How do you say ‘Parisian Elegance’ in Spanish? Antonio Cánovas del Castillo

Antonio Cánovas del Castillo. Jacques Rouchon/Roger Viollet. Cordon Press.

After seeing the Balenciaga exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum recently, and due to the hype around the Spanish designer that Paris saw shine, I decided to share with you another great Spanish creator that succeeded in the international fashion mecca. “El prestigio queda, la fama es efímera”, meaning “the prestige is permanent, fame is ephemeral,” is one of the phrases attributed to Cristóbal Balenciaga; and, in this case, applicable Spanish couturier Antonio Cánovas del Castillo who established himself among the big names of couture in The City of Light. We saw one of his in our visit to the Met Museum Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion exhibition, where I remember thinking that his story and creations need to be shared more often, so here it is a snippet.

Maybe you know all about Castillo, or on the contrary his name doesn’t sound familiar; or maybe, if you’re studying the restoration of Spanish Bourbon Monarchy in the 19th Century, you might think I’m talking about its first Prime Minister. You’re not far too off. Seeing his name next to the name “Lanvin,” might give you a hint of who I’m talking about.

Born in Madrid in 1908, grandnephew of the Spanish Prime Minister of the same name, Castillo left for Paris at the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, escaping from the republican forces.

In 1951 Paris Match reported with an unusual realism, the crude situation that Castillo went through when he migrated, “with 32 trunks, suitcases and various packages, 26 years old and 18 francs in his pocket”, forced to live a life of what the reporter described as a “Russian migrant existence.” However, his luck changed quickly, and in a few months Castillo was initiated in the fashion world designing jewellery and accessories for Coco Chanel, thanks to the intervention of Misia Sert (famous pianist in Paris). Years later, despite of his differences (or because of them), Chanel affirmed about Castillo: “He has a kind of a latent genious. With him one must approach him as a ferret to make him get out of his burrow. Then it’s marvelous…”

Veruschka, with a design by Castillo for Elizabeth Arden. Franco Rubartelli. Condé Nast Archive

Between 1937 and 1945 he worked for Paquin and Piguet, and even collaborated with Cocteau in his film “The Beauty and the Beast.” This was also the year when Elizabeth Arden convinced him to go to New York, where he became the house designer, and he started working for Broadway productions and the New York Metropolitan Opera.

Dress by Lanvin Castillo 1951, Photograph by Gordon Parks

In 1950 Castillo received a call from the Countess of Polignac, Jean Marie-Blanche (daughter of Jeanne Lanvin) who, following the death of Jeanne Lanvin in 1946, was looking for a head designer to revitalise the salon. His presentation was spectacular, with a collection of white sateen dresses. The success and recognition of his work was such that his name became a part of the brand, including its presence on the gowns’ labels.

Paris, February 1951. Preparing The New Spring-summer of 1951 Lanvin Couture Collection. First collection by Antonio Del Castillo. Willy Rizzo. Getty Images

Lanvin-Castillo, Paris, 1951. Photo by Gordon Parks

He knew how to leave an imprint of his personality on his creations, without ever losing the “Lanvin” style of tailored dresses, full skirts and ankle lengths, and those feminine and defined shapes despite all the volume.

This evening dress marked Lanvin-Castillo, by Antonio Canovas del Castillo and made in 1956 (© Met Museum), both recalls the tiered trimmings and bustled silhouettes of 1880s fashions and embodies the romantic, youthful spirit for which the house was known. The style was captured in a striking photograph by Richard Avedon for Harper’s Bazaar in 1956, (© Harper’s Bazaar) in which model Suzy Parker leans over a pinball machine, forming a sweeping arc of dramatically lit tulle against a dark background.

Dress by Lanvin Castillo photographed by Richard Avedon for Harpers in 1956

Lanvin-Castillo Tag

At Lanvin, Castillo experienced the golden age of his career as a couturier. For 13 years, he mastered collection after collection, gained the respect and love of the most demanding Parisian and international public, situating the name of the house and his own among the big names of haute couture at its peak time. In 1963 Castillo decided to establish his own couture house, only open for four years, with the unconditional support of two of his most faithful clients, Barbara Hutton and Gloria Guiness. During this time, he worked for private clients, theatre and film, which brought him a Tony Award for Best Costume Design for Goldilocks (musical) in 1959 and an Oscar for Best Costume Design for the British film Nicholas and Alexandra in 1971 (shared with Yvonne Blake).

Dress by Lanvin-Castillo, 1957. Henry Clarke. Condé Nast Archive

As a final note, in 1961 Castillo hired  a very young Dominican designer living in Madrid named Óscar de la Renta, but that is another story.

Welcome Spring! A Look at Lanvin’s Floral Frocks

Pierre Brissaud, “Dansons la capucine” in Gazette du Bon Ton, 1921. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

With April fast approaching, so too come the beautiful blooms of spring! In celebration of warmer weather and brighter days, here are some fun floral designs from the early-twentieth century couturier Jeanne Lanvin.

Jeanne Lanvin for the House of Lanvin, “Roseraie” dress, Spring/Summer 1923. Silk. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Credit line: Anonymous gift, 1964). Available at this link.

Jeanne Lanvin (1867-1946) started a millinery business in the 1890s and later expanded into couture as the clothes she designed for her daughter became popular among friends and fashionistas. By the 1920s the House of Lanvin was well established and wide-reaching, producing fragrances and clothes for men, women, and children. A guiding principle in her creation of female couture, as Lanvin put it in 1929, was that “modern clothes need some sort of romantic quality.” As such, her designs reveled in femininity through the use of ruffles, lace, ribbon, and, most notably, flowers. Many wonderful examples of Lanvin’s floral dresses survive in collections around the world, including a striking red and cream dress embellished with roses from 1923. This gown demonstrates how Lanvin’s preference for embroidery and appliqué (instead of patterned fabric) resulted in sumptuous, highly detailed creations. Ombré ribbons are arranged in a geometric pattern and punctuated with folded-ribbon roses, as well as a rose collar, sleeves, and belt. The marriage of a sleek pattern and soft roses evinces Lanvin’s eye for romanticizing trends to fit her house’s characteristic charm.

Jeanne Lanvin for the House of Lanvin, Dress, 1927. Silk. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Credit line: Gift of Varney Thompson Elliott and Rosemary Thompson Franciscus in memory of their mother, Margaret Whitney Thompson, 1985). Available at this link.

Pierre Brissaud, “Il n’a pas pleuré” in Gazette du Bon Ton, 1920. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

Lanvin excelled at the robe de style, a gown that favored full skirts instead of the straighter silhouette popular at the time. While her robe de style were occasionally embroidered with flowers, it was more common for a large flower pin with copious ribbons to be pinned to the dress. Nearly identical pins can be seen in a dress from 1927 and a fashion plate from seven years earlier in the Gazette du Bon Ton. Pinned at the bust instead of the waist, this pin speaks to the continuity of style in the House of Lanvin, as well as a prevailing trend for florals.

Pierre Brissaud, “On t’attend” in Gazette du Bon Ton, 1920. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

Nearly every issue of the Gazette du Bon Ton features illustrated gowns by Lanvin, many of them with floral embellishments. Gazette du Bon Ton, which ran from 1912 to 1915 and 1920 to 1925, was an elite fashion magazine with intricate pochoir illustrations. The sweet scenes displaying Lanvin’s couture for women and children embody in turns a maternal ideal and feminine elegance. In both instances, florals lend a graceful naturalness to the looks on show.

Pierre Brissaud, “Venez danser” in Gazette du Bon Ton, 1921. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

Further Reading

Cole, Daniel James and Nancy Deihl. The History of Modern Fashion from 1850. London:
Laurence King Publishing, 2015.

Milbank, Caroline Rennolds. Couture: The Great Fashion Designers. London: Thames and Hudson, 1985.

Pel, Martin. 1920s Jazz Age Fashion and Photographs. London: Unicorn in association with
Fashion and Textile Museum, London, 2016.