On Fashion

A Spanish master's expressive debt to the working class

Night moves: Balenciaga's evening designs were inspired by the poor and working class. The inspiration from clergymen's regal robes can be seen in the draped cardinal-red wrap of one gown (right).
Night moves: Balenciaga's evening designs were inspired by the poor and working class. The inspiration from clergymen's regal robes can be seen in the draped cardinal-red wrap of one gown (right). (Left And Center Photos From Balenciaga Archives, Paris; Right Photo Copyright Conde Nast, Frances Mclaughlin-gill/vogue)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2010

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.


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