I spent last week in California with my friend Laura, vacationing and visiting family. Before heading up to take the waters in Calistoga, Laura and I went to the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park to see the Balenciaga in Spain exhibit. It was inspiring in a dozen ways.
I have this thing: when I am surprised by beauty I cry. At the Belenciaga show this happened to me after Laura and I had worked our slow way through the entry to the show, past placards and essential black gowns, beyond the vitrines with designs that even today look radical, fashion as pure form and concept, realized with exquisite tailoring and remarkable fabric choices, luxe and simple at the same time, heartrending in the depth of the black, breathtaking in the vibrancy of color. We saw that there was another room – oh good, there was more. It was the more that startled me to tears.
Black gowns, suits, coats and robes. Red velvet covered in multi-sized pearls. Silver net festooned with silver bows that should have been ridiculous but instead lent sublime elegance. Ruched silk, gauzy tulle, Chantilly lace, embroidered shawls, sequined sheaths, fabric that had been invented just for Cristobal Balenciaga. He was a close collaborator with his suppliers. And with the women he designed for, too.
See the black and white gown on the left above? Here it is on a model.
The silk gauze that has been pleated and cut into leaves is her glory, sexual and contained at the same time. He does this over and over again, with a satin band across the breast of a navy wool afternoon suit; a pink bow centered below the waist of a champagne evening gown, nested in lace. The man could iterate a bow.
He was big on the reveal as well. Somehow he managed form over function, the baldest references to the church (how did he get women to wear priest’s robes to parties?) and loved his women too. So much beauty. So much respect.
The form above, skirts artfully rucked up, was inspired by the women in the fish market of his native San Sebastien, who tied their overskirts up around their hips to keep them out of the wet, revealing their petticoats. You see it here, too for no good reason, but somehow necessary on this column of a dress.
The conventions of his home place permeate the work. Mantillas in lacy volume, lavish shawls, the bullfighter’s suit of lights; but the mourning black as well, the priest’s vestments, the nun’s habit – lovingly rendered as a wedding gown.
We worked our way through that room, scrutinizing the construction, deconstructing the intent, lusting after the clothing. We could both understand the Kentucky heiress whose wild tufted coat from the 60’s was on display. When she heard Balenciaga had retired, four years before his death, she took to her bed and did not get out of it for three days.