The Spanish Master (No ‘Bull’!)

I attended Tuesday morning’s press preview for ‘Balenciaga: Spanish Master”, at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute, November 19th-February 19, 2011 ( The beautifully done exhibition begins with the famed designer’s iconic 1939 Infanta and ends with his four point silk gazar dress from 1967, and was initially conceived by Oscar de la Renta, Chairman of the Institute’s Board of Directors (of course, ODLR has always made known his reverence for the designer and in fact, his spring show this past September, was one of the most unabashedly ‘referential’ to Balenciaga in recent memory). It is expertly curated by none other than Hamish Bowles, Vogue’s European Editor-at-Large, who is no stranger to high profile fashion exhibitions (he also curated ‘Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years’).

This exhibit is notable in that it is the first to illustrate the strong hold and powerful spell which Spain’s rich culture, history, and art, apparently ‘cast’ over one of its most revered, creative, and legendary ‘sons’. Indeed, while Cristobal Balenciaga (1895 – 1968) opened his fashion house in Paris in 1937, and Paris remained the city in which he would effectively perfect his craft, his work was always an homage and love letter to his native Spain, and it was hard not to notice the myriad Spanish references which echoed throughout the approximately 70 items of clothing and accessories filling two galleries of the beautiful building located on 68th Street and Park Avenue. In addition to a playlist of Spanish music playing in the background (including John Williams’ interpretation of 19th century Spanish guitar music), the items shown were grouped according to 6 major Spanish themes which pervaded the work of the Spanish Master: ‘Royal Court’, ‘Relgious Life’, ‘Spanish Art’, ‘Regional Dress’, ‘Dance’, ‘The Bullfight’.

And thus, there was a duo of short sculptural dresses inspired by the abstract motifs found in the art work of famed Spanish painter Joan Miro, as well as a long black gown with a dramatic silk gazar “chou” wrap, which was an ode to Goya. A beaded metallic tunic dress, with the look of armor, was shown alongside an 1825 costume comprised of gilt-foil, embroidery, and sequins. Similarly, coats and capes which referenced the priestly vestments of the Roman Catholic Church, numerous gowns which took their cue from the traditional flamenco dance costumes of flamenco dancers (‘Bata de Cola”), and abbreviated Matador inspired boleros which looked as though they came right off the backs of very fashionable bullfighters, were in many instances, effectively arranged next to the real McCoy. In the case of the latter, a blown up photograph of two famous matadors taken in 1959, was in the background, bringing the display to life.

Paintings were also put to good use. In one splendid corner of the gallery, a silk floral evening gown was juxtaposed next to the lavishly embroidered fringed shawl, (indigenous to the Basque region), which it echoed, and the colorful oil painting, ‘Vision of Spain, Sevilla, The Dance’, 1916, by Joaquin Soralla y Bastida which hung on the wall right beside them, stunningly continued the theme. Goya’s 1800 oil on canvas portrait of Cardinal Luis Maria de Borbon y Vallabriga, resplendent in a clerical red caped coat, was right next to a voluminous scarlet silk ottoman coat by the designer. A cocktail ensemble in horizontal off white mink, which looked as though it could have walked off the recent runways, was, according to the caption on the glass wall, a ‘luxurious’ take on the practical and warm sheepskin vests worn by Basque shepherds (believe me, there was nothing at all ‘peasanty’ about it).

FYI, when I asked Hamish Bowles if he had a ‘favorite’ look in the exhibit, he admitted (and not surprisingly I might add) it was the black silk crepe gown with the dramatic “black silk gazar “chou” wrap. And when I asked Mr. de la Renta the same question, he initially said “not really” but then motioned to the gorgeous ivory silk shantung 1957 wedding gown with silver metallic embroidery which is truly fit for a queen – or should I say ‘princess’ based on the news that Prince William is engaged to his longtime girlfriend Kate Middleton.

– Marilyn Kirschner

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

  1. I agree with you Florence. Cristobal Balenciaga is the king of international haute couture. I consider him as one of the most influential couturiers of the 20th century. You can see the structured geometric shapes and simplicity in his designs. Who could ever forget his signature spherical balloon jacket with a funnel collar? A real classic.

  2. Cristobal Balenciaga was the poet in haute couture. The original Balenciaga design house was very much rooted in Spanish culture, tradition and regional cues, and you can see the influence in the designs. Sooo beautiful.

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