BALENCIAGA AND SPAIN – At the de Young, 3/26–7/4

“His name became synonymous with perfection and elegance.”
— Baroness Pauline de Rothschild, 1973

Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

On Saturday, March 26th, the de Young Museum opens BALENCIAGA AND SPAIN, an exhibition curated by Hamish Bowles, European editor at large of Vogue, featuring nearly 120 haute couture garments, hats, and headdresses designed by Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895–1972). The exhibition illustrates Balenciaga’s expansive creative vision, which incorporated references to Spanish art, bullfighting, dance, regional costume, and the pageantry of the royal court and religious ceremonies. Cecil Beaton hailed him as “Fashion’s Picasso,” and Balenciaga’s impeccable tailoring, innovative fabric choices, and technical mastery transformed the way the world’s most stylish women dressed. The exhibition closes on July 4, 2011.

The pulse of Spain is in every garment of this collection. A dress ruffle inspired by the flourish of a flamenco dancer’s bata de cola skirt; paillette-studded embroidery that glitters on a bolero jacket conjuring a nineteenth-century traje de luces (suit of lights) worn by a matador; clean, simple, and technically perfect lines that extrapolate the minimalist rhythms and volumes of the vestments of Spanish nuns and priests; a velvet-trimmed evening gown aesthetically indebted to the farthingale robe of a Velázquez infanta.

Bolero of garnet velvet and black jet embroidery, winter 1947.
Scarlet silk ottoman evening coat with capelet collar, autumn/winter 1954–1955.
Collection of The Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Photos, Craig McDean

The exhibition originated in 2010, in a presentation at the Queen Sofía Spanish Institute in New York City titled Balenciaga: Spanish Master. The exhibition was conceived by Oscar de la Renta, who began his career in fashion working at Balenciaga’s Madrid couture house in the 1950s. De la Renta invited Hamish Bowles to curate the exhibition. For the de Young, the themes are expanded to include twice as many objects, drawn from museum and private collections around the world and including an unprecedented loan of 30 pieces from the House of Balenciaga in Paris, which generously opened its archives of historically significant Cristóbal Balenciaga garments, iconography, and related materials. In addition to displaying five garments from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s own significant collection of Balenciaga, the exhibition features loans (some of which have never been exhibited before), from a number of important international institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Musée de la Mode et du Textile and the Musée Galliera in Paris, the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Hispanic Society of America, LACMA, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of the City of New York, the Phoenix Art Museum, and the Texas Fashion Collection, as well as private couture collectors such as Sandy Schreier. A special loan of seventeen pieces comes from Hamish Bowles’s own collection. The ensembles featured include garments commissioned and worn by some of the world’s most iconic tastemakers, among them Doris Duke, Baroness Pauline de Rothschild, Countess Mona Bismarck, Gloria Guinness, Thelma Chrysler Foy, Claudia Heard de Osborne, and the Bay Area’s own Eleanor Christensen de Guigne and Elise Haas.
Click here for ticket information: BALENCIAGA AND SPAIN

About the Exhibition

As legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland vividly described him, “Balenciaga was the true son of a strong country filled with style, vibrant color, and a fine history,” who “remained forever a Spaniard… His inspiration came from the bullrings, the flamenco dancers, the fishermen in their boots and loose blouses, the glories of the church, and the cool of the cloisters and monasteries. He took their colors, their cuts, then festooned them to his own taste.” Curator Hamish Bowles notes, “Balenciaga’s ceaseless explorations and innovations ensured that his work was as intriguing and influential in his final collection as it had been in his first.”

Click on the photo to visit the Museum Store

Balenciaga and Spain begins with an introductory gallery featuring three decades of Balenciaga’s signature silhouettes, all in tones of black, that demonstrate his mastery of volume, his sophisticated use of fabric and embellishments, and his supreme technical innovations. The exhibition then unfolds in six areas of focus:

Spanish Art — Balenciaga drew inspiration from the great artists of Spain: the atmospheric color palette of Goya, Velázquez’s portraits of courtiers and royalty, and the draped volumes of fabric in El Greco’s and Zurbarán’s haunting seventeenth-century images of saints. Included in the exhibition is Balenciaga’s iconic 1939 Infanta dress, a modernist interpretation of the dresses worn by the Infanta Margarita in Velázquez’s celebrated portraits—an inspiration that he revisits in a smart lace-trimmed day suit of 1938. Late in his career, Balenciaga turned to contemporary Spanish art and was inspired by the abstraction of Joan Miró’s paintings and the modernist, monumental sculptures of Basque countryman Eduardo Chilida.

Dance — Whether he literally represented it in such recognizable elements as the bata de cola (dress with a ruffled train) of the flamenco dancer, or more loosely suggested it in the use of lunares (polka-dot patterns), a bold, traditional print used in flamenco costumes, Balenciaga incorporated and abstracted the rich culture of Spanish dance in his work, using tiers of fabric, ruffles, flounces, and fabric choices that accentuated movement. Balenciaga was also captivated by the traje corto costume of the male flamenco dancer and deconstructed its elements of close-fitting cropped bolero, cummerbund, and tight pants into his work. Flamenco’s influence can be seen in whimsical hats that accessorize the ensembles, simulating a flower tucked in a dancer’s hair or a scarf knotted around the head.

Detail of evening bolero jacket
Burgundy silk velvet and jet and passementerie embroidery by Bataille, winter 1946.
Collection of Hamish Bowles. Photo, Kenny Komer

Bullfighting — “From his earliest collections, Balenciaga included designs that contained overt allusions to the costume of the matador,” writes Bowles. Using the traditional stiffened bolero of the matador, decorated with sumptuous embroidery, alamar (frog and braid trimming), and distinctive borlones (pompom tassels), as a starting point, Balenciaga softens the silhouette for his female clients throughout the 1940s and early 1950s. Here he collaborates with embroidery houses such as Bataille and Lesage to re-create the passmenterie, beading, and embroideries of the matador costumes, themselves as intricate as haute couture garments. By the 1960s, Balenciaga takes these embroideries and embellishments out of the traje de luces context and uses them as decoration on eveningwear and millinery. Inspiration also comes from the color palette of the matador’s capes and his work includes splashes of bright fuchsia, deep red, and vibrant yellow. Even the carnation, the traditional flower thrown in tribute to matador at the end of a successful bullfight, appears in Balenciaga’s work in embroideries and printed fabric.

Religious Life — A devout Catholic all his life, who once considered joining the priesthood, Balenciaga was deeply moved by both the everyday dress and the pageantry of the Spanish church. He reinterpreted elements suggesting a nun’s habit, a priest’s embroidered chasuble or severe black cassock, a monk’s hooded robe, and even the spectacular, brilliantly colored and embellished robes that clad the statues of the Madonna carried through the streets of Spain during Holy Week. It is here that Balenciaga’s technical mastery and tailoring shine as he plays with ideas of volume, structure, and linear purity, and reveals his technical brilliance in a garment he fabricates with a single seam.

The Spanish Court — “The dress of Spain’s monarchs, their families, and their courtiers, depicted in some of the most striking portraiture in the history of art, exerted a powerful effect on Balenciaga’s creative
imagination,” notes Bowles. For example, he references early-seventeenth-century farthingales, distinctive features of Spanish court dress for three centuries, in a literal way, with silhouettes featuring exaggerated hips, and then abstracts them later in his career in the six-pointed peplums of evening gowns. Sumptuous embroideries, ermine tails, and pearl details present luxurious, contemporary versions of royal themes.

Regional Dress — Balenciaga’s imagination was fueled with ideas driven by the diverse regional costume of Spain and by some of the original folkloric pieces that he gathered for his personal collection. He translated traditional Spanish garments such as a mantón de Manila, a fringed silk shawl embroidered with brilliant floral motifs, into haute couture embroideries by Lesage that he used to decorate spectacular evening clothes. His shaggy vests of innovative mohair textiles recall the practical garments of a Navarran shepherd. Humble cloaks and capes reappear in sumptuous fabrics with voluminous lines. Loose, unfitted cotton piqué blouses evoking fishermen’s shirts recall the clothing of his Basque homeland. “Balenciaga revolutionized fashion by referencing the sturdy, utilitarian garments worn by the Spanish laboring classes—as well as the attitude and philosophy that shaped them—to create a new paradigm of mid-century elegance,” explains Bowles.

The Exhibition catalog

Balenciaga and Spain, authored by Hamish Bowles with an appreciation by the late Baroness Philippe de Rothschild, is published by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Skira Rizzoli. The illustrated hardcover volume is available for $65 ($58.50/members) and the paperback edition is $39.95 ($35.96/members) in the Museum Store and includes several never-before-published photographs by Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.

Detail of cocktail dress of fuchsia silk shantung and black lace with black silk satin ribbons, summer 1966. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Eleanor Christensen de Guigne Collection (Mrs. Christian de Guigne III), gift of Ronna and Eric Hoffman.

» Don’t miss a thing. Get Sentinel breaking news alerts delivered to your inbox.

See related material:
Seán Martinfield YouTube with Janet Roitz – ‘Marked Woman’ (1937) and the song that gave it pizzazz – ‘My Silver Dollar Man’
“Would You Like A Souvenir?” – Sean Martinfield and Janet Roitz explore a song from Film Noir classic NORA PRENTISS (1947)
AUDITIONS – SF OPERA Needs In-Shape Men and 40 Kids For WAGNER’S RING
COPPÉLIA – A Gorgeous New Production at San Francisco Ballet
NEW ON CD – Icicle Creek Piano Trio: Haydn, Turina, Shostakovich
NATALIE DESSAY – Is “Lucia di Lammermoor” in HD at Sundance Kabuki Cinema
NEW CENTURY CHAMBER ORCHESTRA – Presents “Mastery of Schubert”, Featuring Soprano Melody Moore, 3/24–27
SF CONCERT CHORALE – Presents Herbert Howells’ Requiem and Arthur Honegger’s King David
“COPPÉLIA” – A SF Ballet Premiere, Cast Announced for Opening Night, 3/19
“THE HOMECOMING” – A Home Run at A.C.T.
BACH B-MINOR MASS – This week at San Francisco Symphony
KILLER QUEEN – The Story of “Paco the Pink Pounder”
ARE WE THERE YET? — At the Contemporary Jewish Museum, March 31st – July 31st
“PEARLS OVER SHANGHAI” – Final Performance, April 9th
“CALIENTE” – Opens Tonight, 3/10, at Teatro ZinZanni
RAGAZZI BOYS CHORUS – Celebrates the Extended American Family, “Made In America”
KURT MASUR – Conducts the SF Symphony in All–Mendelssohn Concert, 3/10–12
FLORAL DESIGNER NATASHA LISITSA – Creating the Fantastical in the Wilsey Court for “Bouquets To Art 2011″
EDITOR’S CHOICE — HÉLÈNE RENAUT, Vinyl Release Celebration at Cafe du Nord, 3/9
ZHENG CAO – A Conversation with A Miracle Artist
MELODY MOORE – Soprano shines in SF Ballet’s “Nanna’s Lied”
MARNIE BRECKENRIDGE – An Interview with “La Princesse” of Philip Glass’ Orphée
SF BALLET –Program 4, All Tchaikovsky
ODC THEATER – Presents Sarah Michelson and Richard Maxwell’s “Devotion”
AVENUE Q – A Totally Fabulous Place To Be
SCHWABACHER DEBUT RECITALS – Begins February 20th at Temple Emanu-El
CONSTANTINE MAROULIS – Comes to the Curran Theatre in “Rock of Ages”
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT – Best Picture Nominee Cast Donates To On-line Charity Auction
DMITRI HVOROSTOVSKY – This Sunday at Davies Symphony Hall
MARC HUESTIS PRESENTS – Lesley Ann Warren, Valentine’s Day At The Castro Theatre
EDITORIAL – A confession about ballerina Lorena Feijóo
PULP FASHION: The Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave at the Legion of Honor
YURI POSSOKHOV’S RAkU — Stunning World Premiere At San Francisco Ballet
CLYBOURNE PARK – A Bright Debut for Director Jonathan Moscone at A.C.T.
THE RITE – Right into the trash
“NUREMBURG: It’s Lesson For Today” – Rare Documentary Restored
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA – Opens September 9th with with Iréne Theorin as “Turandot”
PEARLS OVER SHANGHAI – Thrillpeddlers Extends Hit Show Through April 9th
BUDRUS – A Documentary on uniting Palestinians and Israelis
AVNER DORMAN, Composer – SF Symphony Presents World Premiere of “Uriah: The Man the King Wanted Dead”
CAMERON CARPENTER – Organist signs with CAMI Music and Konzertdirektion Schmid
FILM NOIR FESTIVAL – At the Castro Theatre, 1/21–30
THE PALACE OF FINE ARTS – Opening Celebration, January 14th
GISELLE – Opens SF Ballet’s 78th Season, 1/29/11
A Conversation with Elza van den Heever
THE BLACK SWAN – Don’t Save The Drippings
HEART OF A SOLDIER – SF Opera Commissions New Work
ARTHUR SZYK: Miniature Paintings and Modern Illuminations
SF SYMPHONY – Announces 2011/12 Centennial Celebration
SHREK THE MUSICAL – Ogres and Freaks and Spells, “Oh, my!”
CD: MAHLER’S “Songs With Orchestra” – SF Symphony Completes Mahler Recording Project
GENIUS WITHIN: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould
KARITA MATTILA – “Viva To The Diva!”
CLUB FOOT ORCHESTRA – A Conversation with Richard Marriot
WEST SIDE STORY – Most of it, anyway
Dr. ELISA STEPHENS – My Visit with the President
PHILHARMONIA BAROQUE ORCHESTRA – 30th Anniversary Gala, 9/24
TENOR RAMÓN VARGAS – A Worthy “Werther” At San Francisco Opera
AÏDA – Spectacular Opening Night At San Francisco Opera
CUBAN BALLET – An Interview with Octavio Roca
A Look At “Giselle” with Ballerina Lorena Feijóo
DOLORA ZAJICK – Internationally Acclaimed Mezzo To Receive Merola Distinguished Alumni Award
BACH & FRIENDS – West Coast Premiere At The Kabuki, 7/14
DEBORAH VOIGT – A Captivating “Fanciulla del West”
JEANETTE MacDONALD – Hollywood Diva Remembered at the War Memorial Opera House
SABINA ALLEMANN – Former SF Ballet Ballerina Returns In A.C.T.’s “The Tosca Project
CD/DVD Release: CAMERON LIVE! – Organist Cameron Carpenter
AMANDA McBROOM – A rose for new CD, “CHANSON”
CAMERON CARPENTER – Stellar Organist Returns to San Francisco May 2nd
THE LITTLE MERMAID – “This Girl’s Got Everything!”
PEARLS OVER SHANGHAI – An Interview with Russell Blackwood
ZUILL BAILEY – A Conversation
DAVID PERRY – On the “Dos and Don’ts of Social Media”
CAMINOS FLAMENCOS – A Conversation with Yaelisa
JANE MONHEIT – At The Empire Ballroom
CAMERON CARPENTER – Up Close and Very Personal
RUBÉN MARTIN CINTAS – Principal Dancer with San Francisco Ballet
CHRISTINE ANDREAS – A Conversation with Beautiful Broadway and Cabaret Star
CD Review – REVOLUTIONARY, Cameron Carpenter, Organist
Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at:

» Don’t miss a thing. Get Sentinel breaking news alerts delivered to your inbox

Photo By Luke Thomas

Telephone: 415-846-2475


Comments are closed.