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“Balenciaga: Spanish Master,” which opens to the public at the Queen Sofía Spanish Institute in New York on Friday, is as much about the clothes of Spain’s most revered designer as it is about the way in which Spanish culture, history and art influenced him.
Cristóbal Balenciaga, who fled his native country at the time of the Spanish Civil War, sought his inspiration from the country’s religious and royal dress and ceremony, as well as regional attire and the Spanish flair for dance and bullfight.
Curator Hamish Bowles, Vogue’s European editor at large, culled pieces from the Balenciaga archives in Paris and several private collections, along with the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The 76 garments are exhibited in two galleries. Those in the main room are “influenced by historic royal costumes, Spanish art, religious life and ceremony,” Bowles said at a walkthrough on Monday. “One thing that came up during my research is how religious Balenciaga was. His uncle was a priest at the church of St. Salvador in Getaria.”
To that end, many of the pieces have their inspiration in the church, from a severe black silk crepe dress with a silk gazar wrap from 1967 to a red Cardinal evening coat from 1954.
The lower-floor gallery space showcases the more exuberant side of Spain that inspired Balenciaga, with regional design elements and costumes of the bullfight, as well as fishermen’s blouses from the Basque region. A 1950 bolero of pink silk faille and a black silk charmeuse romper loosely resemble a matador outfit and once belonged Pauline de Rothschild.
On Wednesday night, Queen Sofía of Spain will be in New York to officially inaugurate the exhibit at an event hosted by Oscar de la Renta, who serves as the chairman of the institute’s board and who conceived the idea for the exhibit.
Guests that night will find it’s not just dresses that get their moment in the spotlight. The exhibit also has plenty of whimsical Balenciaga hats on show. “Pauline de Rothschild once said that wit is on the head, where it should be,” Bowles mused.