I am not a devotee of haute couture, but I will always cross the street
to see anything designed by Cristóbal Balenciaga. Mostly this means
going to Paris, where fashion and art still intersect. I was lucky to
catch Balenciaga Paris, the top-to-bottom retrospective of the
Spanish-born designer that filled the Louvre’s Musée des Arts
Décoratifs temporary exhibition galleries last year. Now I need travel
no further than Dallas to get a fix. And what a fix!
The Louvre’s show, which featured nearly 150 designs, was stunningly
comprehensive, but the show Myra Walker has organized for the Meadows Museum
is much more personal and, in some ways, more revealing. Two very
different Texas women commissioned most of the 70 Balenciagas, made
between 1949 and 1968, that have been assembled for this exhibition.
The women’s contrasting styles and Balenciaga’s response to them reveal
fashion as emerging from an intimate relationship between maker and
wearer, with the garment the end result of a deeply personal process.
Only clothes? Tell that to Claudia Heard de Osborne.
Her childhood was ordinary. Her mother ran a boardinghouse; her father
was a county clerk. Then Mr. Heard struck oil. But what really changed
Claudia’s life was meeting Rafael de Osborne, scion of a Spanish family
renowned for its sherry making. Rafael fled to Mexico to escape World
War II; there he met Claudia, who was recovering from a failed first
marriage. They wed in 1948 and promptly took up residence in Europe,
with a home in Spain and apartments at the Ritz Hotels
in Paris and Madrid. The aristocratic de Osborne and his Texas wife
dressed to make an impression. A tall, striking woman, Claudia first
met Balenciaga around 1949, just after Christian Dior’s
“New Look” had usurped Balenciaga’s dominant position and caused him to
lose so many clients that he considered retiring. For a woman who
viewed clothes as “sort of a religion for me,” this encounter was
providential. Balenciaga visited Claudia in her Paris and Madrid
apartments, conducting extensive personal fittings to create ball
gowns, cocktail dresses and daily outfits, as well as accoutrements
such as hats, bags and shoes. While their friendship was platonic, its
deep intimacy moved Claudia to confess that Balenciaga’s death would
distress her more than her own husband’s.
Bert de Winter,
on the other hand, made a career out of fashion. Described as “a
fascinating woman who maintained an air of privacy with hints of an
aristocratic past,” she worked as a millinery buyer for a boutique
operating within Neiman Marcus’s
Dallas store during the 1950s. She made frequent expense account trips
to Paris, where she bought for the boutique and for herself. Her
primary work attire consisted of more than 75 Balenciaga ensembles,
which no doubt created a certain amount of “costume envy” among fellow
employees. Unlike Claudia, who could afford anything she wanted, Bert
bought both current productions and discounted designs from the
previous year. The House of Balenciaga assigned personal vendeuses to both Bert and Claudia to manage their accounts and see to their needs.
To a degree that seems unimaginable today, both women displayed nearly
total loyalty to Balenciaga, and the stylings he created for them
resonate with the distinct class, function, body type and personality
of two very different people. “Flamboyant” is a term I would apply to
de Osborne’s gowns and dresses. Or, as Balenciaga described her in the
1967 evening gown of black velvet and beaded embroidery that was one of
his last creations for her, “a sexy priest.” Balenciaga liked to
emphasize de Osborne’s head atop strongly linear, vertical
constructions — centering it like a flower’s pistil within an oversized
black collar trimmed with fringe in 1954, or topping it in 1962 with a
spectacular black satin pillbox hat cascading black feathers to one
side. Black, white and muted colors dominate, but they are often
enumerated in exotic embroidery, intricate laces and sumptuous
textures. De Osborne’s need to dazzle is most evident in her evening
gowns. From a 1954 red velvet number embroidered with pearls to a 1964
black velvet ball gown with a cascade of ermine tails, they anticipate Matthew Barney’s dressing-as-symbolism excesses by nearly 50 years.
Suits form the majority of de Winter’s collection. Most are textured
monochromes in colors ranging from charcoal to purple, with jackets
ending at mid-hip and skirts just covering the knee. These variations
on “sexy severity” are strongly contrasted by Balenciaga’s approach to
de Winter’s evening wear, which emphasized shorter skirts, billowing or
layered material, often pleated or piled around the waist, and bright
monochromes, such as an eye-popping 1953 fuchsia silk cocktail dress
and a spectacularly shaped turquoise silk evening dress from 1960. For
reasons of functionality, physique and perhaps personality, de Winter’s
clothing is much more structured than de Osborne’s. But a glance at the
1961 evening ensemble featuring a long skirt and matching gathered
cape, with a pink taffeta tunic embroidered in vinyl, chenille and
rhinestones, shows that de Winter’s approach — and Balenciaga’s
response — was every bit as innovative as the designer’s ongoing
dialogue with de Osborne.
Balenciaga retired in 1968, and at his recommendation both de Osborne
and de Winter reluctantly turned to Hubert Givenchy, a former
Balenciaga employee who had recently opened his own house. But as de
Osborne noted, it was not the same: “I loved to dress for him and loved
his telling me what to buy. Paris is lonely without him.” Sketches,
fashion photographs and additional Balenciagas and Givenchys drawn from
the Texas Fashion Collection round out this show, but they are
incidental music to a story that is as personal as it is poignant.
Balenciaga was a sensualist whose designs always fused intellect and
emotion with a visceral, animalistic feel. He was also a passionate traditionalist who, swimming against the tide
of postwar “cool,” always insisted on the historical filter of his
Spanish heritage. The best pieces in this show combine sculpture’s
objectness, painting’s surface vitality and the theatricality of
performance art, which is about all any great work of art can hope to
Balenciaga and His Legacy remains at the Meadows Museum through June 17.
Images courtesy Meadows Museum and all photos by Michael Bodycomb.
Christopher French is an artist, writer and Contributing Editor to Glasstire. He currently lives and works in Houston.