BALENCIAGA – lessons from the master

I live in Vancouver Canada.  When I learned that a mere six and a half hour drive, several bridges and an international border south there would be an exhibit of couture clothing I just had to go.

So into the car on a raining and chill Pacific coast morning in January of 1990 and off to The Portland Art Museum-Oregon Art Institute I go.  I’ll stay two nights in a nearby hotel and view the clothes.  All those couture designer creations I’ve been pouring over in books and magazines – now I’ll have a chance to see them in cloth!  Tame as it may seem for many – That’s my-kind-of-adventure!

The exhibit stays fresh for me still – and having the book helps!

New Look To Now – French Haute Couture 1947-1987 by Stephen de Pietri and Melissa Leventon.  Published by Rizzoli – ISBN 0-8478-1139-5

Also the brochure:

I loved this exhibit.  Each garment was beautifully mounted and the mannequins were not distant and behind glass.  There was “no touching” but I confess I did breathe on some of those gowns while leaning in for a really close look at the details, the cloth, the techniques.    105 exquisite couture creations from Balenciaga, Madame Gres, Dior, Balmain, Lanvin, Givenchy, and More!

Two of Yves Saint Laurent’s spring 1977 “peasant looks” were displayed.  I had been a student in design school when that collection was presented.  It had been the darling of every fashion editor that year – much photographed, much heralded and subsequently much copied.  And here were the original runway pieces.

Two of Christian Dior’s most famous ballgowns from his winter 1949 collections were central to the exhibit – Junon and Venus –  WOW – beaded petals on wide grandly petticoated skirts with just wisps of tiny bodices – if you’ve seen these gowns (and how could you not – they are photographed for everything) you know just how amazing they are.  And – Dior – kind of did it first.  These gowns have been copied and honoured many times since as the ultimate princess and red carpet dress archetypes.

I learned a lot that day.  From  Yves Saint Laurent a lesson in button spacing.  A row of buttons has what I refer to as a rhythm – the size and spacing and the choice of button and buttonhole create endless combinations.  A single decorative element or a rhythmic harmony of many buttons placed in a certain frequency.  It can be a crucial element in a garment and sometimes the only decoration needed.

From Gres – many lessons in soft pleats – again the pleating creates frequencies and rhythms.

Photography doesn’t do these gowns their full justice.  I think of Couture as a three-dimensional applied art form.  Feathers waft, beads twinkle, pleats move, gowns breathe.  HEAVEN!

The more subtle lesson of the day came to me well after I had returned home to the somewhat mundane efforts happening in my own workshop.    There were alterations for clients, at least one wedding dress always on the table and in 1990 I was filling a large order for uniforms bound for tour guides.  I was just dying to sew with beads and feathers but a gal has to earn a living – and in 1990 I had yet to discover the joy that is ‘costuming-for-film-and-television’.

I credit this next design lesson directly to my time at the exhibit and in particular the creations of Cristobal Balenciaga.

In pattern drafting we work with pattern blocks.  A pattern block is developed so that subsequent patterns can be created more easily.  The block represents the basic sizing and measurements of a standard form.  Each designer creates their own series of blocks based on personal choices.  We then manipulate those blocks to add stylelines and details.  As I worked with my blocks and reminisced about my Portland weekend – I saw the lesson that I had seen but not really understood until putting my own hands to cloth.

It was an epiphany for me as a patternmaker and all round fashion enthusiast.

I’d been looking at my pattern blocks from the center front and the center back.  A block is usually established using these two center lines as the starting point.  If I shifted the blocks so that I began from the side seam – a different train of thought and design emerged.  Move the straight grain to the side seam and then manipulate the style from that vantage point.  It’s really just shifting the central axis of the block to run down the side of the body – but I could see…see…SEE! – what a difference this could make in the creative process.

I try to repeat this ‘shift in perspective’ with students of draping in class.  I am aiming to nudge the students into new territory for their own design and patternmaking process.  Change the angle of perspective and open new visions and possibilities.

Some lessons we just never forget……..and……..I can hardly believe it’s now 22 years later.  Oh my!

Thank you Cristobal – I’m one of your biggest fans.




About Costume People

We are two women with over 30 years of combined experience in making costumes for film and television. Even after all these years we still love the thrill of seeing our creations in close up on the big screen. Now it's time for us to share our expertise.
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2 Responses to BALENCIAGA – lessons from the master

  1. anastasiavogl says:

    I remember that class so well! The lesson takes on new meaning every time I ponder it, and I am forever going back over the lessons you taught in my head while I am making new things.

  2. Fantastic! – That is soooo good to hear. When I’m teaching I often wonder (in my internal voice) if the lesson just sounds like so much blah-blah-blah to the students. Thanks for the positive feedback! – and good wishes for fine weather and no-more-flats as you and you bicycle speed across this very wide continent! – Deb

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