Legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland once said, “In a Balenciaga you were the only woman in the room–no other woman existed.”
That’s exactly how every woman wants to feel, and a new exhibit at the de Young Museum of San Francisco opening March 26, 2011 reveals why Spanish fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895–1972) was a master at his craft. But this exhibition is more than just a display of sumptuously feminine dresses (though admittedly, this exhibit is a little girl’s dream dress-up closet).
Spain itself pulses through each design, and even though Balenciaga fled for Paris in 1937 and didn’t return to Spain until 1968, the designer’s heart, and sewing needle, were never far from home.
Walk through the exhibition and Spanish history and life are also on display with elements of bullfighting costumes, dance, the Spanish royal court and religion hemmed into each piece. Even the faint pluck of the Spanish guitar in the background transports visitors to Balenciaga’s native land. The 120 haute couture dresses, jackets, capes, hats, and headdresses illustrate this visionary designer’s flair for creating exquisite women’s clothing, coveted by some of history’s most extraordinary names.
“Balenciaga really dressed the iconic women of the 20th century,” said guest curator and Editor-at-Large for American Vogue Hamish Bowles.
Among those lucky enough to don a Balenciaga: Doris Duke, Baroness Pauline de Rothschild, Countess Mona Bismarck, Gloria Guinness, Ava Gardner, Thelma Chrysler Foy, Claudia Heard de Osborne, and the Bay Area’s own Eleanor Christenson de Guigné and Elise Haas.
The exhibition was conceived by Oscar de la Renta, a protégé of Balenciaga’s who began his own stellar career working at Balenciaga’s Madrid couture house in the 1950s. De la Renta invited Bowles to curate the exhibition who loaned several pieces from his own private collection, among them a bullfighter’s jacket he picked up at a vintage shop years ago. Other items have been borrowed from museums and other private collections around the world, including an unprecedented loan of 30 pieces from the House of Balenciaga in Paris.
The exhibit will be at the de Young until July 4, 2011.
Kimberley Lovato is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.