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Cristobal Balenciaga: The master Spanish designer's debt to the working class

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 27, 2010; 4:52 PM

NEW YORK - Without the fishermen and farmers, priests and church elders of his native Spain, designer Cristobal Balenciaga would have been at a loss for inspiration. The high-society ladies of the 20th century would have been a less elegantly attired lot. And ultimately, so would we.

The designer, who died in 1972, was acclaimed for his precise tailoring, a hands-on approach to his craft and a keen eye for cuts that flattered ladies of a certain age. During a career that inspired the likes of Hubert de Givenchy and Emanuel Ungaro, Balenciaga gave women the sack dress, the cocoon coat, the bathrobe coat, the bubble skirt and even the pillbox hat. He helped to establish much of the wardrobe that today sees women through their mature years when, all too often, trends and fads fail them.

Balenciaga was a master technician who could sculpt elegance in a single spare line. And many of his most memorable pieces are examples of just how beautiful restraint can be. His necklines gently embraced a woman's shoulders, giving her the graceful curvature of a swan. His extravagances were well considered - theatrical and grand - but not frivolous or overly self-indulgent. Few observers would describe his work as sexy, but it was sensual and smart.

But what is most striking about Balenciaga is the degree to which he was influenced by the peasants of his day, people whose clothes were born out of tradition and utility rather than aesthetic cravings.

A new exhibition at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute here underscores how much the working class of Spain affected the ways in which the swells of society presented themselves. It also serves as a reminder of how much the denizens of high-end design continue to rely on blue-collar style for sparks of creativity. Indeed, look no further than the onslaught of worker-inspired fetishes in contemporary menswear. All those plaid shirts and construction boots done up in fine cashmere and expensively aged leather may be worn by gentlemen who send e-mail for a living, but they were inspired by those who derived their wages from heavy lifting.

"Balenciaga: Spanish Master," which runs through Feb. 19, draws a direct line from the coarse tunics worn by fishermen to the fine linen pullovers that the designer crafted for ladies. Evening dresses were inspired by cooks' aprons. Elegant, turbanlike hats can be traced directly to the knotted head scarves used by working-class women to protect their hair. And the rough manner in which peasant ladies rolled up the backs of their skirts while they labored inspired elegant bustles intended for women who never had to work at all.

The exhibition was curated by Hamish Bowles, Vogue's European editor-at-large. Bowles was also the curator for the Costume Institute's 2001 show "Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years."

Bowles is a collector of couture and a fine fashion historian, but he is not an academic - which serves him well in this case. The great pleasure derived from the exhibition is not because Bowles burrows into the darkest corners of Spanish history and emerges with a dense dissertation on the role of Catholicism in the atelier, but rather because he takes the viewer on a brisk journey from one cultural signpost to another.

Like so many artists, Balenciaga absorbed bits and pieces of the world around him. He noticed the regal robes worn by clergymen, and he was mesmerized by the offerings of flowers thrown at the feet of the proud toreador. Those memories were resurrected in the draped cardinal-red wrap of an evening gown and in the print of bright pink carnations on a party frock.

The exhibition allows the joy in the clothes - not merely the effort that went into conceiving and creating them - to come to the fore. It also frees up the imagination so that viewers can consider the cultural hodgepodge and social dynamic out of which their clothes were crafted.

Bluejeans, so fundamental to the modern wardrobe, have working-class origins but they have been elevated by everyone from Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel to Nicolas Ghesquiere, who has revived the Balenciaga label. All those hipster utility pouches worn over trousers and miniskirts come directly from the tool belts favored by carpenters. Miuccia Prada turned fisherman's waders into runway fashion. And Stefano Pilati at Yves Saint Laurent owes a deep debt to modestly living nuns.

There's no suggestion in the exhibition that Balenciaga's clients believed that wearing a garment inspired by a working man would lend them an aura of honesty and humility. His customers were happily and unapologetically living at the top of the social heap.

Today, designers often employ the garb of the poor as a way of imbuing their work with an integrity and earnestness it would otherwise not have. The spring 2010 collection from Ralph Lauren, which would best be described as Dust Bowl chic, employed faded denim and frayed cotton as a statement of down-to-earth gentility and recession-era empathy.

Fancy labels - from Project Alabama to Luciano Barbera - love to talk about the artisans who help create the clothes, not just describing their skills but also telling tales of their village, their history, their humble lives.

Brands from Gucci on down the fashion food chain have helped themselves to the rich creativity bubbling up from disadvantaged neighborhoods. They've all tapped into the idea that the poor - or the rural or the unsophisticated - have a better grasp on truth and authenticity.

Contemporary designers don't just swipe a working man's clothes for their own aesthetic purposes; they also try to repurpose a bit of his heart and soul.

We might be better dressed because of such robber baron ways. But we are not necessarily better people.

Balenciaga, the society designer, was inspired by peasants' styles, but he left their character alone.

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