It was late in 1972 when the Duchess of Windsor scuppered her friend Diana Vreeland’s idea for the spring exhibition of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which Ms. Vreeland was curating. The Duke of Windsor had died in May, and Ms. Vreeland thought his wardrobe would make a superb focus for her debut as special consultant to the Met event.
At first, the duchess agreed, but latterly she demurred, blaming Buckingham Palace. Ms. Vreeland, then 69, needed the exhibition to reboot her career (the previous year she’d been fired from her job as editor in chief of Vogue). Absent the duke, who could make the exhibition a success? The Basque-born couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga came to mind. He had died two months before the duke, leaving behind a significant style legacy — the fluid silhouette, the stand-away collar, the bracelet-length sleeve, pillbox hats, sack dresses and hostess gowns cut to flatter women of a certain age. Ms. Vreeland approached European museums. Would they help her? To her “great relief,” Amanda Mackenzie Stuart wrote last year in “Empress of Fashion,” a biography of Ms. Vreeland, they would. With no time to spare, Ms. Vreeland coaxed dresses from museum collections and from the closets of the tiaraed heads of Europe and the queens of America’s plutocracy. “The World of Balenciaga” drew more than 150,000 visitors to the Met, restored Ms. Vreeland to fame, and demonstrated that fashion was a subject worthy of study by showing that the drape of Balenciaga’s couture held the line of history.
And yet, what does this history amount to today, 40 years after the designer’s death? The Paris-based journalist Mary Blume knows that many in the current generation associate Balenciaga not with the artful, painstaking couture of the master, but with the ready-to-wear line, sneakers, bags and burgeoning boutiques of the designer’s recent successor, Nicolas Ghesquière. Mr. Ghesquière, who headed the brand for 15 years (he left the company last November), earned critical praise for his designs, while embracing the contemporary pragmatic approach to fashion, which, as Ms. Blume puts it, holds that “the pen that signs a licensing contract is more powerful than the well-placed pin.” Would Balenciaga have approved of this approach?
In her penetrating and entertaining new biography, “The Master of Us All: Balenciaga, His Workrooms, His World,” Ms. Blume acknowledges that, even in his heyday, Balenciaga was something of a cipher. Born in a Basque village in 1895 to a fisherman father (who soon died) and a seamstress mother, he was sewing clothes for the Spanish nobility in his teens, established half a dozen Spanish fashion houses in his 20s and 30s, and in 1936, opened La Maison Balenciaga in Paris on the Avenue George V. Intensely private, he shunned press and publicity, which meant that the inner workings of his private and professional life remained largely unknown, apart from such facts (which the author drolly cites) as that he loved skiing and had bad sinuses.
Nonetheless, in her youth, Ms. Blume had a brush with one of Balenciaga’s most trusted employees, the vendeuse (saleswoman) Florette Chelot, which has allowed her to expand the stock of colorful lore about the designer. In a series of recorded luncheons, which continued until Ms. Chelot died in 2006 at the age of 95, the vendeuse shared her trove of memories with the author, supplying her with bushels of rustling anecdotes to appliqué onto Balenciaga’s curiously seamless life. The book constitutes something of a triple biography: Ms. Blume sews together the lives of Balenciaga and Ms. Chelot, with her own history added as ruching.
In the 1960s, when Ms. Blume arrived in Paris, a friend took her to the flagship and introduced her to Ms. Chelot, who was “svelte in her black Balenciaga, her hair tight in its tidy chignon.” Struck by the “voluptuous austerity” of the house and the nunlike ranks of stern black-clad vendeuses, Ms. Blume regretted her simple shirtdress. Ms. Chelot “rummaged around” and found a blue light wool tailleur she could afford. Fifty years on, the author remembers this suit, which, like “all” of Balenciaga’s creations, lent a quality of “poise — a savant equilibrium” to the woman who wore it.
Landing a job at the Paris office of The New York Herald Tribune soon after, she found herself strolling through Paris like Jean Seberg in “Breathless,” emboldened by her outfit to “take out a notepad and quiz Eleanor Roosevelt at the Hôtel de Crillon as if I were (almost) entitled to.”
Ten years later, Balenciaga was dead; and with him, arguably, the age of haute couture. The arrival of the jet set spelled the departure of the Cunard set. As air travel and lightweight luggage replaced ocean voyages and steamer trunks, society women lost interest in couture dresses and the girdles and fittings they required. By the time Ms. Vreeland’s Balenciaga retrospective opened at the Met in March of 1973, the designer already seemed to belong to nostalgia’s attic. The New York Times ran the headline “The Era of Balenciaga: It Seems So Long Ago,” while Calvin Klein, Ms. Blume notes, was said to have remarked, “Most of it looks out of date.” Archly she retorts, “In the strictest sense it is, in a day when plastic surgery replaces sculptural scissors, when glitz trumps allure.”