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For daily, festive, ceremonial, and ritual events, African clothing, like clothes everywhere else, conveys age, gender, profession, ethnicity, power, and religious devotion.  Africans use Islamic and indigenous clothing in addition to trendy Western clothing.  Dressing include completely or partly covering the body with clothing and accessories such as head coverings and jewelry, as well as altering the body with tattoos or piercing.  For Africans, dressing properly entails correct behavior and exquisite style, which includes suitable clothing, cosmetics, and coiffure, as well as spectacular carriage, graceful movement, meticulous toilette, and spotless clothes.  Everyday African clothing expresses personal idiosyncrasy as well as socially important categories.  When Africans wear uniforms or clothes made from the same fabric, their clothing promotes group connection while minimizing individualism. 

Cristóbal Balenciaga

Cristóbal Balenciaga Eisaguirre (1895–1972) was born in Guetaria (Getaria), a little fishing hamlet on Spain's tumultuous northern coast. 

He would go on to become the most well-known Spanish fashion designer of his generation throughout his lifetime. 

Only four years after shutting his prestigious firm in Paris and twelve years after winning the Légion d'honneur for contributions to the French fashion industry, he passed away in the milder environment of Jávea on Spain's eastern coast. 

Balenciaga's journey from rags to riches, or at the very least, from a relatively obscure, modest, and extremely hardworking provincial background to the sunny prominence of an established position in international fashion, is touchingly compared by the contrast between his places of birth and death. 

He increased his level of financial comfort, but he kept his work ethic. 

He had a large home in Igueldo, close to Guetaria, an estate close to Orléans in France, and an apartment in the heart of Paris. 

He was able to furnish his dwellings with collections of fine and decorative arts as well as, sometimes, acquaintances from various backgrounds. 

The marquesa de Casa Torres, a member of the Spanish nobility who noticed Balenciaga's knack for sewing—a skill he had learnt from his seamstress mother—apprenticed him to a tailor in chic San Sebastián, where he first seems to have attained this significant improvement in circumstances (Donostia). 

After receiving this training, he worked as the head designer for a local dressmaker before starting his own business in Madrid. 

With the aid of funding provided by a fellow Basque, he later founded, ran, and created for the Parisian couture firm that took his name. 

He had three upscale dressmaking businesses concurrently in San Sebastián, Barcelona, and Madrid, Spain. 

They operated under the name Eisa, which was a shortened version of his mother's patronymic. 

Balenciaga's early experiences in Spain had a major influence on both his design aesthetic and decision to settle in Paris. 

His training as a tailor equipped him with a knowledge of cut and structure as well as a preoccupation with fit perfection. 

Even his adversary Coco Chanel admitted that he was one of the few couturiers capable of "cutting material, creating a masterpiece, and stitching it by hand" (Miller, p. 14). 

His interest in some straightforward shapes (such as the manipulation of circles, semicircles, and tunics) may have been sparked by his acquaintance with the style of the clerical attire and religious garb that were so prevalent in Spain. 

His choice of some hues—black, gray, earth tones, brilliant red, fuchsia, and purple—as well as some embellishments—heavy embroidery and braid—and fabrics—lace used voluptuously in flounces, heavy woolens, or new synthetics "sculpted" into extraordinary shapes—owed much to the style of Spanish regional dress as well as the depictions of dress and costume in Spanish painting and sculpture from 1500 to 1900. 

When he first started working in San Sebastián, one of his responsibilities was to travel to Paris to view the seasonal collections of haute couture in order to make drawings of models that could later be translated into clothing for Spanish clients. 

This experience made him aware of Paris' dominance in the world of women's fashion. 

He was not the creator of designs during this second, transitional era of his career; rather, he was a copyist or translator. 

Historical Setting. 

Although the circumstances behind Balenciaga's departure from Spain in 1935 at the age of 40 and subsequent establishment in Paris are unclear, it is likely that the economic and political climate in Europe had a role in his decision. 

Paris was the fashion capital of the world in the 1930s, both for the aspirational designers and the international ladies they clothed. 

Because they were significant national export businesses, the French government supported fashion and its supporting industries. 

French textile manufacturers offered small runs of uncommon fabrics for couture collections, while subsidies promoted the use of French textiles. 

The control of working conditions, preparation for becoming a fashion designer, and effective management of the twice-yearly showings of all couturiers' collections were all overseen by the trade association Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne. 

Due to the ability of individual customers and business buyers from department stores and wholesalers in other countries in Europe, the US, and Japan to plan their trips in advance and make the most of their time in Paris, this arrangement made the trade popular. 

Balenciaga must have known this reality as early as 1920 since until to World War II, no other country could claim a fashion system as well-organized and prominent. 

Balenciaga's decision to "leave" fifteen years later was likely influenced by Spain's deteriorating political climate, which did not bode well for people who relied on the fashion industry for their livelihood. 

After the Spanish monarchy was overthrown in 1931, there was a time of uncertainty before the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). 

The Spanish royal family and nobility, who spent the summers at San Sebastián and the winters in Madrid, were Balenciaga's primary customers in the 1920s. 

As a result, shortly after it had opened, he shuttered his business in the north of Spain. 

His trip to Paris (through London) was appropriate given that the start of the war did not help his chances. 

By the time he reopened his establishments in Spain in 1939, he had established a name in Paris and a clientele that was considerably more diverse than the captive audience he had attained in Spain. 

He alternated between the two nations during World War II, maintaining ties to his family and cultural heritage and maintaining control over his little fashion company. 

He kept up this practice after the conflict was over. 

His home and business were located in a neighborhood popular with Spanish émigrés, many of his business partners and employees were Spanish, and he kept in touch with Spaniards even when he spent extended periods of time in Paris. 

Among his friends were fellow countrymen Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Pablo Palazuelo. 

The Companies. 

The design documents rather than the finances often remain in haute couture enterprises because they tend to be discreet about their internal operations, if not their objectives. 

In the absence of financial or administrative archives, it is only possible to reconstruct the Balenciaga house's organizational structure and strategy using its extensive design archive, public registration, and sparse oral and written testimony from the salon, some of its more illustrious clients, and a select few of the designer's colleagues or students. 

The house was distinguished by tradition and continuity in terms of its internal organization and staff, design output and manufacturing quality, and preservation of a devoted and prestigious clientele. 

Even in the postwar era of consumerism, when many of Balenciaga's rivals openly participated in a variety of novel sales strategies, including as the creation of lines of ready-to-wear apparel, accessories, and several perfumes, as well as the use of advertising, gimmickry was avoided at all costs. 

A partnership between Balenciaga, his friend and fellow hat designer Vladzio Zaworowski (d. 1946), and Nicolas Bizcarrondo, the Basque businessman who supplied the first financing, formed the limited company Balenciaga, which was rather popular in Parisian fashion. 

The fact that Balenciaga had previously been successful in Spain and that he had three residences there (even if they were vacant in 1937) may have contributed to Bizcarrondo's belief in Balenciaga and his readiness to help him. 

The valuation of Balenciaga's couture firm, which was founded in 1937 with an initial investment of Fr 100,000, increased to Fr 2 million in 1946 and to Fr 30 million in 1960. 

The increase of its operations followed funding injections. 

The investment was in line with its scale, which was substantial by couture standards but modest in comparison to industrial operations before or after World War II. 

The design house's organizational structure adhered exactly to the classic couture model and easily met the new rules for haute couture that were put into place in 1947. 

The company's headquarters were located at 10 Avenue Georges V during the duration of Balenciaga's rule. 

This prime location is part of the Parisian luxury industry's "golden triangle." All administrative, economic, craft, and aesthetic purposes were met by this six-story structure. 

Both the outside and the interior emphasized discretion, with minimal overt mention of the house's sales role. 

Classical pillars surrounded the store windows on the exterior, which never even hinted at having goods for sale but instead claimed to be artistic. 

The boutique (store) on the ground level served as the entryway and sold accessories including gloves, foulards, and the scents Le Dix (1947), La Fuite des Heures (1948), and Quadrille (1955). 

With its black-and-white tiled floor, luxurious rugs, and dark wooden and gilded furniture and fixtures, this level gave the impression of being a corridor in a luxurious home. 

The salon and fitting rooms were located on the first level and were furnished in 1937 in the vogue Parisian style of the time with upholstered settees, curvy free-standing ashtrays, and mirrored doors. 

The elevator leading to the floor was lined in red Cordoban leather and studded with metal pins. 

Presided over by Madame Renée, this floor was home to the vendeuses (saleswomen), who met with their own specifically designated clients, discussed their vestment requirements and social calendars, introduced them to the models who might suit them (specially paraded by a house mannequin), and then oversaw their three fittings after they had placed their orders. 

Only seldom were certain items outsourced for special treatment, for example, to the needlework enterprises of Bataille, Lesage, or Rébé for elaboration. 

The facilities where the outfits were cut and constructed were located above the salons. 

The administrative offices were located higher up in the structure. 

Extension and consistency. 

Beyond the four workshops established in 1937, there was more workshop space (two for dresses, one for suits, and one for dresses and suits). 

Balenciaga added two millinery workshops in 1941, followed by two more for dresses and one for suits in the years that followed (1947–1948), and one more for dresses in 1955, bringing the total to ten. 

The number of Balenciaga workers just before the start of the last workshop was 318. 

In the grand scheme of things, Balenciaga paid his cutters 20–30% more than his shop heads between 1953 and 1954 because he regarded them more highly. 

This emphasis is not unexpected given the house's reputation for producing high-quality tailoring, nor is it surprising that talented personnel in key roles stayed with the company for an extended length of time. 

Most of the known workshop chiefs remained in their positions for twenty to thirty years. 

Additionally, it seems that "new" senior staff employees came from Spanish houses, maybe so Balenciaga could depend on their expertise and standards. 

Customer Base. 

The clientele's consistency reflected Balenciaga's steadfast view that ladies should discover and stick with the dressmaker who best met their demands and comprehended their own tastes. 

The home served a large number of personal and business clientele for thirty years. 

At his peak, Balenciaga presented his designs to 200 wholesale buyers and produced 2,325 custom-made outfits annually for private customers. 

Some in the latter group made annual purchases of up to 50–80 items. 

They selected their selections from the 400 models he produced, which was on par with the production of other renowned designers at the period. 

Major department stores purchased Balenciaga models with specific clients in mind, then attempted to replicate the couture experience as closely as possible in their salons by providing fashion shows, individualized guidance on clients' social and practical needs, and high standards of fitting and making. 

These companies included I. Magnin in Los Angeles and San Francisco, Lydia Moss, Fortnum & Mason, and Harrods in London, Hattie Carnegie, Henri Bendel, Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bergdorf Goodman in New York, and Holt Renfrew in Toronto at various points in time. 

Wholesalers, on the other hand, made their purchases with batch manufacturing in mind and popularized Balenciaga trends via their adaption of domestic toiles. 

Many representatives of the top ready-to-wear group, the London Model House Group, attended the Balenciaga runway presentations. 

For these, each model had between eight and ten variations, each of which was made 400–500 times. 

However, several Balenciaga models were deemed too sophisticated and outré for the preferences of more conservative customers to be replicated, whether in department stores or factories. 

Balenciaga's devoted group of private clientele included both professional ladies and socialites and came from the richest titled and nameless households in the world. 

Some of his clients paired their purchases with those created from other ready-made or built-to-measure vendors, or they discovered his clothing in certain consignment shops. 

The future Queen of Belgium, Fabiola of Belgium, daughter of his patron, the marquesa de Casa Torres; Sonsoles, daughter of his most steadfast client, the marquesa de Llanzol; and General Francisco Franco's wife and granddaughter, whose wedding dress was the last created by Balenciaga, all developed close relationships, if not friendships, with "The Master," who catered to their every need. 

Some daughters followed their mothers into the house. 

Others developed an affinity for Balenciaga via acquaintance with his Parisian residence. 

Mona Bismarck, the widow of one of the richest men in America named Harrison Williams, bought her whole wardrobe from him for 20 years, even the shorts she wore for yachting or gardening. 

She could have shared Barbara "Bobo" Rockefeller's opinion that wearing a Balenciaga dress made one feel secure. 

Those who were familiar with Balenciaga's Spanish operations, where labor costs were lower and local fabrics occasionally replaced those used in Paris (and where most foreign visitors received favorable exchange rates), had access to a less expensive way of purchasing made-to-measure Balenciaga clothing. 

In the 1950s, movie star Ava Gardner frequently traveled to Spain and frequented places like Eisa and the Parisian house. 

Air France was the last and possibly most intriguing client of Balenciaga. 

A requirement that presumably appealed to him in 1966, "elegance, flexibility of movement, adaptation to abrupt changes in environment, and preservation of a stylish look even after a lengthy travel," requested him to create the summer and winter outfits for air stewardesses. 

He was well-prepared for this request because to his expertise dealing with the soigné jet set and his realistic fashion philosophy. 

Philosophy of Fashion and Signature Designs. 

It is necessary to supplement Balenciaga's infrequent observations about his fashion philosophies with information about the nature of his company, the identities of his clients, and actual surviving garments and designs. 

His designs followed the principles of evolution rather than revolution, elegance and decorum rather than novelty and fleeting fashion, practicality, wearability, and "breathability," which undoubtedly suited a discerning, largely mature clientele. 

In the 1950s and 1960s, when Balenciaga was at the height of his talent, he produced designs that attest to his keen awareness of the effects produced by combining various colors and textures. 

As Balenciaga considered their possibilities in tai-lored, draped, or sculpted shapes, the fundamental properties of fabrics—whether classic woolens and silks or cutting-edge synthetics—often guided the design process. 

He was willing to forego the government subsidy given to French fashion designers whose collections included at least 90% French-made textiles in order to get the highest-quality and most innovative fabrics from wherever in Europe they originated. 

A seemingly traditional tailored suit with neat, fitted bodies and sleeves that sat perfectly at the shoulder served as the foundation for Balenciaga's gradual refinement of daywear design. 

From there, he expanded into experimentation that resulted in the minimalist "no-seam coat" (1961), which was made from a single piece of fabric by the skillful use of darts and tucks. 

This loose-fitting garment was the conclusion of a variety of loose or semi-fitted lines in a variety of garments, and it is perhaps Balenciaga's most significant contribution to fashion. 

These styles eventually appeared in the 1950s, complimenting both mature and young feminine bodies and letting the wearer to move freely. 

Through the development of a tubular line, the focus that a bloused back lay on the hip line, or the emphasis that a high waist laid on the breast, the tunic (1955), chemise or sack (1957), and Empire styles (1958) diverted attention away from the natural waist. 

Suit jackets were carefully tailored, and the matching skirts were frequently slightly gathered into the front waistband to accommodate middle-age spread. 

The wrists and neck, which are both graceful at any age, were intended to be accentuated by three-quarter and seven-eighth length sleeves and necklines set away from the neck. 

They also proved useful for people who lead busy lives. 

In the 1960s, Balenciaga's collections included jackets and coats in a variety of lengths and fits, from the extremely fitted to the loose. 

Balenciaga's cocktail and evening wear exhibit a similar paring down, as well as a penchant for the grandeur and richness suitable to the situation. 

He looked for his own brand of modernity while researching historical and non-European influences for these garments. 

Initially, although seeming to be effortless, these dresses were often constructed on a corset foundation with boning, an understructure that was hidden behind the intricate confections of draperies, puffs, and flounces that were fashionable in the 1950s. 

But by the 1960s, forms had become more straightforward and did not adhere to or contour the body. 

The excellent forms of gazar, zibeline, faille, and matelassé of the 1960s stand in stark contrast to the sleek black sheaths of the late 1940s and early 1950s. 

Swathes of contrasting satin in jewel colors that were attached at the waist or neckline and could be draped however the wearer pleased gave the former their dramatic flair. 

The latter, instead of using fake flowers, feathers, or multicolored needlework, drew its éclat from the sculptural simplicity of their lines and the substance of the cloth. 

Although three-dimensional ornamentation was still used, the forms to which it was attached took on a tunic-like appearance. 

A more restrained, even monastic look has replaced the frills, ballooning skirts, and sack backs. 

Important and lasting. 

From couturiers to journalists, the fashion elite still recognize Balenciaga as the "designers' designer." They invoke specific standards in fashion when they mention his name, including evolution in style, comfort in clothing, and meticulous attention to detail (visible or otherwise). 

Some of Balenciaga's philosophy and style have been passed down to and popularized by his former students André Courrèges and Emanuel Ungaro, colleagues Hubert de Givenchy, and admirers Oscar de la Renta and Paco Rabanne. 

Approximately eight significant exhibitions took place in the last quarter of the 20th century, many of which were made possible by the Balenciaga House Archivist. 

From 1987 to 2001, Bogart Perfumes owned it, and since then the Gucci Group (91 percent) and its in-house designer Nicolas Ghesquière have owned it (9 percent). 

In the late 1990s, Ghésquière's well praised creativity and vibrancy restored Balenciaga's fortunes, and by the early 2000s, the designer himself had started to explore the treasures of the archives and understand the shadow in which he worked more completely. 

Despite the fact that couture only makes up a small portion of his overall production, he was eager to draw comparisons between his own work and that of "The Master." Balenciaga's fame in Spain aided initiatives to support the country's fashion industry. 

For example, in 2000, a charitable foundation established in Guetaria in honor of Balenciaga received a $3.2 million donation. 

In 1987, the Spanish Ministry of Industry and Energy named the first (and only) national prize for fashion design in his honor. 

This trust's main goal is "to foster, spread, and emphasize the transcendence, importance, and prominence that Don Cristóbal Balenciaga has had in the world of fashion," according to its website ( 

This goal is intended to be attained through the development of a museum in Guatemala, the establishment of an international center for design training, the establishment of a research and documentation center, and the publication of a fashion magazine. 

With such steadfast attempts to uphold Balenciaga's legacy and principles, his influence on fashion is sure to endure and will be communicated via a variety of methods from which the reticent and private Balenciaga himself may well have shied away. 

His commitment to fashion for the once-tiny fishing hamlet of Guetaria is expected to have far-reaching effects.

~ Jai Krishna Ponnappan

Find Jai on Twitter | LinkedIn | Instagram

See also: 

Chanel, Gabrielle (Coco); Courrèges, André; Ec￾clesiastical Dress; Haute Couture; Paris Fashion; Spanish Dress. 

References And Further Reading:

Ballard, Bettina. In My Fashion. New York: D. McKay Company, 1960. A contemporary fashion editor’s autobiography, which incorporates substantial portraits of many Parisian couturiers, including Balenciaga, whom the author knew well.

Beaton, Cecil. The Glass of Fashion. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1954. The fashion world seen through the eyes of the society fashion photographer Cecil Beaton, a friend of Balenciaga’s.

Bertin, Célia. Paris à la Mode: A Voyage of Discovery. Translated by Marjorie Deans. London: V. Gollancz, 1956. A contemporary view of haute couture and its main protagonists.

De Marly, Diana. The History of Haute Couture, 1850–1950. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1980. Classic overview of the development of French haute couture.

Jouve, Marie-Andrée. Balenciaga. Text by Jacqueline Demornex.New York: Rizzoli International, 1989. The first major account of Balenciaga from the archivist of the house, with superb illustrations.

—. Balenciaga. New York: Universal/Vendome, 1997. A brief and useful introduction to Balenciaga, largely through images but also containing new data on clients.

Latour, Anny. Kings of Fashion. Translated by Mervyn Savill. New York: Coward-McCann, 1958. A contemporary fashion journalist’s investigation of haute couture and its main protagonists.

Menkes, Suzy. “Temple to a Monk of Fashion: Museum to Open in Basque Designer’s Birthplace.” International Herald Tribune, 23 May 2000. An overview of the Fundación Balenciaga in Guetaria.

Miller, Lesley Ellis. Cristóbal Balenciaga. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1993. A historically contextualized account of the man and his background, clothes, clients, business, and legacy.

Palmer, Alexandra. Couture and Commerce: The Transatlantic Fashion Trade in the 1950s. Vancouver, Canada: University of British Columbia Press, 2001. A multidisciplinary approach to haute couture that unpacks many of its myths by delving into the dissemination of haute couture through transatlantic (especially Torontonian) outlets, the uses and meanings of couture clothing to clients (achieved through oral history), and the examination of objects in the Royal Ontario Museum’s textile collection. Useful references to the reception of Balenciaga’s designs.

Spindler, Amy M. “Keys to the Kingdom: A Fashion Fairy Tale Wherein Nicolas Ghesquière Finally Inherits the Throne.” New Yorker, 14 April 2002, pp. 53–58. Ghesquière encounters the Balenciaga archives at last.

Exhibition Catalogs:

Cristóbal Balenciaga. Tokyo: Fondation de la Mode, 1987. 

de Petri Stephen, and Melissa Leventon, eds. New Look to Now: French Haute Couture 1947–1987. New York: Rizzoli International, 1989. A case study of haute couture and its San Francisco customers, with an excellent essay explaining how department stores adapted garments for their clients.

Ginsburg, Madeleine, comp. Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1971. A short section of catalog entries on the Balenciaga clothes lent to the exhibition.

Healy, Robyn. Balenciaga: Masterpieces of Fashion Design. Melbourne, Australia: National Gallery of Victoria, 1992. An overview of Balenciaga and his oeuvre and its importance.

Jouve, Marie-Andrée. Homage à Balenciaga. Lyons, France: Musée Historique des Tissus, 1985. Emphasis on Balenciaga’s relationship to the textile industry.

—. Mona Bismarck, Cristobal Balenciaga, Cecil Beaton. Paris: Mona Bismarck Foundation, 1994. An intriguing glimpse into the relationship of a major client, her couturier, and their mutual friend. Well-documented record of designs chosen and worn by Bismarck.

El mundo de Balenciaga. Madrid: Palacio de Bellas Artes, 1974.

Vreeland, Diana, curator. The World of Balenciaga. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1973.

Internet Resources:

Cristóbal Balenciaga Fundazioa-Fundación. Available from General information on the aims and objectives of the trust and the temporary displays of clothes.

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