Balenciaga was reticent in talking about himself and his craft, so the nature of his business, the identity of his clients, and actual surviving garments and designs are necessary to supplement his occasional observations about his fashion philosophy. Evolution rather than revolution, elegance and decorum rather than novelty and flash-in-the-pan fashion, practicality, wearability, and "breathability" were guiding principles in his design and, no doubt, suited a discerning, largely mature clientele. At his apogee in the 1950s and 1960s Balenciaga created designs that bear witness to his keen attention to the effects achieved by combining different colors and textures. Often the intrinsic qualities of fabrics, whether traditional woolens and silks or innovative synthetics, led the design process, as Balenciaga pondered their potential in tailored, draped, or sculpted forms. He was prepared to forgo the French government subsidy, granted to couturiers whose collections comprised 90 percent French-made textiles, in order to acquire the best-quality and most groundbreaking textiles from whichever part of Europe they came.
Balenciaga gradually honed his design in daywear, building out from the base of apparently traditional tailored suits with neat, fitted bodies and sleeves that sat perfectly at the shoulder into experimentation that led to the minimalist "no-seam coat" (1961), crafted from a single piece of fabric by the artful use of darts and tucks. This garment hung loose on the body and embodied the culmination of a range of loose or semifitted lines in various garments that probably constituted Balenciaga's most important contribution to fashion. These designs emerged gradually during the 1950s, flattering different female figures (mature and youthful) and allowing the wearer to move easily. The tunic (1955), chemise or sack (1957), and Empire styles (1958) drew attention away from the natural waist through the creation of a tubular line or the emphasis that a bloused back laid on the hip line or that a high waist laid on the bust. Suit jackets were judiciously cut, and their matching skirts were often gathered slightly into the waistband at the front to accommodate middle-age spread. Three-quarter- and seven-eighth-length sleeves and necklines set away from the neck sought to flatter the wrists and the neck, both graceful at any age. They also proved practical for busy lifestyles. In the 1960s a range of different lengths and fits of jackets and coats featured in Balenciaga's collections, from the very fitted to the loose.
Similar paring down is evident in Balenciaga's cocktail and evening wear; so, too, is a taste for the grandeur and elaboration appropriate to the purpose. For these gowns he drew on historical and non-European sources and sought his own version of modernism. Initially, for all their apparent ease, these dresses were often built on a corset base with boning, an understructure that was not obvious under the complex confections of drapery, puffs, and flounces popular in the 1950s. By the 1960s, however, shapes simplified and did not cling to or mold the body. The contrast between the slim black sheaths of the late 1940s and early 1950s and the outstanding models of gazar, zibeline, faille, and matelassé of the 1960s is absolute. The former took their drama from the swathes of contrasting satin in jewel colors that were attached at waist or neckline and could be draped to the wearer's fancy. The latter relied for their éclat on the sculptural simplicity of their lines and the substance of the fabric rather than on artificial flowers, feathers, or polychrome embroidery. While three-dimensional decoration was not obsolete, the shapes to which it adhered became tuniclike. The frills, ballooning skirts, and sack backs had given way to a more austere, almost monastic aesthetic.
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