Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895-1972), born in Guetaria, Spain, is one of the giants of twentieth-century fashion. His mother, a dressmaker, taught him needlework and dressmaking, and he apprenticed with tailors in Madrid and San Sebastian before opening his first dress shop in 1919. Balenciaga often journeyed to Paris, France, to observe the latest designs and purchase dresses for his shop. In 1936 he opened the House of Balenciaga in Paris. Here Balenciaga created haute couture, or high fashion, a phrase that pertains to ground-breaking clothing styles originated by designers and meant to be worn by the famous and wealthy.
Almost immediately Balenciaga won a sizeable American clientele. His popularity expanded after the end of World War II (1939–45), when the world again became style-conscious. Queens, princesses, duchesses, movie stars, and the wives of millionaires often were photographed for the pages of newspaper society columns and fashion magazines wearing the latest Balenciaga creation.
Balenciaga believed that the body and the clothing that covered it needed to coexist in harmony. In his dress designs he was determined that the cut of the material adhered to the shape of the body, and his designs generally did not radically alter from season to season. His daytime clothing was straightforward yet stylish: a simple black wool dress, for example, or a beige sleeveless blouse and charcoal gray two-piece suit with leather belt. His evening wear was more extravagant and playful, with his designs employing abundantly decorated fabrics, heavy beading, protruding shoulders, and broad, full skirts. A characteristic Balenciaga evening dress might be floor-length and strapless, trimmed in white floral lace on a black net base. It was worn over a gray silk taffeta petticoat, and came with a pink silk taffeta cummerbund, or waistband.
Quite a few of Balenciaga's designs were based on regional Spanish clothing. He employed the vivid colors of the Spanish countryside and was inspired by the outfits worn by flamenco dancers and bullfighters and the lengthy blouses and boots worn by Basque fishermen in northern Spain. He also was influenced by the art of the master Spanish artists, particularly Francisco Goya (1746–1828). It often was said that Balenciaga employed color in a manner similar to the way in which painters use paint to bring life to their subjects.
Balenciaga believed that a tastefully designed outfit needed to be topped off with the essence of a delicate perfume. With this in mind he marketed his initial fragrance in 1947, which he named Le Dix. Subsequent Balenciaga perfumes were called Rumba, Talisman, Quadrille, and, appropriately, Cristóbal.
Unlike later celebrity designers who were bent on self-promotion and became stars in their own right, Balenciaga remained aloof from the public. He was not known to mingle with his clients, and he regularly observed the introduction of his latest collection while perched behind a white curtain. He allowed himself to be known only to a fortunate few, which added to his mystique. Balenciaga designed his last collection in 1968 and died four years later.