Modern-day "high fashion" is presented with all the trimmings -- modeled by Amazons in stilettos, sent down the catwalk to a throbbing beat. It's certainly glamorous, but it's still ready-to-wear, available off the rack to anyone with a titanium card. While the term haute couture is often used interchangeably with "high fashion," many people don't realize that the real meaning of couturerefers to original designs that are custom-tailored to the specific measurements of an individual. It's a craft perfected for a privileged clientele in the intimacy of a master's workshop.
Providing a rare glimpse into this exclusive world is Balenciaga Couture, Phoenix Art Museum's Fashion Design Gallery installation devoted to Spanish-born designer Cristobal Balenciaga. One of the 20th century's most gifted and influential couturiers, Balenciaga brought native Spanish touches to a distinctly French institution. Paintings by Goya influenced his use of black lace, and works by 17th-century artists like Velasquez and Zurbaran inspired the lush drapery of his evening gowns.
Through evolution rather than revolution, Balenciaga's innovations quite literally changed the shape of fashion. While Christian Dior's "New Look" is largely credited as the dominant postwar style, with narrow, tightly cinched waists and full padded skirts, it was Balenciaga who introduced the looser, more relaxed silhouettes that eventually became the most desirable and widely copied looks in fashion.
"He set the trend for what fashion looked like in later years," says Dennita Sewell, the museum's curator of fashion design.
Balenciaga's remarkable skill, she says, is apparent in his careful choice of fabric and cut. Refined shaping suggests the feminine figure beneath while still hiding body flaws.
"The neat thing Balenciaga did is make these clothes attractive and comfortable for older women and women who didn't have perfect figures," Sewell explains. "He knew that women look more beautiful when they're at ease."