Overview

Often called “the couturier’s couturier,” Balenciaga is the designer most revered by other fashion designers. From his first runway collection in 1937 through the closure of his Paris salon in 1968, Balenciaga had as his clients some of the most influential trendsetters of the day. Balenciaga in Black features more than one hundred pieces from the collections of the Palais Galliera, the City of Paris’s museum of fashion, and from the Archives Balenciaga. The carefully selected costumes and accessories, all made by hand in the haute-couture ateliers of this fashion genius, share one major feature: they are all black. Black, because Balenciaga’s sources of inspiration, the spiritual underpinnings of his work, were the folklore and traditions of his native Spain. The aim of the exhibition is to suggest a reassessment of the great couturier’s work and to convey an understanding of Balenciaga’s artistry in manipulating black fabrics, embroideries, and lace—magically transforming these materials into exquisite garments.

For Balenciaga, black was more than a color or even a noncolor; it was a vibrant matter, by turns opaque or transparent, matte or shiny—a dazzling interplay of light, showcased as much through the luxurious quality of the fabrics as through the simplicity of a garment’s cut. From the never-before-seen black prototypes to the most abstract forms from his later collections, Balenciaga’s use of infinite shades of black emphasizes the essential shapes, dense volumes, and astonishing silhouettes of his unique creations. His timeless and expertly executed clothes, with impeccably composed adornments of lace, embroidery, silk, satin, fringes, beads, and sequins, continue to inspire modern fashion.

Structured Volumes
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Balenciaga was an expert in cutting fabric, having trained as a tailor with Casa Gomez and worked as head of the ladies’ tailoring department of the Au Louvre department stores in San Sebastián. The cut of the fabric defines a garment’s contours and creates the desired shape. With proportions calculated to the nearest millimeter, Balenciaga’s coats and structured suits hug the figure. Bretelle (vertical slimming) seams and princess seams, darts and gathers were carefully chosen to give curves to certain volumes or to hollow them out. The sleeves were the object of equally painstaking research, as their construction defines the shoulder line, which is responsible for the balance of the garment. Balenciaga’s assiduous attention to detail can be seen in his mounted or kimono sleeves, which were sometimes made in three pieces or given a gusset for extra comfort, as well as in his collars, which were sewn with a pick stitch for more roll and set away from the neck to frame the exposed nape.



Abstract Volumes

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Balenciaga’s research and experiments gradually led him towards a deconstruction of traditional forms and the invention and elaboration of increasingly abstract figures. The garment became more than an envelope and grew to be independent of the body. Balenciaga’s choice of black for his creations was a clear move towards geometry. Balenciaga’s choice of black for his creations was a clear move towards geometry, as seen in the great wool or velvet coats surmounted by high collars reminiscent of imperious Cubist architecture.

The designer’s use of gazar and zagar, fabrics specially developed for him in 1958 and 1968 respectively by Gustav Zumsteg, who ran the Swiss textile firm Abraham—inspired him to yet more abstraction. These fabrics are feather light, full, and unpredictable. The master couturier brought all his sensitivity to bear on them, imbuing the fabrics with energy and movement and creating completely new figures. The most emblematic garments were designed in black, like the cone-shaped dress pinched in at the shoulders and held up by nothing more than two jeweled straps, or the tall column ending in a draped hood, as if it were cut and sculpted from a single block of stone.

  Draped Black
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In order to get the best out of a fabric, Balenciaga would adapt his technique to its qualities. The weight, thickness, hang, and feel of a fabric would determine how he would cut, mold, or drape it. He used black textures to accentuate the play of shadows or to emphasize a shape. He would hint at movement with a piece of soft, flowing crêpe; taffeta he would crumple, letting its lightness and soft sheen suggest figures with constantly changing outlines. With seersuckers, the flounces would be secured with a drawstring rather than gathered. For untamable gazar and even more stubborn zagar silks, Balenciaga would suggest rounded pleats that pick up pearly reflections from the light. The blackness of these pleats could give dramatic volume to the skirt of a dress with a low, below-the-hips waistline or heighten the effect of a plunging neckline.

 


Contrasting Black 
 
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The duality of light and shadow is a fundamental aspect of artistic expression in Spain. Inspired by this tradition, Balenciaga arranged elements of his garments to showcase the opposition between the two essential qualities of black, designated by the Latin words niger—“brilliant black,” the black of elegance and ceremony—and ater—“matte black,” the color of darkness and mourning.

With the dull, matte surfaces of wool or deep, inky velvet, the couturier juxtaposed the brightness of smooth, shining satin ribbons or the silky reflections of taffeta. The contrasting nature of these black materials, which revealed their qualities only in the light, allowed him to discreetly mark a waistline, give life to the line of a straight dress, or counterbalance a volume. Fabrics with woven patterns, seersuckers with puckered surfaces, and quilted fabrics provided him with subtle variations on a smaller scale.

Black and Transparency 
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Balenciaga was particularly fond of the transparency of black lace. The way he was able to manipulate this almost ethereal material made his dresses seem to float on the body. Black lace, of course, held a special place in Balenciaga’s art, as it embodied the very soul of Spanish piety and folklore. In his hands, however, it was never merely picturesque or pretty, nor was it a source of easy charm. He used it in very particular ways—crumpling or gathering it—so that its darkness magnified the graphic effects of pleats and shredded areas. Dresses cut from widths of black silk mechanical lace were finished with extreme precision. The seams were inlaid with delicate, satin-stitched, floral motifs, as were the indentations cut out of flounces and sewn around necklines and armholes so that they would separate slightly from the skin. Stiffened with horsehair braiding, each flounce stood out from the fabric to reveal its own gossamer web, creating imperceptible modulations and shades of opaqueness.

 

Black and Colors 
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Although the various mutations of black offered Balenciaga an infinite and ever-changing range of tones with which to work, he would sometimes respond to black’s austerity with accents of color. He saw in the opposition of black and white a timeless association, one that evoked the lace ruffs of the austere suits of Spanish monarchs, synonymous with both luxury and renunciation, or the immaculate collars of bourgeois dress, symbolizing ceremony and restraint. Throughout his career, these two tendencies were in continual dialogue, manifesting in the uniform, matte white of clearly defined cuffs and facings and the quivering, voluminous white of fur collars and feather edges.

The color pink, which Balenciaga loved, could provide a delicate or vibrant contrast with black. His decision to choose a bold, a striking, or a pale pink was dictated by the materials he was using. Deep pink, reminiscent of the silk stockings or the cape of a bullfighter, was used sparingly. Satin ribbons were generally in a softer shade; their brilliance was enough to create an intense contrast. The couturier used a milky, almost flesh-colored shade of pink only for organza, over which he placed black silk lace.

 

The exhibition is organized by the Palais Galliera, Fashion Museum of the City of Paris, Paris Musées.