To understand the work of Cristóbal Balenciaga is to understand Spain. With his use of silhouette, volume, and emotionally captivating fabrics that capture the essence of Spanish culture, Balenciaga paid homage to the country that meant so much to him. Now, others can pay tribute to the man whom fashion editor Diana Vreeland referred to as “a true Spaniard at heart” by visiting the Queen Sofía Spanish Institute’s “Balenciaga: Spanish Master” exhibit, which opened earlier this month and runs through Feb. 19. Vogue editor Hamish Bowles, who curated the exhibit, discussed Balenciaga’s legacy at a talk on Thursday at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
The exhibit is divided into sections that focus on the different influences seen in Balenciaga’s work. Some of these include Spanish art, regional dress, religious life, and bullfighting. His opulent 1967 evening ensemble of pink silk satin and black silk velvet, for example, draws heavily from Francisco de Goya’s 1797 painting “La Duquesa de Alba.” Here, Balenciaga took a simple black dress and turned it into a work of art, almost as if he were imitating Goya’s color palette and brushstrokes with his use of opulent fabrics.
In what Bowles called a “relentless pursuit of perfection and innovation,” Balenciaga quickly garnered a reputation as a legendary dressmaker and designer. His ethereal talent allowed him to create a fashion empire. At a young age, Balenciaga was able to open couturier salons in San Sebastián, Barcelona, and Madrid.
In spite of the praises he was receiving in Spain, Balenciaga was forced to take refuge in Paris during the upheaval of the Spanish Civil War. Nonetheless, Spain remained close to Balenciaga’s heart. The designer depicted his experience growing up in a fishing town through a 1953 ensemble of a fisherman’s blouse crafted out of unfitted cotton piqué. While the blouse was loose-fitting, the silhouette was entirely feminine, which challenged the norm in the fashion world at that time.
For Balenciaga, Bowles said, “Designing clothes was more than a craft or an art—it was a religious vocation.” Balenciaga’s experience as an altar boy heavily influenced his work, as he was always fascinated by the colors and geometrical structures of his beloved church. A black silk ottoman evening coat from his 1939 collection perhaps best demonstrates Balenciaga’s attraction to the piety and simplicity of the Catholic Church.
Though Balenciaga hated the gore of bullfighting, his respect for the bullfighter’s passion in the ring was unwavering. Carnations were a recurring motif in his work, as seen in a white taffeta evening dress from his summer 1956 collection. In addition to being the national flower of Spain, the carnation is a symbol for bullfighting, as spectators throw the flowers at the feet of a victorious matadors.
Much to the fashion’s world dismay, Balenciaga decided to retire in May 1968. He wanted to return to what he loved most after designing—his native Spain. Unfortunately, his voyage was cut short. With his death on March 23, 1972, Balenciaga left quite a legacy. He had come a long way from his early days as a designer—he first expressed his love for fashion by creating a coat for his beloved cat at age six. By the end of his life, as Bowles said, Balenciaga had “honed and perfected the act of haute couture.”