Religion, Balenciaga, And His Emblematic Creations

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During his lifetime, Cristóbal Balenciaga was often understood as a couturier who had made clothing his religion. While he spent his youth dissecting the composition and construction of Vionnet, Chanel, or Schiaparelli pieces, Balenciaga was first and foremost inspired by the culture of his homeland. In early 20th century Spain, it wouldn’t have been difficult to imagine the young Balenciaga in awe before a sculpture of Christ on the cross, surrounded by saints and angels. In this Spain, cardinals were depicted on immense paintings by his friend and contemporary Zuloaga. A devout Catholic, he often went to mass where the colors and draping effect of religious garb could only have had a spectacular impact on his conscience. His heritage and his country’s religious art brought the couturier to borrow lines, silhouettes, fabrics, and looks from characters and clothing represented on the works of the great masters of the Spanish golden age. Francisco de Zurbaran, Francisco Goya, and Diego Velazquez can all be referenced in his use of lace and embroidery. “A good couturier has to bee an architect for the outline, a sculptor for the shape, a painter for the color, a musician for the harmony, and a philosopher for the measurements,” said one historian fascinated by his inspiration.

Throughout the 50s and 60s, at the height of his art, his evening dresses were an echo to the dresses in these painters’ works, but a mirror of the pieces found on Zurbaran’s saints could also be remarked. Balenciaga’s women were proud, fatal, and saintlike – it was all a question of posture. He liked to repeat that he offered signs that were less “institutional of femininity”. He said it all, or almost. This fervent Catholic was also an ardent collector of 19th century Iberian costumes and religious habits, but it would be for his rigorous vision of clothing that he was nicknamed “the bishop of modernity.” The lyricism and baroque character of Spanish fashion gave a number of other inspirations to Balenciaga, with the colors and shapes of traditional clothing often found in his creations. Black lace for example tells the story of costumes and fashions of European courts. Andalusian jackets adorned with madroños, or his legendary bolero jackets covered with sequins and lace trimmings inspired by the art of matadors. All of Balenciaga’s art fits somewhere between a traditional, religious past and the modernization of the most extraordinary pieces in the history of Western costuming.

Then comes the color. Subtle chromatic combinations in ranges of black, white, blue of the Bay of Biscay, and bright red like on this legendary piece inspired by the cassock worn by a cardinal in a 1912 Zuloaga painting. This hypnotizing red is used on an ultra-feminine coat with sculptural lines and a mysterious allure. Balenciaga was one of the great couturiers because he saw fashion as being part of everything. His interest for gatherings, pleats, and bouffants is also tied to religion: you can find them on saints depicted in the same way on church interiors, most notably at the hand of Francisco de Zurbaran on a painting of Saint Casilda of Toledo from 1635. Another signature of Balenciaga is the surprising union between the tenderness of pink and the power of purple; the same colors as inside the church. This is perhaps where the secret for this eternal look lies.

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