The baby doll dress, characterized by its trapeze-shaped silhouette without a marked waist, owes its name to the short dress worn by Caroll Baker in 1956 in filmmaker Elia Kazan’s homonymous movie. And so, it wasn’t an invention of great Spanish master Cristóbal Balenciaga’s, but with him it saw its contours defined and enjoyed an unprecedented success.
This piece, through its ample and deconstructed appearance, calls to mind children’s fashion. It also represents the culmination of a line, the fruit of the couturier’s tireless research centered on the contour of a belt to create a new silhouette. It’s the result of a long path of experimentation initiated in 1947.
Chronology: The Trajectory of a Masterpiece
In 1947, eleven years after his installation in Paris, Balenciaga presented the first barrel-line coats, with a very accentuated curve in the back, that evoked the interpretation that several East Asian painters had done of the kimono in the 19th century. In 1951, following the same principal, he introduced the semi-adjusted suit, characterized by its curved front and vague volume in back. Four years later, it was the tunic’s turn, a dress in two pieces with straight and pure lines that enveloped the body without oppressing it. In 1957, the “sack” dress made it’s appearance. It was received with an uneven enthusiasm at best by the couturier’s clients, who didn’t see how these “deconstructed” pieces could flatter the shapes of their body. It was in this same year that the initial concept for the baby doll dress started development, presented as such in 1958. It’s trapezoidal silhouette would dominate the following decade, and Balenciaga himself would release the piece in multiple versions up until the end of his career
Structure and Materials
The baby doll exaggerated the fluid and vague aspects of the “sack” dress. However, the original Balenciaga version made harmony of a paradox, in that it erased the waist all while affirming it. Also, under this sleeveless trapezoidal dress in transparent lace, the woman wore a second, more adjusted dress, that highlighted the contours of her body. This silk transparent lace – made by the prestigious firm Marescot – was finished off by two flaps and a smattering of nylon tulle ribbons.
Thereafter, the style was released in many different shapes, sizes, and materials. There were also coats that structurally corresponded with the baby doll line; one single, large flap instead of several bordered the skirt. The sleeves were inset, sometimes adorned with flaps as well. Satin, China crape, and taffetas were also used to produce these pieces, that always hold onto their width and length as a common feature – just above the knee.
This ample dress responded to a key conception in Balenciaga’s art: the abstract body, no doubt inspired by his profound knowledge of the kimono’s structure. Indeed, in Japanese ukiyo-e prints, the bodies of the women dressed in kimonos seems to be devoid of human proportions and shape, and the garment is an artistic entity that exists in and of itself. The master’s creation, culmination of his structural ambitions, has been able to sort out these elements of the Far East into the naïve fashions of the 60s, all while brandishing this sort of architectonic rigor that has become his signature.
ARIZZOLI Pierre, ARZALLUZ Miriam, CERRILLO RUBIO Lourdes, JOUVE Marie-Andrée, Balenciaga : Cristóbal Balenciaga museoa, Paris, Éditions du Regard, 2011
ARZALLUZ Miriam, Cristóbal Balenciaga: la forja del maestro (1895-1936), Donostia-San Sebastián, Nerea, 2012
MILLER Lesley, Cristóbal Balenciaga, London, Batsford, 1993