Sunday, January 9, 2011

¡Olé! Balenciaga Revisited

So first we had the appetizer, and only weeks later did we segue to the main course! On December 2nd, we went to Hamish Bowles' FIT lecture and slide show "BALENCIAGA: Spanish Master" which he had curated at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute on Park Avenue. (Check out our 12/12/10 posting - "Full Dance Card" - for details on Hamish and FIT.) Having booked our seats for this lecture way back in September, we foolishly didn't realize there would be a show to go with it. But once we found out, from the horse's - I mean the curator's - mouth, having seen the slides and heard the descriptions of some of the dresses and accessories, we wanted to see the exhibition, and the fabulous clothing, in person.

Just before Christmas, we met our friend Judy Berkowitz at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute. Jean says: The Institute is housed in a magnificent gilded age building, one of the grande dames of Park Avenue, and boasts no less than Oscar de la Renta as Chairman of the Board. (Valerie says: due some extraordinary oversight, we were not invited to the opening, which was attended by both Queen Sofia and Oscar de la Renta. Oh, and by Gwyneth Paltrow and a host of others who would have loved to see us. Jean says: ...whom WE would have loved to have seen.)

This handsome portrait of Cristobal Balenciaga, the master himself, hangs in the vestibule of the Institute. He was born in 1895 in the Basque fishing village of Guetaria to a captain of a small pleasure boat and a dressmaker. After his father's death in 1905, his mother supported the family. At age 13, Balenciaga became a tailor's apprentice. Over the next two decades in Spain, he progressed swiftly to designer with couture salons in San Sebastian, Madrid and Barcelona. The Spanish civil war forced him to flee to Paris. He opened his own couture house in 1937 which he ran until his retirement in 1968. Although his salon was in Paris, his clothes maintained a decidedly Spanish influence.

The black and white tile floor in the vestibule is a clue to the formal beauty of the rest of the Spanish Insitute. The show runs from November 19, 2010 through February 19, 2011, so there's still time to see it. Don't wait. Trust me. You'll thank me (us). Fair warning: admission is $15, but it's well worth it. And there's a place to check your coat, so you don't have to lug around your parka, sweater, hat and scarf in this very frigid weather. The two galleries on the first floor and in the basement where the clothes are displayed are dark, and coolish, but that's to protect the clothing on exhibit. (It's a pity you can't see this handsome couple from the front. Both looked like they belonged on a magazine cover. We didn't have the nerve to ask them to pose for us.)

The second floor gallery (the sumptuous staircase to which is shown here), with continuously running silent film footage of Balenciaga's 1961 and 1967-68 fashion shows projected on the wall, was quite warm. Run time is approximately 80 minutes. On the afternoon that we were there, everyone spoke in whispers while watching the film. Had anything other than fashion been on the screen, I could have easily drifted off to dreamland, given my warm clothing, comfortable chair, low lighting. Zzzzz. (Valerie says: the videos of the last years seemed to show that he was influenced, rather than influencing. The youthquake of the '60s hit tradition hard. I remember many middle aged women in the '60s complaining that they could no longer find any clothing to suit them - everything was geared toward the young. Now things have come full circle, and I feel the same way. SIGH.)

Jean takes up where she left off: Instead, I took a quick cat nap on the steps down to the lower gallery. I absolutely LOVED the color of this carpeting, and took full advantage. Valerie agrees: yes, it was a LUSH pink. In fact, it had the odd effect of bringing Schiaparelli to mind. But then, it was only on the lower level staircase, not in the exhibition itself, and not of the upper level spiral staircase.

Valerie says: We weren't allowed to take photographs, even without flash, so the few photos of us were taken surreptitiously. We thought we took the earlier photo of the staircase unseen too, but afterwards it turned out a guard was watching and smiling, so apparently only the exhibition itself was off limits. In any case, the photos here and below were taken off the internet.

Jean says: Balenciaga popularized the bolero jacket, inspired by the bullfighter's traje de luces (suit of lights). Although he modernized the look by pairing the jacket with a black romper, rather than with capri pants, he used matador tassel closures at the calf. (The exhibition label said the wearer also tinkered with it, noting that was something Balenciaga generally frowned upon.)

Raise your hand if you're NOT familiar with this photograph of the incomparable Lisa Fonssagrives taken by her husband, the incomparable Irving Penn. The drop-dead stunning outfit she's wearing here is one of the pieces in the exhibition.

We all loved this (above left). There's a tiny, barely visible beaded pillbox hat holding the shawl up, so it looks almost like a black halo. If it were worn today, those of us who were not around in Balenciaga's heyday would ask if this were a Rei Kawakubo piece. In fact, there were several very stark garments that brought Comme des Garcons to mind. Goya's Duchess of Alba (above right) was said to be the designer's inspiration.

The 1957 wedding dress shown in the center here, one of the cornerstone pieces of the show, was worn by Sonsoles Díez, daughter of one of Balenciaga's most devoted patrons.

We were all very taken with the dress on the right. According to the label, the grand pouffy apron at the waist could also be removed and worn as a cape. Fabulous, and fascinating.

A selection of various styles. There was a mirror on the wall so we could see what the pieces looked like from the back as well. We have to applaud them for adding that thoughtful touch. It's so frustrating for aficionados not to have a full view.

Valerie says: I loved this red velvet dress with faux pearls of various sizes sewn onto it. I was unable to find a photograph of the whole piece, but you can probably fill in the rest for yourself. The shape (super A-line skirt, tight bodice) doesn't need to be extraordinary, since the materials and color do that. This dress definitely does present problems for the woman who expects to sit down at some point, though, and it's hard to imagine the kind of occasion for which it was worn. Would it be for a cocktail party? A dance? Does one show how circumscribed one's life is simply by posing the question?

As hat lovers, we all had different favorites in this display. Valerie says: I want the red straw hat in the front. It's hard to tell from the dark photograph, but it's semi-matador style, except the left and right sides are decorated with matching woven red straw cubes rather than the traditional manneristic horns. Jean says: I loved two of the little black cocktail hats. Unfortunately, this case abutted one of the full size displays. The lighting was low and I'm blind as a bat - deadly combination. As I swung wide in an attempt to get a better view of the one in the back row, far right, I did a face plant smack into the adjoining case. My lipstick left a wonderful kiss tattoo on the glass.

Valerie says: this was another favorite of mine. There is a seam down the center front, and with one minor exception, all the polka dots along the left side of the seam were perfectly sized and matched to their partners on the right side of the seam. One of many signs of craftsmanship and luxury (since perfectly good fabric would have to be cut away to get to the matching points). Jean says: For the record, eagle-eyed Judy B. immediately identified that one rogue polka dot.

Jean says: While I absolutely was blown away by the craftsmanship and could appreciate the Spanish influence in Balenciaga's designs, their appeal had to be somewhat limited. Speaking for myself, there are mighty few occasions for which I want to strut my Infanta look. Especially never more than once (if ever). It was truly a niche clientele. Valerie says: on closer inspection, I found the dress bore only a cursory resemblance to the Infanta's dress. The hair may have been more closely modeled on the Infanta than the dress. Still, given the Infanta's continuing reputation some 350 years after the completion of the painting, what better way to showcase the dress?

In his FIT lecture, Hamish Bowles juxtaposed paintings by Goya and other Spanish masters which directly illustrated the Iberian influence in the individual Balenciaga designs. Here's the little Infanta who inspired the eponymous dress.

Valerie says: scholars often point out that court painter Velasquez regularly portrayed the royal family in less than flattering ways. Several years ago, when I found an Infanta Christmas ornament selling at the National Academy Museum, I marveled at how homely the manufacturer had made her, and had to buy her as a counterpoint to some of my more finely crafted ornaments. At my office this year, several people put up small holiday decorations. I pondered which of mine to bring in. We're an honest bunch, and I haven't heard any stories of theft of any kind, but one never knows. So I brought in the Infanta, thinking, I confess, that she was so unattractive no one would want to steal her. (Jean says: I rest my case.) (Although, says Valerie a tad sheepishly, she's actually a cute little thing in the Velasquez painting.)

Jean is wearing her Ignatius fleece hat (aka her Shrek hat); vintage bakelite dice earrings and black bakelite cube ring; black resin skull ring by Made Her Think; Moss Lipow glasses frames; Smartwool zip front pullover from Paragon; Brigitte harem pants, Trippen low-heeled elf boots, Lounge Fly bag.

Valerie is wearing a red wool hat by Parkhurst, silver pin by Mladek, wool anemone scarf by Katie Mawson, unlabeled snap front gray wool shirt dress from a second hand shop, red leather Frye boots.

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And while we're on the subject of Spain, we just had to show you this wonderful Spanish clog from 1964. (Click on the pic for a better view.) The photo is from Workman Publishers' Gallery Desk Calendar of Shoes, which features a shoe for almost every day of the year - though only one for the weekend, as you see here - that will bring you close to fainting. The legend on the calendar page says 'traditional painted wood clog on stilts'. The workmanship on this shoe is fabulous. The outside is painted black, with no trace of color on the rim or inside of the shoe. (Remember coloring? "Stay inside the lines"?) There's a very exactly carved design on the instep, as if it were incised leather. A 'seam' has deliberately been carved all across the front of the toe box, again to mimic a leather shoe, and tiny chips have been chiseled out of the seam at regular intervals, to suggest contrasting leather stitching. And the stilts! Well! For those of us who love platforms, say no more! Ah! A work of art!

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Stop the presses! Hit the rewind button on the New Year! We'd like to start 2011 over again, puhleeeze!

We've both been down for the count this week: Valerie with the flu (or the cold from hell - hard to tell the diff) and Jean with torn rotator cuff and bursitis in her right shoulder (possibly from lugging around oversized/overweight bags, perhaps? Hmmmm.) Needless to say, the shoulder problem, with sudden onset Monday night, put a serious crimp in Jean's New Year's resolution to go to the gym. (Jean says: All I want is to find a spot in which I can hold my arm that doesn't cause excruciating pain.) While we're on light duty, we wanted to catch up on what we were up to before we were so rudely interrupted by reality. (Valerie says: Praise the lozenge and pass the antibiotic.)

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Bonus News for Fashion Fans


At the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center

We have not yet gotten to see On Stage In Fashion, which closes on January 22, so we can't say whether it's a must see or not, but we've provided the link above so you can read all about it. If you like what you see, arrange your schedule to go see it before it closes. If we had more leisure, we'd definitely go (and we might still).

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