóbal Balenciaga: A timeless legacy 

Cristóbal Balenciaga is unanimously regarded as one of the leading  and most influential couturiers of the 20th century. A tireless perfectionist, he acquired an expert command of sewing techniques and spent his life refining the construction of his creations and introducing extraordinary innovations that allowed him to gradually evolve towards simpler, purer forms. His exceptional creative talent inspired him to design models that were audacious in both their form and aesthetics, taking the world by storm and setting the indisputable trend season after season. His command of the craft earned him the respect of his colleagues and he reigned supreme in the international haute couture world until he retired in 1968. 

Evening coat (Circa 1935) by Cristóbal BalenciagaOriginal Source: CBM 2006.85

1917 - 1940s
From the early days to consolidation

Balenciaga opened his first haute couture atelier in 1917, when he was just 22 years old. This marked the beginning of an intense period during which he opened houses in San Sebastian, Madrid and Barcelona before moving to Paris in 1936. His first Parisian collection in August 1937 met with immediate and overwhelming success. After 20 years working as a couturier in San Sebastian, he was a well-established creator, poised to conquer the world of international haute couture. 

Balenciaga’s creations made an immediate impact. As well as their simplicity and impeccable cut, the daring colour combinations and popular overtones of his models were regarded as both novel and exotic by the discerning Parisian public. In his collections of the late 1930s and the following decade, Balenciaga introduced some of the elements, influences and devices that would become hallmarks of his work until the end of his career. Lavish embroidery and the use of historicist details are already evident in his creations from this period.

Cocktail dress (1957) by Cristóbal BalenciagaOriginal Source: CBM 2000.05

1950 - 1960s: Balenciaga reigns

The 1950s and 60s were the golden age of Cristóbal Balenciaga. The dresses during this period showcase the hallmarks that characterised Balenciaga’s designs.

From his formative years to the end of his career, Cristóbal Balenciaga dedicated himself with perseverance and diligence to developing a technique so perfect that it has yet to be surpassed. Balenciaga never stopped experimenting with textiles or searching for aesthetic balance and harmony, guided consistently by his own concept of elegance as the synthesis of simplicity and audacity.

Balenciaga’s preoccupation with silhouettes commenced in the late 1940s and gave rise to his innovative creations of the 50s, ranging from the tunic and sack line to the “baby doll” dress. In all of these creations, Balenciaga opted for fluid lines that caressed rather than constrained the body, thus guaranteeing comfort and freedom of movement for the user. His experiments with form culminated in the 1960s with the abstraction of the female body, which was either blurred by large floral or geometric prints, or enveloped in unprecedented columns.

Meanwhile, his profound knowledge of materials and his collaboration with the Swiss manufacturer Gustav Zumsteg in the creation of new fabrics with sculptural qualities, such as gazar, allowed him to develop truly extraordinary forms.

Sack dressCristóbal Balenciaga Museoa

The Balenciaga signature designs

Balenciaga always conceived his models in accordance with the aesthetic and practical needs of the women for whom he designed them. Their embellishment and comfort were the ultimate goals of his tireless efforts, and the fact that his customers remained faithful to him throughout his life proves that he fulfilled those goals admirably.

Coco Chanel described Balenciaga as the only authentic couturier, because, unlike his contemporaries, he was capable of designing, cutting out, assembling and sewing a dress from start to finish. Christian Dior called him “the master of us all”, and Hubert de Givenchy still refers to him as the “architect of haute couture”. His enduring legacy demonstrates that these testimonies remain as valid today as when they were first pronounced.

Coat (1960) by Cristóbal BalenciagaCristóbal Balenciaga Museoa

Balenciaga's signature day wear

Daywear was characterised by simple materials, decorative plainness and, above all, functionality, especially with the gradual introduction of women into the workforce. In his daywear garments, Balenciaga expressed this concept of functionality in its most extreme version, supported by a refined technique and profound knowledge of fabrics. Fluid lines, simple cuts and perfectly crafted sleeves guaranteed the comfort and freedom of movement of the women he dressed.

Hip-length jacket (Circa 1951) by Cristóbal BalenciagaOriginal Source: CBM 06.1999

Hip-length jacket
Circa 1951
Worn by María del Carmen Aguirre

It is a magnificent design that bears witness to Balenciaga’s zest for innovation. This is the semi-fitted suit introduced by the couturier in 1951, which represented a revolution to the corseted silhouette of the time. The front is tailored to the torso and the back is loose, creating a curved shape and allowing greater freedom of movement.

Hip-length jacket, open at the front, with a black velvet turndown collar and lapels. The front is fitted to the waist with darts. The straight, loose back adapts to the shoulder line with two darts. The three-quarter sleeves are assembled with three panels. Lined with ivory silk taffeta. An inside strap hugs the garment to the body, leaving the outside free and accentuating the fullness of the back.

Below-the-knee trapezoid dress (1957) by Cristóbal BalenciagaOriginal Source: CBM 2000.194

Sack dress

This model, known as the “sack dress”, shows the original line on which Balenciaga worked during the 1950s. Loose, comfortable dresses contrasted with the fitted silhouette more common at the time. The “barrel” line, so defined by the master, appeared in 1947. From that time on, Balenciaga experimented with the loose-fitting backs of his garments, creating the tunic dress in 1955 and the sack dress in 1957. He reinterpreted the female shape and eliminated the waist, creating silhouettes that were completely new in the history of fashion.

Below-the-knee trapezoid dress. Jewel neckline, sleeveless, with button-down closure from top to bottom. It has a yoke, darts from hip to bustline, and from the hip to the centre of the armhole. The large buttons are covered with cotton piping.

Three-piece suit: bodice, skirt and cape (1962) by Cristóbal BalenciagaOriginal Source: CBM 05.2003

Suit and cape
Worn by Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco

This outfit was made in Paris for the 1962 winter season. Balenciaga created a three-piece suit with the traditional cheviot fabric, widely used to create men’s suits. Far from being a reinterpretation of a man’s suit, the three pieces that make up this ensemble are based on traditional garments such as the pullover and the cape, the latter very much in fashion during the 1960s.

Knee-length coat (1966) by Cristóbal BalenciagaOriginal Source: CBM 2004.38

Worn by Rachel L. Mellon

Made in the Paris workshops for the 1966 winter collection, model number 21. This coat shows the linear silhouette of the simple coats of the 1960s. The prevailing features in these coats were, more than the daring cuts, the perfect patterns and finishing touches, more typical of tailoring than of haute couture. Bright, intense colour was also typical of this decade.

Day dress (Circa 1968) by Cristóbal BalenciagaOriginal Source: CBM 2000.38

Day dress
Circa 1968
Worn by Rachel L. Mellon

This day dress was made in Paris. The sculptural quality of the crepe reveals the architectural nature of the dress, emphasised by the impressive, modern orange colour.

Cocktail dress (1958) by Cristóbal BalenciagaCristóbal Balenciaga Museoa

Balenciaga's signature cocktail hour

The cocktail dress took the place occupied in previous eras by the visiting, tea or afternoon dress. With elements taken from day and evening wear, the cocktail dress in Balenciaga was characterised for being short, sophisticated and discretely luxurious, as well as for opting for the colour black, a determining factor until the sixties.

Cocktail dress (1955) by Cristóbal BalenciagaOriginal Source: CBM 1998.08

Cocktail dress
Worn by the widow of Mr Molina

This dress was made in Spain. Balenciaga had a preference for high-quality thick fabrics, ideal for creating models of a sculptural nature. The strapless neckline with front sash tie was developed by the couturier in this decade, particularly in evening dresses.

The bodice is reinforced with a corset and boning. The strapless neckline has a turnover collar which ties at the centre. The skirt is gathered at the waist. Lined with white rayon taffeta. Fastens on the left side with a zip.

Dress (1956) by Cristóbal BalenciagaOriginal Source: CBM 2000.89 ab

Cocktail dress
Worn by Mrs Bouilloux-Laffont

The dress, made in the workshops of Paris and presented in the 1956 winter collection, has all the characteristics of the typical 1950s silhouette: a corset to mould the waist, deep neckline and full skirt. Without a doubt, the novelty of this garment lies in the multipurpose outer piece. Whether worn as a cape or an overskirt, it gives the dress a regal presence.

The pale-green gros de Naples dress is complemented with a draped, machine-made tulle transparency and decorated with polka dots. The bodice is fitted, strapless, reinforced with boning and padding at the chest. In the same tulle as the transparency, a piece sewn at the front of the neckline can be used as a stole. Decorated with black silk satin bows at the base of the skirt and at the front of the neckline. The pale green gros de Naples overskirt can be worn in two ways, either at the waist as an overskirt, or fitting it to the neck, like a puffed cape.

Cocktail coat (1956) by Cristóbal BalenciagaOriginal Source: CBM 2000.45

Cocktail coat
Worn by Rachel L. Mellon

Once again, this coat shows Balenciaga’s creative genius. The marked waist and graceful style of the skirt reproduce the “new look” style in fashion until the mid 1950s. The exquisite fabric, the elegant austerity of black and the discrete ornamentation provided by the buttons are characteristic of the master’s unmistakable style.

Cocktail dress (1957) by Cristóbal BalenciagaOriginal Source: CBM 2000.05

Cocktail dress
Worn by Rachel L. Mellon

Made in the workshops of Paris, this beautiful cocktail dress shows the balloon-skirt created by Balenciaga in 1950. The fabric, printed by Brossin de Méré and inspired in Renaissance decoration motifs, corroborates the master’s interest in stiff fabrics, perfect to bring his idea to fruition.

“Baby doll” dress (1958) by Cristóbal BalenciagaOriginal Source: CBM 06.1999

Baby doll dress
Worn by María Sonsoles de Icaza y de León, Marchioness of Llanzol

In 1958, Balenciaga created the dress that would be called the “baby doll”. This new line was the result of tireless research, based on experimenting with the waistline to create different volumes.

The “baby doll” dress is inspired by children’s clothing, with loose-fitting volumes that allow total freedom of movement. The carefree cut is even more accentuated in this design by the choice of the fabric, which features a bright floral print dominated by fuchsia tones.

This ivory silk taffeta dress has a floral print in various tones of red and fuchsia. Cut at the hipline, the bodice is straight with drop- shoulder sleeves and a round neckline at the front and back. The full pleated skirt is decorated with a bow made from the same fabric.

Cocktail coat (1958) by Cristóbal BalenciagaOriginal Source: CBM 2002.25

Cocktail coat

This coat has the constructive characteristics of the “baby doll” dress Balenciaga presented that same year. Its trapezoid silhouette was innovative and different from the traditional hourglass shape. Today, this coat is still a daring, brilliant and modern design.

Dress (1961) by Cristóbal BalenciagaOriginal Source: CBM 2005.26 ab

Cocktail dress
Worn by Rachel L. Mellon

Made in Paris with fabric by Staron. Although the documentation indicates this is a cocktail dress, conceptually it moves away from cocktail dresses of the previous decade. By removing all ornamentation, Balenciaga created an elegant, tulip-silhouette dress. The result is a well-proportioned dress that adapts to the body and emphasizes the feminine shape without sacrificing elegance.

The below-the-knee length dress has a waist just above the hip line. The bodice fits to the torso with darts and has padding on the chest. Boat neck at the front and crossover V-neck at the back. The shoulders are gathered with a ribbon. The gathered skirt narrows slightly at the bottom, and has a belt with a bow. Fastens on the left side with two zips and press-studs.

Evening dress by Cristobal BalenciagaCristóbal Balenciaga Museoa

Balenciaga's signature evening wear

Cristóbal Balenciaga always found great allies in evening models as exponents of his creative genius and technical ability. The dresses intended for grand parties and dances gave his clients the opportunity to free themselves from the simplicity of day wear; therefore, they provided an excellent opportunity to use the most sumptuous fabrics, surprising volumes and exquisite adornments.

Déshabillé (1955) by Cristóbal BalenciagaOriginal Source: CBM 2000.71

Evening coat
Worn by Mona Bismarck

Made in the workshops of Paris and presented in the 1955 winter collection. Far from formal, these garments were designed for receiving guests, giving Balenciaga the creative freedom not always allowable with other garments.

The couturier’s passion for historical clothing is obvious in this model, inspired in the 18th-century robe à la française, whose origins lie in the house robe of the time. Balenciaga showed the same imagination and audacity in his choice of fine fabrics and intense colours.

Long, with a short train at the back. Front button closure and turndown collar. Three-quarter sleeves gathered at the cuffs. The back is gathered at the centre below the neckline. Pleats cascade down the back, creating volume very much like the 18th-century déshabillé.

Evening dress (1957) by Cristóbal BalenciagaOriginal Source: CBM 2000.60

Evening dress
Worn by Rachel L. Mellon

Balenciaga started from the traditional 1950s silhouette to design this evening dress with asymmetrical skirt. It was made in the workshops of Paris, with a luxurious blue fabric adorned with black velvet floral motifs. The combination of these two cold colours is very elegant and confirms the couturier’s refined sense of colour.

Evening dress (1960) by Cristóbal BalenciagaOriginal Source: CBM 2001.08

Evening dress

Made in the workshops of Paris for the 1960 winter collection, model number 210. This magnificent dress combines rich materials and the masterful technique of Lesage embroidery. Reinforced on the inside, the torso is fitted, dropping the natural waistline to the hip, thus contrasting with the fullness of the skirt.

Evening dress (1962) by Cristóbal BalenciagaOriginal Source: CBM 2000.17

Evening dress

The classic simplicity of the front contrasts with the Baroque complexity of the back, emphasised by the regal train. Gazar, created in 1958 by the Swiss manufacturer Abraham, was essential to achieve the spectacular volumes featured in this evening dress.

Evening dress (1964) by Cristóbal BalenciagaOriginal Source: CBM 24.2007

Evening dress
Worn by Sonsoles Díez de Rivera y de Icaza

In contrast with the restrictive dresses of the fifties, in 1955 Balenciaga created the tunic dress, with a completely opposite concept. The loose style created a tubular modern silhouette which the couturier would use throughout his career.

This evening tunic, made in Spain, stands out for the rich embroidered decoration, very much to the taste of Balenciaga. The clear Spanish inspiration behind his designs was at its peak in the 1960s.

Long evening dress (1965) by Cristóbal BalenciagaOriginal Source: CBM 2000.23 ab

Evening dress
Worn by Rachel L. Mellon

In 1958, Balenciaga worked with the Swiss manufacturer Abraham to create gazar. The ornamental and sculptural properties of gazar were fundamental to achieve the grandiose theatrical shapes of the evening dresses.

This dress, made in Paris, is completed with a mantelet, a garment the master used often for its attractive wraparound nature, and its ability to change the appearance of a dress.

Evening ensemble (1965) by Cristóbal BalenciagaOriginal Source: CBM 04.2003 ab

Evening ensemble
Worn by Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco

Made in the Jacqueline atelier of Paris for the 1965 winter collection in gold cloqué, one of the most expensive and luxurious fabrics of the time. The richness of the colour and materials contrasts with the structural purity of the pieces, which do not follow the lines of traditional evening wear. The small turndown collar, three-quarter sleeves and skirt reflect the youthful style of the 1960s.

Evening ensemble (1965) by Cristóbal BalenciagaOriginal Source: CBM 2003.24 abc

Evening ensemble

This model was made in the workshops of Paris. The same year Balenciaga’s disciple Courrèges created the miniskirt, the master continued to work true to his haute couture principles, as seen in this evening dress.

Structurally, it is consistent with the minimalist aesthetic that characterised the last work of the master, and conceptually it coincides with the naive air of fashion at the time. Only the length of the skirt reveals the occasion for which it was conceived.

Evening dress (1966) by Cristóbal BalenciagaOriginal Source: CBM 2000.16

Evening dress
Worn by Mona Bismarck

Made in the workshops of Paris, this evening dress of sober lines is combined with a luxurious tunic, richly decorated with metallic thread, crystals and metallic embellishments.

In the 1960s, Balenciaga reinterpreted the tunic of the previous decade, presented it more luxuriously and with more colour, according to the new dictates of fashion. The pink bow that hugs the waist of the inner dress provides an original touch.

Wedding dress (1954) by Cristobal BalenciagaCristóbal Balenciaga Museoa

Balenciaga's signature bridal couture

Balenciaga featured in each fashion show a majestic wedding dress that synthesized the spirit of the collection. Unlike in other haute couture shows -where, according to tradition, the show was closed by the wedding dress-, in Balenciaga the wedding dress was exhibited among the cocktail and evening dress. Balenciaga, consonant with the austere nature of his shows, fled from the sensationalist resources and endorsed sobriety and temperance in his halls.

Wedding dress (1957) by Cristóbal BalenciagaOriginal Source: CBM 11.1999 ab

Wedding dress

The wedding dresses by Balenciaga are magnificent exponents of the formal and aesthetic evolution that underwent his work. The dresses of the Fifties were characterized by their traditional silhouette: close-fitting body and voluminous skirt, just as the the tendencies of the moment ruled.

Wedding dress (1960) by Cristóbal BalenciagaOriginal Source: CBM 2003.08

Wedding dress
Worn by by Fabiola de Mora y Aragón, Queen of the Belgians

Made in the Madrid workshops, this dress was worn by Fabiola de Mora y Aragón when she married King Baudouin of Belgium. Exquisite and sober in its decoration, this was the perfect dress to wear on December 15 in the city of Brussels. As a symbol of other eras, the train extolled the majesty of the dress.

The wedding dress in ivory satin and white mink has a fitted bodice with boat neckline, kimono sleeves and a dropped waist. The gathered skirt is shorter at the front than the back. The collar, train and hipline are trimmed in white mink. The train starts from the shoulder line, extending beautifully all the way down the back. Lined with satin. Fastens down the centre back.

Wedding dress (1966) by Cristóbal BalenciagaCristóbal Balenciaga Museoa

Wedding dress

This elegant wedding dress was made in Spain. Balenciaga designed this style with simple shapes and a long, asymmetrical skirt in 1957, and developed this line (known as the "peacock-tail") in his evening and wedding dresses throughout his career, as it was perfect for these occasions. The exquisite openwork embroidery creates floral motifs which decorate the entire surface of the dress.

Wedding dress (1968) by Cristóbal BalenciagaOriginal Source: CBM 12.2004

Wedding dress

In the Sixties, the wedding dressed stood out for their progressive constructive and ornamental simplification, culminated by his extraordinary dresses in 1967 and 1968. These were perfect models os austere beauty that fled from superfluous decoration and gave prominence to the bride. Once more, the technical control, knowledge of fabrics and creative genius of the master were revealed.

This wedding dress was made in Spain. Balenciaga chose gazar for its sculptural qualities. The absolute purity of the colour, intimately linked with the wedding ceremony, accentuates the clean lines, subtly tapered by the seam that frames the bust. The essence of simplicity.

Pillbox hat (1964) by Cristobal BalenciagaCristóbal Balenciaga Museoa

Balenciaga's signature accessories

Accessories were an essential element, as the added sophistication. Large gemstones or costume jewellery made by the best craftsmen, together with silk or feathers hats, completed the elegant outfits.

Day hat (1950) by Cristóbal BalenciagaOriginal Source: CBM 03.2004

Day hat

This hat belong to the Marquesa de Llanzol, Doña María Sonsoles de Icaza y León. The hat, in the shape of a calot, covers the crown. From the centre, the feathers splay upwards. Where the velvet and the feathers meet is covered with black plastic ovals that imitate ebony.

Pillbox hat (1962) by Cristóbal BalenciagaOriginal Source: CBM 2000.213

Pillbox hat
Belonged to Niki Stifel

The feathers are cut in half to create the effect of windblown vegetation. It is fastened to the hair with an inner comb on the left side.

Day cap (1963) by Cristóbal BalenciagaOriginal Source: CBM 2000.218

Day cap
Belonged to Niki Stifel

This hat is part of model number 30 for the winter collection of 1963, together with a green chenille coat. The combination of such different textures creates a spectacular contrast.

"Rays of sunshine" brooch (1967) by Roger Jean-PierreOriginal Source: CBM 2000.166

'Rays of sunshine' brooch

Made in the workshop of Roger Jean-Pierre, one of the jewellers most closely associated with Balenciaga. Photographed by Hiro for Harper's Bazaar in September 1967 and worn by the model Marisa Berenson.

Cristóbal BalenciagaCristóbal Balenciaga Museoa

Prestige is more important than fame. Prestige remains, fame is ephemeral.

Cristóbal Balenciaga.

Credits: Story

Cristóbal Balenciaga: A Timeless Legacy

Organiser: Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa
Based on: AAVV. BALENCIAGA, Editorial Nerea S.A. San Sebastián, 2011
Texts: Miren Arzalluz.
© Fundación Cristóbal Balenciaga

Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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