Documenting Fashion


Cristobal Balenciaga’s “Infanta” gown (1939): a story about origins?

June 10, 2014 by Elisa

PARIS1938_Balenciaga

Drawing made for Madge Garland, Winter Collections, Paris, 1939.
Courtauld History of Dress Collections.

A small arrow links the fashion sketch with the words “Spanish Influence”. This sketch was made for Madge Garland, editor of British Vogue, during the presentation of the 1939 Winter Collections in Paris. Cristobal Balenciaga (1895-1972) christened the design the “Infanta” gown since he had been inspired by Diego Velázquez’s portrait Las Meninas (1656). In this painting, the five-year old Infanta of Spain, Margarita Teresa, wears a dress with a tight-fitting bodice and a wide skirt supported by a dome-shaped hooped petticoat. Balenciaga’s version, with its contrasting colours, resembles her gown and echoes the shape and formality of seventeenth-century court dress. The clever blending of elements of historical dress with contemporary shapes ensured that Balenciaga’s 1939 evening gown appealed to both the fashion press, which has an appetite for novelty and innovation, and his discerning clientele.

In 1939 fashion journalists proclaimed the “Infanta” gown a “remarkable” phenomenon. In such narratives it was the presumed Spanishness of the design, inextricably linked to Balenciaga’s heritage, which was heralded as innovative and “different”. For example, on 15 September 1939, an editorial in American Vogue read:

“Balenciaga borrows again from that earlier Spaniard – there’s a Velázquez look about this dress, which Miss Mona Maris wears like a sixteenth-century court beauty.”

Balenciaga had arrived in Paris in 1937, a period in which nationalism had become an important topic of debate for both European politics and Parisian couture. He presented the collection in 1939, the same year that the Spanish Civil War reached new heights of violence, which included the firebombing of his native region, the Basque. Balenciaga’s reference to Spanish art history was interpreted as a personal quest for cultural identity and a nostalgic longing for origins.

However, several other Parisian couturiers also dipped into art history for themes and motifs in 1939. In British Vogue, Garland linked this trend to the feeling of malaise just before the outbreak of the Second World War:

“In 1939, every irrelevant romantic image was invoked, from the paintings of Boucher and Watteau to the personalities of Queen Victoria and the Empress Eugénie. Corsetieres were called in to help construct the boned bodices of the new-old gowns.”

The silhouette of the Infanta dress was in line with the historicist theme acknowledged by Garland, but also with the small corseted waists and wide skirts in vogue in Parisian couture. Timing was crucial and the Infanta dress became inextricably linked to the wider debate on national identities. Interestingly, the use of seventeenth-century Spanish costume elements by Mainbocher, the House of Worth or Lanvin was not met with similar response.

The Infanta dress had been designed by a ‘real Spaniard’ and as result, it was interpreted as a manifestation of Balenciaga’s distinctive national identity and culture. Scholars and journalists appeared to understand Balenciaga’s new role as their tour guide to Spain. It is important to note that there were a variety of other design elements in Balenciaga’s work that revealed that Spanishness was not his sole defining trait as a designer. Nevertheless, it was this kind of exoticism that, in 1939, sparked interest among his clientele, and proved undoubtedly beneficial to the cultural and economic capital of an emerging designer in Paris.

Sources:

Arzalluz, M. (2010) Cristóbal Balenciaga. The Making of a Master (1895-1936), London: V&A Publications.

Garland, M. (1968) The Indecisive Decade. The World of Fashion and Entertainment in the Thirties, London: Macdonald.

‘Fashion: Hoop-Skirts to Hobble-Skirts at the…Paris Openings’ (American Vogue, September 1939).

‘Fashion: Paris Openings – Variety Show’ (American Vogue, September 1939).

‘The Great Painters Colour Paris Fashion’ (American Vogue, September 1939).

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