Balenciaga: Master Craftsman

Known as 'The Master' of haute couture, Cristóbal Balenciaga revolutionised the female silhouette

By The Victoria and Albert Museum

Evening dress Evening dress (1960/1962) by Cristóbal BalenciagaThe Victoria and Albert Museum

Balenciaga: Master Craftsman

Known as ‘The Master’ of haute couture, Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895–1972) was one of the most revered and influential fashion designers of the 20th century. His clothes were characterised by their sculptural quality, deft manipulation of textiles and dramatic use of colour and texture.

Hitchcock Directing (1951) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

Gazar evening dress, Cristóbal Balenciaga (1962)The Victoria and Albert Museum

Spanish colours

Balenciaga was a Spaniard. Many of his most iconic designs show an affinity for Spanish heritage and costume – from the 'chaquetillas' worn by bullfighters to the traditional flamenco dress. A writer from Woman's Journal stated, "Inspirations from Spain! Balenciaga is young, Spanish and new to Paris. His beautiful clothes have the warm, colourful drama of his country."

Poster, 1964, From the collection of: The Victoria and Albert Museum
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Print, Troy Kinney, 1952, From the collection of: The Victoria and Albert Museum
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The style of dress traditionally worn by flamenco dancers is called 'bata de cola'. It hugs the dancer’s upper body, while the skirt flounces below, exaggerating her lower half.

Gazar evening dress, Cristóbal Balenciaga, 1962, From the collection of: The Victoria and Albert Museum
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The classic flamenco design is referenced in this shocking pink silk gazar evening dress, with three flounces and a long train attached to the back.

Evening Dress, embroidered silk organza (1960) by Cristóbal BalenciagaThe Victoria and Albert Museum

Balenciaga studied books on regional Spanish costume. This evening gown of silk organza with embroidery echoes traditional Valencian dress

Skirt suitThe Victoria and Albert Museum

Pursuit of perfection

Starting as a tailor's apprentice aged just 12, Balenciaga's early training set him apart from other couturiers. He was skilled in every stage of the making process: designing, cutting, tailoring and dressmaking. Sleeves were his obsession – he believed they were fundamental to the perfect fit. 

Skirt suitThe Victoria and Albert Museum

"He fitted each model himself; he chose each button, each colour for the lining. he didn't leave it to anyone: everything was done with detailed precision"
Emanuel Ungaro, former Balenciaga apprentice

Skirt suit Skirt suit (1954) by Cristóbal BalenciagaThe Victoria and Albert Museum

From the late 1940s, Balenciaga was renowned for his tailoring – especially his innovative sleeves and semi-fitted shapes. The well-cut Balenciaga suit became a wardrobe staple for fashionable women.

Paris Spring Fashions (1951-02) by Gordon ParksLIFE Photo Collection

New shapes

In the 1950s and 60s, Balenciaga changed the shape of women’s fashion, creating sculptural forms that stood away from the body, framing the figure rather than restricting it. Designs such as the 'sack', the 'balloon hem' and the 'baby doll' revolutionised the female silhouette, and continue to resonate today. 

Sack' day dress, wool Sack' day dress, wool, Cristóbal Balenciaga, 1957/1958, From the collection of: The Victoria and Albert Museum
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"It’s Hard to be Sexy in a Sack!" cried the Daily Mirror in 1957. The sack's straight line contrasted sharply with the still-dominant hourglass shape favoured by Balenciaga's main competitor, Christian Dior

Mini-dress, wool gabardine, André Courrèges, 1966, From the collection of: The Victoria and Albert Museum
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Though the sack initially shocked the fashion press, by hiding the waist altogether, it anticipated the popular shift dresses of the 1960s.

Baby Doll' cocktail dress, crêpe de chine, satin and lace, Cristóbal Balenciaga, 1958, From the collection of: The Victoria and Albert Museum
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Introduced in 1958, the ‘baby doll’ dress controversially hid the shape of the woman’s figure when made in opaque fabric. In this example, made of sheer, Chantilly lace, Balenciaga both reveals and conceals the body. The lace hangs loosely over a fitted inner sheath, which has zips on both sides to ensure a tight fit. 

Evening dress, corded silk Evening dress, corded silk, Cristóbal Balenciaga, 1960, From the collection of: The Victoria and Albert Museum
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The 'amphora line' recalled the curved shape of ancient Greek vases. The complex shape is formed by two pieces of fabric which join at the centre front, omitting the use of side seams – a signature for Balenciaga. The fabric continues around the back to fall in long gathered strips forming a decorative bow.

Evening dress Evening dressThe Victoria and Albert Museum

Historical inspiration

 "Almost air-borne" was how Vogue described this historically inspired evening dress. “Taffeta as thin as burned paper, shaped into harem skirts. Balenciaga’s source: the balloon skirts of the women of Ibiza, who look like clouds walking”. 

Balenciaga's historically inspired evening dressThe Victoria and Albert Museum

Skilful draping of the finest silk taffeta creates this effect. Great swathes of fabric, supported by hoops, are drawn towards the back from the centre front seam. The skirts are shaped through ‘bagging out’, which creates spacious voids which fill with air as the wearer walks. At the hem are ties which knot above the knee, lifting and ballooning the hem for yet more drama.

Evening dress Evening dressThe Victoria and Albert Museum

The interior boning and hidden leg ties are revealed through X-ray photography.

X-ray by Nick Veasey, 2016. © Nick Veasey.

Evening dress Evening dressThe Victoria and Albert Museum

The 'tulip' dress

This dress was dubbed the ‘tulip’ by the press. A signature for Balenciaga – the plain front reserves interest for the back of the dress, with its large bow reminiscent of Japanese kimono.

Balenciaga's 'Tulip' dressThe Victoria and Albert Museum

The 'Tulip' dress is made from stiff silk gazar which stands away from the body and provides the strong architectural shape. The fabric is joined at the back with no side seams – a signature of Balenciaga’s designs. A second panel of fabric hangs from the shoulders and is secured with bar tacks under the arms, creating the illusion of a loose, unstructured garment.

Evening dress Evening dressThe Victoria and Albert Museum

Underneath, however, a stiff corset ensures a secure fit. Spot the original pins left in the hem by the seamstress.
X-ray by Nick Veasey, 2016. © Nick Veasey.

Evening ensemble Evening ensembleThe Victoria and Albert Museum

The evening ensemble

This woman’s evening cape and dress ensemble typifies the increasing simplicity and abstraction of Balenciaga’s later work. It relies on a deep knowledge of the fabric – which determines the sculptural shape. Although strikingly modern, the design echoes the mantles and cassocks worn by Catholic clergy in Balenciaga’s Spanish homeland. 

Balenciaga's minimalist ensembleThe Victoria and Albert Museum

A virtuoso example of pattern-cutting, the main body of the dress is cut from a single piece of fabric joined at the centre back. The neck of the cape is painstakingly pieced to ensure a soft line which stands away from the body.

Evening ensemble Evening ensembleThe Victoria and Albert Museum

The X-ray reveals two dress weights at the front hem, which ensure the exact hang of the fabric.

X-ray by Nick Veasey, 2016. © Nick Veasey.

Cream Spiral Hat, silk Selection of hats by Cristóbal BalenciagaThe Victoria and Albert Museum

Statement hats

Ensembles were often paired with a striking hat which lifted the whole look and made it appear more avant-garde. “Balenciaga’s hats are an integral part of his fashion” reported the French fashion review 'Jardin des modes' in 1961. They ensure “that volumes are balanced and the silhouette is perfectly finished off”.

Cream Spiral Hat, silk Cream Spiral Hat, silk (1962) by Cristóbal BalenciagaThe Victoria and Albert Museum

The 'spiral' hat is worn like a pillbox hat, perching on top of the head. The clean lines and solid block colour exemplify the couturier's desire to strip things back to their simplest form.

Cream Spiral Hat, silk Cream Spiral Hat, silkThe Victoria and Albert Museum

Inside, it is secured by three internal hair-combs which support the dramatic sculptural spirals rising up at the back.

X-ray by Nick Veasey, 2016. © Nick Veasey.

Hat with black ostrich feathers Hat with black ostrich feathers (1955/1960) by Cristóbal BalenciagaThe Victoria and Albert Museum

This dramatic pom-pom hat of cut ostrich feathers belonged to socialite Gloria Guinness. She said, 'hats must be made on your head. A ready-made hat will not be you! While I am sitting for a dress, I sit ten minutes longer, and Monsieur Balenciaga works on a hat.'

Hat with black ostrich feathers Hat with black ostrich feathersThe Victoria and Albert Museum

X-ray by Nick Veasey, 2016. © Nick Veasey.

Shaping Fashion: Balenciaga's legacyThe Victoria and Albert Museum

Balenciaga's impeccable craftsmanship and singular vision remain an aspiration for many designers. This animation shows how his iconic designs have inspired the work of 20th and 21st century fashion designers – from those he trained and mentored to those who work in the same tradition or cite him as an influence on their work today.

Credits: Story

The Victoria and Albert Museum is the world’s leading museum of art and design, housing a permanent collection of over 2.3 million objects that span over 5,000 years of human creativity.

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion ran from 27 May 2017 – 18 Februray 2018 at the V&A

Exhibition sponsored by American Express

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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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