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« In Which Cristobal Balenciaga and Christian Dior Bring A New Dawn »

Cut Against the Bias


Of all the creative people I have come across, Cristóbal Balenciaga was easily the most dedicated to the business of making beautiful things. His work absorbed him totally, and there was no room in his life for anything or anyone else. When the cultural revolution of the 1960s, that disastrous decade, made it impossible (as he saw it) to produce work of the highest quality, he retired and quickly died of a broken heart.

Making elegant clothes is one of the most ephemeral but oldest forms of art. The oldest of all, and by its nature even more transient, was body painting, which antedated the art of painting in caves and on stones (itself 40,000 years old) by many centuries. Nothing whatever survives of that, and the clothes worn by our distant ancestors are found only in minute fragments. Indeed, until the sixteenth century complete outfits are the rarest of all artifacts to survive; and until quite modern times museums were lacking in even rudimentary collections of historic clothes. With historians and archivists fighting shy of the subject, one of the most important of human needs and interests was ill recorded. When H. G. Wells began his history of the world (1920s), purporting to put in the subjects conventional historians neglected, he asked the question: “Who did the dressmaking for the Carolingian court?” But he did not provide the answer.

He was born on 21 January 1895 in Guetavia, a Basque fishing village. Balenciaga’s father was a sailor and mayor of the village but died young, leaving his wife, Eisa, badly off. There were three children: Augustina, Juan Martin, and Cristóbal, the youngest. Eisa set up as a dressmaker and also taught the village women to sew. Cristóbal, age three and a half, joined the class and showed astonishing skill with a needle. For the next seventy-four years he could, and did, sew superbly, and kept his hand in by doing a piece of sewing (be it only darning) every day of his life. His first original work was a collar set with pearls for his cat.

The collar was noticed by a grand lady of the neighborhood, Marquesa de Casa Torres (the great-grandmother of Queen Fabiola), who became his first patron, getting him to copy one of her best dresses. At twelve he was apprenticed to a San Sebastián tailor to learn cutting (an art few dress designers really possess). At seventeen he went to Biarritz, across the border, to acquire French.

By 1913, at age eighteen, he was learning the women’s wear trade in San Sebastián, in a luxury shop, Louvre, where he became adept at fitting ladies and finding gowns for their personal requirements. Later, experts as well as customers marveled at the speed with which he went about his work, especially the difficult business of fitting models with scores of garments just before a collection (he could do 180 in a day).

The explanation is that from the age of three to his mid-twenties he learned thoroughly every aspect of his trade, building on his immense natural gifts — he had, for instance, strong, powerful, but also delicate hands and was ambidextrous; he could cut and sew with either hand. The one thing he was deficient in was draftsmanship: he could draw, in a way, and certainly got his ideas down on paper clearly, but as he progressed he employed skilled artists to interpret and embellish his designs.

In 1919 Balenciaga opened his first shop in San Sebastián, on a coast more frequented by high society than it is now — Chanel had been operating at Biarritz since 1915. His first major commission was a bridal gown (as was his last, done in retirement and depression for the duchess of Cádiz in 1972). He was soon in demand at court, in the last phase of the Spanish monarchy before its suspension in 1931, working for Queen Victoria Eúgenie and Queen Mother Maria Cristina. He opened a second house in Madrid and a third in Barcelona, all three called Eisa, after his mother. His Spanish business was run with the help of his sister, his brother, and other relatives, and was from first to last very much a family firm, though on a substantial scale: 250 people worked in the Madrid house alone, and a further 100 in Barcelona.

These three houses showed his own clothes; but he also imported clothes from Paris, going there frequently to choose them, from Worth, Molyneux, Chérait, Paquin, and Lanvin. Madame Vionnet, the most beloved of designers, was his inspiration. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, he had to shut up shop, and it was natural for him to transfer to Paris (the third floor of number 10 on the new Avenue George V) in 1937. When the war ended in 1939, he reopened in Spain and was soon dressing General Franco’s wife. But Paris thereafter remained his chief base, though it had to be financed from Spain. Clearly his French profits (if any) probably never matched his Spanish ones.

cristobal in 1950

In Paris, Balenciaga had a partner, Vladzio Zawrorowski d'Attainville, who designed hats, while Nicholas Biscarondo looked after the business side (as well as Balenciaga’s sexual needs). Balenciaga presented his first collection in August 1937, charging about 3,500 francs for a dress, and earning 193,200 francs in a month — a good start. For his second collection in January 1938 he secured the duchess of Windsor as a client; and for his third, in August 1938, Saks Fifth Avenue placed a big order. He was launched, and thereafter, until his retirement at the end of the 1960s, his was one of the major Parisian houses and he himself was regarded by the cognoscenti as the top dressmaker. In 1938 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Paris, and the dressmaking industry there celebrated the fact that England had a jolly and delightful but dowdy queen, no threat to their interests, by giving the two princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, a collection of dolls with a 300-piece wardrobe designed by Paton, Lanvin, Paquin, Vionnet, and Worth, with hats by Agnès, furs by Weil, and jewels by Cartier. The fact that Balenciaga was invited to contribute underlined his membership in the Parisian elite. But he declined, not wishing — then as evermore — to take part in mere publicity stunts, a characteristic assertion of his high seriousness.

Balenciaga soon had to contend with a new war, in September 1939, and shut down his Paris house for a time. When France surrendered to the Nazis and Paris was occupied, the fashion industry was in a dilemma: to carry on or not? To risk being accused of collaborating, or to fire all their employees?

In France the fashion industry was regarded as a vital exporter. In 1938–1939, one exported couture dress would pay for ten tons of imported coal, and a liter of exported perfume would pay for two tons of imported gasoline. The Germans were jealous of the French fashion industry, and both Hitler and Goebbels believed that under the Nazis’ “new order” for Europe, Berlin would usurp the role of Paris as the world center of fashion (and of art generally). When the Nazis seized Paris, German agents ransacked the offices of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture and carried off all its archives to Berlin. The idea was to recruit all the top cutters, sewers, and designers as forced labor and set up dress houses in Berlin.

Some people in the industry resisted: Michel de Brunhoff, head of the Paris Vogue, shut it down rather than work under Nazi supervision. Some collaborated. Chanel sucked up to the Nazis, lived openly with a young Nazi lover at the Ritz in Paris, and flourished mightily, accumulating vast sums in hard currency so that she was later able to flee to Switzerland when the Allies retook Paris, and gradually buy her way back to respectability by bribery.

Lucien Lelong, head of the Chambre Syndicale, steered a middle course. He negotiated with the Nazis; defeated the attempt to transfer Parisian fashion to Berlin; operated a two-city base, with Lyon, in unoccupied France, sharing the leadership with Paris; and by these means saved 97 percent of the industry and 112,000 jobs. The price was to hand over the industry’s Jews to the S.S., who deported them to death camps.

That done, the industry flourished during the war. Balenciaga did well, thanks to his connections with Hitler’s ally Franco. Reopening his house in September 1940, he was one of sixty firms that the Germans allowed to function. He produced ingenious outfits suited to wartime conditions — smart cycling outfits, for instance, consisting of short skirts, worn over tight purple jersey bloomers, with blazers and thick red stockings. His three Spanish shops, all successful and with access to materials unobtainable in France, reinforced the Parisian business, so he was in a strong position when the war ended.

At that point, France was devastated, bitterly divided, and impoverished. All we have left, said André Malraux, "are our brains and our artistic skills" — that is, intellectuals and designers. On 29 October 1945, Jean-Paul Sartre, on behalf of the first group, gave a public lecture in the Salles des Centraux, 8 Rue Jean Goujon, which launched his new philosophy, existentialism. Almost instantly it became world famous. For a time, at least, Paris became the center of the intellectual avant-garde.

The fashion industry took advantage of this recovery in prestige to launch its own program on 10 December 1946 at the “Théâtre de la Mode.” It showed 237 figures designed by Jean Cocteau and Christian Bérard, two clever, artistic jacks-of-all-trades closely connected to the dress industry. There was a spectacular display of evening gowns called “Les Robes Blanches,” in which established houses like Patou, Ricci, Desses, and Balenciaga joined with ambitious newcomers like Balmain.

All this was a preparation for the first proper postwar collection, in January 1947, when a sensation was caused by an unknown designer, Christian Dior. He produced long, full-skirted dresses, with emphatic hips, narrow waists, and rounded bosoms, using prodigious quantities of precious materials and thumbing his nose at wartime austerity. He himself called this style the “Corolla line,” but American fashion editors, coming to Paris in force for the first time since the 1930s, called it the “new look.” It electrified rich, fashion-conscious ladies of all nations, and infuriated the radicals as a symbol that the ruling class was back in the saddle. Nancy Mitford, who had recently published her bestseller The Pursuit of Love, wrote home from Paris: "Have you heard about the New Look? You pad your hips and squeeze your waist and skirts are to the ankle. It is bliss! People shout ordures at you from vans because for some reason it creates class feeling in a way no sables could."

Who was Christian Dior? And what was his relationship with Balenciaga? He was a Norman from Granville, born on 21 January 1905 and thus ten years younger than the Basque. His mother, Marie-Madeleine Juliette, had upper-class pretensions and wanted to move in “good society.” Young Dior, plump, pink- cheeked, with a receding chin and popping eyes, had his moth- er’s physique and her longing to move up the social ladder, though his inclinations were toward smart bohemia rather than le gratin. His father was a successful businessman who ran a fertilizer factory specializing in liquid manure. This, oddly enough, was also the trade of the father of Kenneth Widmerpool, the fictional antihero of Anthony Powell’s roman-fleuve, A Dance to the Music of Time, which began to appear in 1951. I asked Powell, who was almost exactly the same age as Dior, by then world famous, if that is where he got the idea, but he denied it vehemently.

The profits of liquid manure allowed Dior père to maintain a house in Paris, as well as in Normandy, and young Dior took full advantage of it. He could draw; he loved dressing up, with the help of his adoring mother; and he enjoyed designing fancy frocks for his sisters. He flatly refused to go into his father’s business. But his father vetoed the École des Beaux Arts, forcing young Dior to study for a career in diplomacy.

In Paris he quickly became a member of the elite artistic set, which included Picasso, Poulenc, Breton, Cocteau, Dérain, Radiguet, Bérard, Aragon, Milhaud, Léger, and the painter Marie Laurencin. The group buzzed around a nightspot called Le Boeuf sur le Toit. Dior never became a diplomat, though he dressed à l’Anglais with a bowler hat, tightly furled umbrella, and spats. He designed clothes for his female friends; attended masked balls; was at the opening of the Exposition des Arts-Décoratifs of September 1925, which finally buried art nouveau and launched art deco; and attended Shrovetide parties for homosexuals at the Magic City Music Hall.

Paul Poiret

In 1927 he was conscripted into the Fifth Engineer Corps, where he had to carry railway girders. He met the designer Paul Poiret, who declined to take him on. Instead he became a partner in an art business, the Galérie Jacques Bonjeau, his father putting up the money. The name was his partner’s, for Dior’s mother would not allow his own to be used: that was “trade.” The years 1928–1929, culmination of the boom of the 1920s, were good years for selling contemporary art, and as an art dealer Dior traded in the works of his friends “Bébé” Bérard, Raoul Dufy, Giorgio de Chirico, Joan Miró, and Alberto Giacometti. Then troubles came, and Dior later told me: “I never really got over them.” His brother was locked up in an insane asylum. His mother died. In 1931, in the Depression, his father went bankrupt. Virtually all the galleries, including Dior’s, failed.

Without this financial disaster, Dior would probably have spent his life as a middle-ranking art dealer, and died unknown. As it was, penniless, he kept up a brave front with an apartment at 10 Rue Royale, and hawked his designs as a freelancer to big- name houses like Nina Ricci, Schiaparelli, Molyneux, and Patou.

Dior was lanky for a Frenchman in the 1930s (5 feet 10 inches). He wore shiny, well-pressed suits and frayed spats. He had success with a design called Café Anglais, a houndstooth dress with petticoat edging, and he was offered a full-time though humble job with Robert Pignet in 1938; but he preferred to design the costumes for a production of The School for Scandal in 1939. He effected introductions to important figures at the Parisian end of the American fashion trade, like Marie-Louise Bousquet and Carmel Snow. In September 1939 he was conscripted for “farming duty”; a dim photo shows him wearing clogs and performing some rural job. Demobilized, and in the unoccupied zone, he worked in Cannes, where a rudimentary fashion trade had sprung up, again selling designs. Peace found him back in Paris, hovering on the fringes of the fashion industry.

Then came a unique stroke of fortune that transformed his life. In this book I do not, perhaps, pay enough attention to the role of luck in the creative process, especially to the way it sometimes allows a frustrated would-be creator to fulfill his destiny. Dior certainly believed in luck. He kept lucky charms in his pockets and fingered them constantly. He often visited fortune-tellers. To the end of his life, he regularly consulted an astrologer, Madame Delahaye, who cast his horoscope. A “wise woman” (as he said) had told him during the war, “Women will be very lucky for you. You will earn much money from them and travel widely.”

As of July 1946, however, Dior was a nobody in his forties, with nothing in his design career to suggest genius. Then, that month, he met Marcel Boussac, a textile magnate who was called “King Cotton.” Boussac wanted to own a big Paris fashion house to give prestige to his booming but humdrum business; and he had a crumbling house called Philippe et Gaston. Someone told him that Dior might be able to produce ideas — hence their meeting. Dior told him: "I am not interested in managing a clothing factory. What you need, and I would like to run, is a craftsman’s workshop, in which we would recruit the very best people in the trade, to reestablish in Paris a salon for the greatest luxury and the highest standards of workmanship. It will cost a great deal of money and entail much risk." This was, looking back on it, an amazing speech to make to a hard-nosed businessman, for Dior was extraordinarily shy, and his plump pink cheeks gave him a babyish look that put many people off, as did his protruding Bing Crosby ears. But Boussac liked the idea and offered to set Dior up immediately with an investment of 10 million francs (this was later increased to 100 million). At the last minute Dior, frightened, almost turned down the offer, but he was persuaded into it by his fortune teller.

Dior doubled the risk of opening a new house with his revolutionary “new look” (12 February 1947), a deliberate and defiant return to the most extravagant use of material since the grand old days of Worth before World War I. He spat in the face of postwar egalitarian democracy and said, in so many words, “I want to make the rich feel rich again.” His first collection, which purposefully sought to put the clock back and defy the conventional wisdom of the time — that luxury and privilege had gone for good — turned out to be, to the delight of Boussac, the most successful in fashion history. People who looked carefully at Dior garments were amazed that such brilliant craftsmanship and superlative materials were still to be had: Dior’s new shapes and gambits were merely, as it were, the artistic icing on a cake made with solid skill, with no expense spared and endless trouble taken. Dior recruited and continued to employ in his atelier the best people to be found in France, men and women who would die rather than turn out an article which was, in the tiniest degree, below the best in the world. The sewing was perfect, the cutting impeccable, the fitting infinitely patient and exact. The success of the house was immediate and prolonged, and the volume of business continued to grow steadily in the ten years up to Dior’s death in 1957, by which time the house employed 1,000 of the finest experts ever gathered together under one roof. During this decade Dior sold over 100,000 dresses made from 16,000 design sketches and using 1,000 miles of fabric.

How did Dior’s sudden, enormous, continuing success strike Balenciaga? We do not know. As Dior realized, and often remarked, there is a great deal of unpredictable chance in fashion. He thought himself spectacularly fortunate with his success in 1947. It has to be understood that couturiers never present just one line. They produce a variety of styles in each collection, and though for publicity purposes they stress a particular favorite, they know that in the end the magazine writers, the big buyers, and, above all, the individual customers will decide which is dominant. That certainly happened in February 1947. Just as, the year before, the media and elite intellectual society had saddled Sartre with “existentialism,” a word he himself had never hitherto used — and always disliked, or so he told me. So it was with Dior’s first collection — the “Corolla line” was singled out from a number of lines he presented and rebaptized by journalists (chiefly Carmel Snow) the “new look.”

As it happened, long, full skirts with padded hips—the essence of the new look — had been made by Molyneux just before the war, and by Balenciaga himself just after it. As Dior acknowledged, what told was the fact that his house was new and was funded by Boussac (who was seen as a significant and rather alarming figure at the time). But another factor, undoubtedly to his credit, was the unabashed joy with which he presented this return to luxury, the panache of his épater les travailleurs, and the fun of his well-rehearsed presentation. Once he could get away from his own shyness, Dior could be a mesmerizing symbol of good times ahead. That is what everyone, not least rich women, needed after seven years of austerity and horror.

Balenciaga, so far as I know, never said a word about the “new look,” or Dior’s triumph. He never commented on other designers. He certainly approved of the high standards of workmanship which Dior insisted on, and which matched his own. That, in Balenciaga’s view, was what haute couture was all about. He did say, once, that he envied Dior’s skill as an artist. Dior was stunningly quick with pen and brush — "I often do several hundred drawings in two or three days," he said — and some of the results were striking. By contrast, Balenciaga had to rely on the draftsmanship of his assistant Fernando Martinez. But draftsmanship must have been the only skill of Dior’s that he wished he possessed. In every other way he was immeasurably superior.

On the question of quality, indeed, Balenciaga sometimes felt that Dior was unrealistic, going too far, precisely because he could not (like Balenciaga) sew, cut, and make a dress himself and was not fully aware of the sheer effort involved in superlative sewing.

Christian Dior demonstrates the new short skirt length, 1953

A curious episode, related to me at the time, illustrates this. Balenciaga hardly ever dined out, except with one or two old friends. One evening he was the guest of Madame Hérnon and her husband. She was one of his customers, though she also patronized Dior, and on this occasion she wore a Dior dress that buttoned down the back—or should have. Her maid was on vacation; she herself could not button the dress alone; and her husband, summoned to help, flatly refused: "I won’t get involved in that absurd garment—get your friend Monsieur Cristóbal to do it when he comes." So that is what happened. The dress had no fewer than thirty-six tiny buttons at the back, each covered with brilliant Lyon silk. Balenciaga, with his wonderful fingers, succeeded in doing it up, but with some difficulty. Somewhat exasperated, he said, “Twenty-four buttons would have been quite enough to preserve the fit of the dress perfectly. But thirty-six! He is a madman! C’est de la folie furieuse!” There followed other remarks in demotic Basque, the purport of which Madame Hérnon could only surmise.

Balenciaga may have felt that Dior did not take the craft seriously enough. By his reckoning, Dior, who could not actually make a dress, was not a couturier, merely a designer. (That was true of virtually all the others, then and since. Chanel claimed that she could sew beautifully. But then she had no respect for truth.)

chanel in 1913

Balenciaga possibly thought that Dior got too much sheer pleasure out of high fashion, which in his own view was an art on a par with painting, sculpture, and architecture, to be taken with the utmost seriousness. It was not something in which you could faire le ponchinelle, "do a Picasso" (in those days Picasso often called himself the “clown of art”). But Balenciaga certainly did not regret the success of the new look. He was a businessman, and a very astute one, and he recognized that it had done wonders for the Parisian fashion industry and that everyone involved in it, himself perhaps most of all, had benefited from the publicity. He certainly did not see Dior as a rival, and he had no fear that his own claims to excellence would be overlooked. Dior dressed the rich, Balenciaga the very rich. During the 1950s, a woman “graduated” from Dior to Balenciaga. And equally, Dior was never jealous of Balenciaga’s superior skills. He recognized them and revered the man who possessed them. He always called Balenciaga maître.

In December 1948, Balenciaga’s partner, Vladzio, died at age forty-nine. The master was so upset that he seriously considered retiring and returning to Spain. The word got around, and Dior went to see him on Avenue George V and begged him to stay: "We need your example in all that is best in our trade." Dior suggested, instead, that Balenciaga should buy Mainbocher’s old premises next door, which were up for sale, and expand. Balenciaga, touched, did exactly as Dior recommended.

Balenciaga's best days were in the 1950s, before the "cultural revolution" of the 1960s. He regarded making dresses as a vocation, like the priesthood, and an act of worship. He felt that he served God by suitably adorning the female form, which God had made beautiful. His approach was reverential, indeed sacerdotal. His premises reflected his own vocational tone. In those days, haute couture shops varied in atmosphere greatly. Molyneux tried to make his like an aristocratic London town house. You rang a bell and an English butler answered the door and ushered you in. Dior’s premises were grand but busy, with much va-et-vient, like a big salon on one of the hostess’s "days."

Maison et musée de Christian DiorDior himself, affable and gregarious, could be seen roaming about, wearing a white overall over his well-cut Savile Row suit. Bonjour, patron! sang out his women workers, always pleased to see him. By contrast, Maison Balenciaga was like a church, indeed a monastery. Marie-Louise Bousquet said, “It was like entering a convent of nuns drawn from the aristocracy.” Courrèges, who worked there, described the atmosphere as “monastic in both an architectural and a spiritual sense.” Emanuel Ungaro remembered: “Nobody spoke.” If it was absolutely necessary to speak, the voice had to be hushed or reduced to a whisper. Security was intense. It was difficult not just to get in at all but to move from one room to another, for all entrances were guarded by fierce females. There was a porter in blue, but the real keeper of the gate was a dragon called Véra.

Indeed, it was a place of women — like a convent vowed to silence (as is usual in Spain) — but any women who were not models or seamstresses were dragons. Madame Renée was the head dragon, who ensured that patrons came only by appointment. Her saying was: Les dames curieuses ne sont pas bienvenue ici. Unwelcome—that was putting it mildly. The only dame curieuse who ever got past Véra and Renée was Greta Garbo. (She was dressed by the despised Hollywood couturier Adrien.)

Adrien & Garbo

The impression should not be given that the place was drab. In fact the decorations in the window done by Janine Janet were the best in Paris, though they had nothing to do with women’s fashions, featuring birch sculptures of fauns, unicorns, and similar figures. Inside were tiled floors, Spanish-style; oriental rugs; damascene curtains; ironwork fittings; and a great deal of red Cordoba leather, varied with brown, black, and white leather in the showrooms. The elevator was lined with leather, too, and contained a sedan chair. Balenciaga did a limited trade in scarves, gloves, and stockings; but he sold only two (very expensive) perfumes: Le Dix and La Fuite des Heures. He gave the impression that he thought such things vulgar and irrelevant to his main work, and permitted them reluctantly, since they were highly profitable. He never did anything to court popularity. He never gave interviews (except once, to the London Times, when he had decided to retire). He never went out in society.

There are virtually no photographs of him and none at work, though we know he wore black trousers and sweater and used a curious curved table on which to sew or cut material, with rulers and a square as aids. All the rooms in his atelier, as noted above, were closely guarded, and his own room was totally inaccessible except to the most senior staff. At one time it was widely believed he did not actually exist and that Balenciaga was a pseudonym.

His remoteness was not a pose but part of his dedication to his art. He worked fanatically hard when he was actually in Paris. Each collection had between 200 and 250 designs, all of which he completed himself, since he had few trusted assistants and often turned down promising juniors, such as the seventeen-year-old Hubert de Givenchy. He had the manners of an old-fashioned cardinal under Pius XII. He was sometimes angry, but his anger expressed itself in irritable foot movements, never in violence of any kind. He never raised his voice. Indeed silence was his norm. Ungaro said: “There was something noble about him.” When he was satisfied with his designs, and the clothes were made up, each outfit had four fittings: one for materials, and three for shape, using models. In just one day he could get through fitting sessions for 180 outfits by dint of intense concentration and by working with a team who knew exactly what his gestures signi fied, for few words were spoken.

It was said that he disliked women, but there was no evidence that he disliked them more than men. He saw them as racehorses: “We must dress only thoroughbreds.” He used to quote Salvador Dalí: "A truly distinguished woman often has a disagreeable air."

Yet he was a woman's designer, through and through. His fundamental principle as a dressmaker was to make women happy. “He liked to make a duchess of sixty look forty, and the wife of a millionaire tradesman look like a duchess.” His clothes were, above all, comfortable to wear, an amazing fact — and it was a fact — considering their grandeur, their complexity, and the magnificence of their materials. His designs accommodated a well-rounded stomach, a short neck, and overly plump arms and shoulders, and left space for ropes of pearls and for bracelets. Comfort was achieved by great ingenuity of design and attention to what the duke of Windsor called the "underpinnings." (But of course Balenciaga never used pins or extraneous stiffening of any kind.) Balenciaga argued that if a woman was comfortable in her clothes, she was confident; and if she was confident, she was at her best and wore her clothes with style. He said that some designers put a strain on the client so that she was glad to get the dress off at the end of an evening. He wanted his clients to be reluctant to part with their clothes, which had become an integral part of the body, a second skin.

His second principle was permanence. While Dior made changes twice a year, Balenciaga was always fundamentally the same, especially in his splendid evening dresses, which were his specialty. A woman could buy one of them as an investment because properly looked after, it would last forever. In 2003, I saw a young woman of eighteen wearing a superb dress. “Is that not a Balenciaga?” “Yes. It belonged to my grandmother.” He wanted his dresses to be bequeathed, as they were in imperial Spain.

In a sense he was antifashion. He was impressed by the way dresses, hats, and even accessories in certain old masters remained elegant after hundreds of years, and he constantly got ideas from them. From Velázquez’s Queen Marianna of Austria (in the Louvre) he stole the idea of a stiff bodice sliding out of the skirt. Another Louvre picture, La Solana, gave him the inspiration for an entire outfit: black dress, white lace mantilla, masses of dark hair with a huge pink satin rose planted in or on it. His favorite source was Zurbarán’s saints. He used the Santa Ursula in Strasbourg, the Santa Casilda in the Prado, and especially the enchanting Santa Maria (there are versions in Seville and in the National Gallery in London), seen by the painter as a rich bourgeoise, wearing her hat and dress with flair and carrying an enchanting straw shopping bag. That bag became, and remains, a classic.

He borrowed the full-length pinkish satin twice from Manet’s "Femme au Perroquet" at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and he was not above raiding paintings by more vulgar artists, such as Monet’s Les femmes au Jardin at the Musée d’Orsay. But he was never a plagiarist: he transformed touches of the old masters into contemporary clothes, and women often did not “get” the reference until it was pointed out to them. One leading customer, who not only bought a dress but faithfully followed Balenciaga’s strict advice on how to wear it (or “present it,” as he said), was surprised to be told by a society magazine that she looked like Goya’s "Narcissa Baranana" at the Metropolitan Museum.

I recall some critics in the 1950s who argued that Balenciaga, a “great artist,” was “above” his clients. They included Hollywood figures like Ginger Rogers, Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich, Mrs. Ray Milland, and Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock, as well as the superrich like Doris Duke, Margaret Biddle, Marella Agnelli, Mrs. Paul Mellon, Barbara Hutton, and Mrs. Harvey Firestone, as well as (of course) the duchess of Windsor and paragons of le gratin. But it was Balenciaga’s view that his clothes, properly put on (and it was rare for a customer not to follow his rules), raised the wearer into a classless, ageless empyrean, a superculture where a woman’s body, even if old and defective in places, entered into what he called a “mystic marriage” with his clothes. For this reason he did not, like some designers, expect a client to suppress her personality; he expected her to emphasize it — he rejoiced when a woman “added to” his work. Strict and implacable in many ways, he had a certain creative modesty which allowed him to see that his dresses only became alive when worn, and that the wearer was needed to complete the creative act.

Balenciaga’s third principle was the central importance of material in his designs. Textile and lace manufacturers, embroiderers, and specialists in gauze and dyes lined up for appointments to see him and often collaborated with him to produce completely new, complex materials. He could dye himself, and often did. His skill at embroidery enabled him to pick out the occasional genius. He dealt with large firms and tiny Lyon or Como workshops alike, and to him a first-class textile creator was an equal.

Gustave Zumsteg created for him in 1958 “Gazar” and in 1964 “Zagar,” a refinement, which miraculously combined fine texture, thickness, and stiffening so that Balenciaga could sculpture dresses made of it without artificial support. Lida and Zika Ascher from Prague made for him special materials, notably a mohair and chenille, ravishing and of incomparable luxury. But Balenciaga never allowed his sensuality to ignore practicalities. When Zika Ascher showed him a new blend of mohair and nylon thread, thick and spongy, Balenciaga admired it but asked, “Will it take a buttonhole?” “Oh, yes!” “We shall see.” He took the sample away into his sanctum and returned a few moments later, with a superbly sewn buttonhole — one of the most difficult tasks a seamstress faces, especially with intractable material. Gérard Pipart, inspecting it, exclaimed, "A buttonhole by Balenciaga! It should be framed." The master gave his wan Spanish smile. He often sewed to keep his hand in, and for every collection he designed, cut out, sewed, and finished, entirely himself, a "little black dress," usually of silk, sold like the others but never identified as his.

Balenciaga used a variety of lace: chantilly, guipine, the heavy chenilles, and the so-called blond. Occasionally he reinforced the thread with horsehair. He patronized the best embroiderers in the world. In 1966 Lizbeth, head of her profession, made for him a pair of bolero pants with flowers of pearl and mother-of-pearl. The garment to which it belonged might last a millennium, if worn “with discretion” (a key couturier’s phrase). He discovered and often used an artist called Judith Barbier to create with him a fishnet cloak of knotted white velvet, using parachute silk to make pink-and-white flowers for the entire outfit. The finest of his creations were essentially cooperative efforts using textile creators and specialists like Barbier to bring to life his conceptions.

in Vogue, 1963

Happily, many of these marvelous dresses are preserved (some were shown at a retrospective mounted in Lyon in 1985), so we can still see what marvels Balenciaga could create, with thick faille ribbed with velvet, lacquered satin sewn with tiny gemstones, organza sewn with Barbier flowers, Ottoman silk with gold embroidery, ostrich feathers on figured tulle, or a gold lamé sari he made for Elizabeth Taylor. Using such sensational materials Balenciaga also did many daring things, such as bunching a skirt or yoking sleeves so as to dominate both the front and the back of the garment.

The essence of his creations was the work of human hands, bringing into existence the images projected on paper from his powerful and inventive brain. The archives of his firm survive intact, and they reveal the extent to which everything was done by hand: the exact sums paid by his celebrated clients; dates for fittings and deliveries, all entered in fine pen-and-ink; materials supplied in detail, and prices paid; and countless pieces of paper showing the process whereby each garment was created, in ink and pencil and crayon, with pieces of the material used pinned on by the master sketcher — a lost world of agile, tireless fingers, before the computer or even the typewriter took over.

That world was disappearing even in Balenciaga’s lifetime. The death of Dior in 1957 was the final fatal blow. Dior was a man who loved rich food, he had fought a constant but losing battle against surplus flesh, and his heart inevitably failed. His funeral was a historic gathering of high fashion: only Chanel, who had returned from her exile in Switzerland and brazenly reopened her shop four years before, failed to pay tribute. On prie-deux, in front of the congregation, knelt two striking figures, symbols of a passing era: Jean Cocteau and the duchess of Windsor.

After Dior’s death, Balenciaga seemed an increasingly lonely figure, working backward rather than forward. He was rich, with houses and apartments in Paris, at La Reynerie near Orléans, in Madrid, in Barcelona, and in Iguelda in his own Basque country. This last house was as near as he ever came to making a home. He designed beautiful dresses for the maidservants, sometimes sewing them himself. The centerpiece of the house was a vast antique wall table with his mother’s old Singer sewing machine in solitary state, beneath a vast and fearsomely realistic crucifix. His apartment in Avenue Marceau displayed his halfhearted collections: Spanish keys in gilded bronze, ivory cups and balls. There were eighteenth-century chairs in satin upholstery, dyed a certain dark green by the master himself.

Balenciaga was seventy in 1965, and he found the 1960s increasingly unsympathetic as horrors of taste and behavior were unveiled. In the 1950s he had been generally regarded as the greatest dressmaker in the world. But he worked in fashion; he was fashion; and it is of the nature of fashion to turn every one of its heroes, sooner or later, into a museum piece. In the 1960s he was increasingly criticized. His dresses were said to be so overwhelming that they “dwarfed the woman.” He was “not for the young.” He refused to go into the pret-à-porter trade — "I will not prostitute my talent." He hated miniskirts. He felt that "youth has no time for grand couture and the craftsmanship on which it rests."

Yves St. Laurent

He never commented, but he looked down his nose at designers like Yves St. Laurent, taking over at Dior, who was “trendy” (a new Anglo-Saxon expression that Balenciaga found abhorrent). In 1966, to defy the trend, he lengthened skirts, but the big New York buyers would not take his wares. In 1967 he appeared to capitulate by making short tutu dresses and trouser suits, and did good business. But in 1968 he was uncompromising again and sold nothing wholesale. His individual clientele flourished as ever, but he was himself an increasingly disillusioned and melancholy figure. The événements of 1968 — the student revolt hailed everywhere as a new dawn — he saw as a display of savagery and an assault on civilization, a view which he shared with the perceptive philosopher Raymond Aron and which proved to be right.

Balenciaga continued designing for a time, and it is significant that his dresses of the late 1960s — against the trend; "cut against the bias," as he put it — are now the ones most admired, collected, and copied. But his heart was no longer in the game, and he found that the new tax rules and labor regulations made it increasingly disagreeable to run his business. Abruptly, like de Gaulle, he retired, shut down his Paris house completely (there was no possible successor), and returned to Spain.

He died in 1972, sad and lonely, a great artist broken by the years, one of the many casualties of the lunacy of the 1960s — along with institutions such as the Society of Jesus, the old-style university of scholars and gentlemen, the traditional rules of sexual decorum, artistic reticence, and much else.

High fashion, begun by Worth, essentially ended with Balenciaga’s retirement, and with it went a tradition not only of civilized, and occasionally inspired, design, but of craftsmanship of the highest possible standards. The fashion industry continues, polycentric and multicultural, and on an enormous scale as the world becomes wealthier and travel easier. But it is most improbable that the kind of dresses Balenciaga created in the 1950s and 1960s will ever be made again. They are, indeed, museum pieces to inspire women or, among the fortunate descendants of his clients, heirlooms to be treasured and, on grand occasions, flaunted.

Paul Johnson is a British historian, and the preceding excerpt is from his book Creators, which you can purchase here.

"Beauty" - The Shivers (mp3)

"I Would Like To Call It Beauty" - Corinne Bailey Rae (mp3)

"Long White Dress" - Tracey Thorn (mp3)

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Reader Comments (5)

The photo captioned "Chanel in 1913" is not of Chanel herself (which seems to be implied) but of Edita Vilkeviciute, in a 2008 film by Karl Lagerfeld.

Several photos of Chanel in that period appear in Edmonde Charles-Roux's book "Chanel and her world."

January 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Denoon

I'm curious about the sources for much of the "inside" information on Balenciaga's personal life and business. Perhaps you knew him personally - if so, maybe that could be clarified.

May 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBen Casement Stoll

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June 8, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlouboutin
glad i did not read this until AFTER i had finished my book ("Mona") about balenciaga and countess bismarck, perhaps his best customer, not just financially, but in getting what he was all about, and possibly the closest thing he had to a muse besides the female sex as a whole.

balenciaga was nothing short of deity himself in his attitude to work, art and women, and his example of hard-work and complete integrity in every undertaking stands tall for us today. no wonder "Mona" did not leave her boudoir for three days when he closed up shop.

in her old stables on long island, is a museum dedicated to my former next door neighbor. on one wall is a bill for lingerie from balenciaga (a fill in? enough for one season?) dated 1957, for $11,500, a pretty significant sum for underwear even today. paul johnson was correct when he stated that dior's clients were the rich, and balenciaga's the super rich: "Mona" was the most beautiful, best dressed and richest woman in the world.
August 1, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteredward c. young
Superb writing and piece.
September 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJorge Socarras

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