“He was the master of us all,” said Christian Dior about the legendary Spanish designer Cristóbal Balenciaga. According to fashion editor Diana Vreeland, he “brought the style of Spain into the lives of everyone who wore his designs.” Balenciaga constantly referenced Spanish culture and art history, reviving historical techniques and styles – and reinterpreting them into such masterfully modern creations that his contemporaries bowed down in awe.
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The aesthetic of the Habsburg court can be seen in the velvety blacks and rich embroideries of Balenciaga’s eveningwear. His chromatic boldness comes from the palette of El Greco, certain silhouettes from the canvases of Velázquez. The pure shapes and forms that earned him the nickname ‘the architect of haute couture,’ have their origins in the vestments of Zurbarán’s saints and friars. Earthier influences from flamenco and bullfighting are transformed into elegant cocktail gowns and boleros.
Balenciaga’s appreciation for art and fashion had been shaped at an early age in the home of the Marchioness of Casa Torres, where his mother, Martina, worked as a seamstress. The Marchioness was a supremely elegant woman who dressed in the very best couture from Charles Frederick Worth, Jeanne Paquin and Jacques Doucet. The family also owned one of the best collections of Spanish art in the country, which included masterpieces by Velázquez, Pantoja de la Cruz, El Greco and Goya.
Spanish painters were really passionate about fashion and paid enormous attention to it – Eloy Martínez de la Pera
“When we walk through 400 years of Spanish art we realise that the painters were really passionate about fashion and paid enormous attention to it. That’s something Balenciaga realised quite early,” says Eloy Martínez de la Pera, curator of Balenciaga and Spanish Painting at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid.
Thanks to the patronage of the Marchioness, for whom he designed his first gown at the precocious age of 12, Balenciaga was soon able to turn his passion for fashion into a successful career as a couturier in Spain. His illustrious clientele included royalty and aristocracy. However, any references to the art he also loved were conspicuous by their absence in the early stages of his career.
It took the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, which broke out in 1936, and Balenciaga’s subsequent relocation to Paris, to instil in him the desire to evoke the artistic heritage of his country in his designs.
“All the Spanish influence on his couture is from the moment he arrived in Paris. It is in Paris that he misses Spain,” says Martínez de la Pera.
His first collection in 1937 included a black “so black that it hits you like a blow. Thick Spanish black, almost velvety, a night without stars, which makes the ordinary black seem almost grey,” wrote Harper’s Bazaar in awe.
“Black is in a way the archetypal colour of Spain because of the court of Phillip II,” explains Martínez de la Pera. The 16th-Century monarch, who ruled over much of Europe, popularised the colour throughout his domain, helped in no small part by the portraits of contemporary style icons such as Juana of Austria and Isabelle de Valois. “They were the first influencers in the history of fashion. Whatever Juana of Austria wore everybody in the other courts wanted to copy,’ explains Martínez de la Pera.
Balenciaga took the colour and made it resolutely his own. Designs such as a 1943 evening gown in black satin offset by ivory panels subtly referenced those worn by Juana or Isabelle, and proved every bit as desirable. Austerely elegant and resolutely Spanish, they once again made the troubled country the height of fashion.
Art of fashion
More ostentatious court fashions also offered inspiration. Two years after his debut he created a series of gowns directly inspired by Velázquez’s 1650s portraits of the Infanta Margarita Teresa of Austria and her ladies in waiting. The skirts proved so wide and heavy that a modern version of a farthingale was required to support them.
Balenciaga made use of Paris’s world-class artisans to transform the lavish embroideries seen in portraits by Alonso Sánchez Coello and Juan Pantoja de la Cruz into stunningly contemporary creations in sequins, beading and brocade. Elegant floral bouquets from the still-life painting that was popular at court would also reappear as elaborate flower appliqués on evening coats or embroidered on gowns in silk thread and sequins.
Although Goya’s unique take on court and aristocratic painting at the end of the following century was often less than flattering to his subjects, the artist’s evident delight in the depiction of lace and muslin clearly had an impact on Balenciaga’s more delicate creations. He “used the most beautiful lace from Calais and Chantilly in order to create these dresses that make you feel dressed up but also dressed down – it was pure seduction,” enthuses Martínez de la Pera.
He used the cobalt blues, lime yellows and dusty pinks in which El Greco dressed his saints
The religious painting of El Greco and Francisco de Zurbarán would have an equally great impact on Balenciaga’s aesthetic.
He used the cobalt blues, lime yellows and dusty pinks in which El Greco dressed his saints to create stunningly elegant evening wear for a wealthy, earthly elite. The designs caused a stir among Paris’s fashion cognoscenti, who were unused to such divine colours.
“Harold Koda, the curator of the Met, said that when Balenciaga arrived in Paris at the end of the ‘30s he brought such a beautiful palette of colours that the Parisian girls had to completely change their uniform,” says Martínez de le Pera.
In Zurbarán, Balenciaga saw an artist whose attention to detail was as great as his own. The painter sourced the best fabrics and silks from Venice in order to select the perfect combination of colours, patterns and fabric in which to dress his saints. Zurbarán was so renowned for the mastery in which he replicated the different cloths and weights of fabrics that Chanel considered him one of the first fashion designers.
Balenciaga was particularly drawn to the simple cut and drape of the monks’ habits, which inspired his revolutionary architectural styles. “The most iconic wedding dresses of Balenciaga are mixed up with these paintings,” says Martínez de la Pera. These include the gown he designed for the Marchioness of Casa Torres’s own granddaughter, Fabiola, when she married King Baudouin of the Belgians in 1960. The elegant robe in heavy silk, trimmed with white mink, would become one of the most celebrated of his career.
The earthy delights of the flamenco and bullfight whose aesthetic appears in the paintings of 20th-Century artists such as Ramón Casas I Carbó and Balenciaga’s close friend Ignacio Zuloaga would for some became clichés of Spanish identity. In Balenciaga’s hands however they become supremely sophisticated evening attire. A velvet bolero jacket is lavishly embellished with passementerie (elaborate trimmings) and jet beads, while the ripples of a flamenco-inspired gown cascade seductively around the skirt.
Although Balenciaga closed his house in 1968, preferring to bow out while still at the height of his powers, he was persuaded to come out of retirement four years later to dress General Franco’s granddaughter for her wedding to Prince Alfonso of Bourbon.
In its elegant simplicity the gown he created once again evoked the linear purity of Zurbarán’s friars. The greatest painter of fabric and cloth in the history of Spanish painting joined with the greatest couturier Spain will ever see. A fitting finale for a master.
Balenciaga and Spanish Painting is at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid until 7 September
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