Balenciaga sculpts, paints, writes in the act of making dresses. That is why he is above the others. To create dresses, beginning endlessly over and over again with the same model, the body, is to choose incessantly, without respite. As we breathe in order to live. To choose is to help the formless to breathe, to give life to what is unborn. In this, Balenciaga is supreme. Violette Leduc, Vogue, 1965
By the 1960s, Balenciaga’s work had already bathed itself in an aura of perfection, and timelessness, drawing constant comparisons to various art forms, such as the ones Leduc cited with such devout enthusiasm. Indeed, the progressive refinement of construct and form found in Balenciaga’s creations throughout the 1950s, as well as the abstraction increasingly found in his radical designs of the 1960s, placed him at the heart of the debate around whether fashion could be considered art. There is no doubt that – like some vital sartorial epilogue – certain designs in his last collections, in 1967 and 1968, did take on architectural qualities and an unprecedented degree of independence with regard to the body, becoming genuine icons of twentieth-century fashion history.
These designs were the culmination of a long and productive career based on technical perfection and experimentation with form. Profoundly influenced by the technical achievements and iconoclastic spirit of the fashion innovators of the 1910s and 1920s – from Vionnet to Chanel – Balenciaga dedicated himself to the unremitting task of establishing a new relationship between body and garment, offering women an alternative silhouette at the height of the New Look furore. The cocoon silhouette launched in 1942 and perfected in 1947, the tunic of 1955, the controversial and liberating “sack” dress presented in August 1957, or the chemise dress of the same collection, also popularized as the baby doll in 1958, all became hallmarks in Balenciaga’s career and icons of 20th century fashion. His designs contributed not only to the conception of alternative ideals about femininity, but they also offered women a new way of experiencing dress.
Balenciaga always seemed to think and design ahead of his own time, thus his collections were very often received coldly, even sceptically. The Tobé report of the A/W 1957 Paris couture collections tried to shed some light on the role Balenciaga played in the fashion world: Avant-garde movement in art and literature and all creative arts is finally becoming [a] recognized factor in fashions as well. This rightly so, as creation of fashion is a major art today. Therefore we can expect that there will probably always be some new avant-garde fashions from now on even after current examples of loose shift or chemise dresses have passed into history. Everyone – fashion editors, stylists, designers, manufacturers, must learn to recognize these when they appear and not judge them by old established standards. Granted they may be extreme and even ugly in first presentation, sooner or later some will make them pretty and wearable without changing their basic character. Dior has accomplished this with [the] shift silhouette two years after it was launched by Balenciaga […] who [is the] chief exponent of avant-garde fashions.
Shortly after Balenciaga unexpectedly decided to close his house in 1968, Paris was rocked by the arrival of a group of young Japanese designers ready to challenge established notions of beauty and femininity. Many critics thought then that what they were doing was turning fashion into art. Whether they knew it or not, Balenciaga’s spirit would live on through their work. Words by Miren Arzalluz