The 1960’s always captured my imagination: students were revolting in Paris, in America the hippies were imagining a better world, the children of war heroes were becoming young adults in a world struggling to find its way, and they dared to imagine a better one. Of course, we know now, it wasn’t to be. The protests didn’t fix anything, the hippie movement died down and soon the 70’s came out in their spectacular punk glory. But those glorious swinging sixties shaped the man who would become one of the most influential artists of all time and a personal hero for me: Cristobal Balenciaga.
The magical Cristobal Balenciaga dared to imagine a different future for women in this period of revolt. He made suits that fit a women’s body so perfectly that it’s still spoken about today: if a woman wore Balenciaga once she would never wear any other designer. He played with shapes and silhouettes to give alternatives to women claiming emancipation from the tired shapes that dominated for centuries. One example, his illusion waist dresses that play with proportions instead of accentuating the waist.
But there is one garment that truly moved me, the reason I wrote this love letter to Balenciaga, and it is the wedding dress he created in 1967. The masterpiece is held together by one single seam. It culminates his visions of playing with shapes and silhouettes to make art pieces of women’s bodies in absolute simplicity. This dress captures the magic cut that earned Balenciaga a cult following in his day for the ease, elegance and simplicity it awarded the wearer. It was also one of the many instances when he dared to push design by creating something of such high technical quality that could be held together by one single thread without falling apart. It starts by framing the shoulders and arms of the bride and then falls into a cocoon around the body of the woman, it becomes a shell that protects her. Coupled with the heavy helmet-like veil framing the face, you can see the space-age inspiration in action. This is what the future looked like for Balenciaga, utilitarian yet delicate, never losing femininity but protecting it and shielding it and more importantly, holding it together almost by magic.
As a student, I had the great fortune of seeing the veil. I entered a dark room with very low temperature to preserve the clothing. It was kept in a white box and the curator unboxed it carefully to show me the treasure. This felt as close as I was ever going to get to touch a piece of history. Perfectly preserved and much smaller than I anticipated, it immediately made me think of the women in the 1960’s. The woman this was made for was significantly smaller than me and yet in all the images the dress makes her seem tall, commanding and very strong. A woman who chose marriage, wasn’t reduced to accept it. It was incredible to see how a piece of cloth can have so much meaning and how a piece of history lies perfectly preserved in an archive. I was gazing at that future Balenciaga imagined, where function merged with beauty to unravel the threads that have constantly bound women through history and more importantly, I can see it mattered.
That woman in that wedding dress, as a lot of women in the 1960’s inspired me. Balenciaga created a dress that made me believe I could be strong too in a world that can be unkind and cold. He made me believe that I can choose whatever future I want, and wear whatever I want and be that modern woman who uses clothes as expression and armour and not as a prison.