Cate Blanchett’s Unworthy Critic

“That skirt looks like it’s growing mold! Eww! And what’s up with the cape? Who is she trying to be, superman? Epic fail!”

I stared at the girl with my mouth open.

Dressed in a tank top with her bra straps showing, a short jean skirt, and flip flops, the young, 20-something internet fashion “expert” was reviewing her worst dressed picks of the week. Number one on her list? Cate Blanchett at the New York premiere of “Blue Jasmine” wearing blush-colored Balenciaga couture, a reprisal of a 1967 archived design.

Cate Blanchett in Balenciaga at the "Blue Jasmine" premiere

Cate Blanchett in Balenciaga at
The Blue Jasmine Premiere, July 2013

“It’s just…gross!” said the girl.  “I can’t believe she wore that!”

Stop. Talking. Now.

That’s what I was thinking as this young woman went on and on. It was like watching a train wreck. But I couldn’t look away.

I don’t remember her name or even what website she was on. All that stuck with me was that she was utterly unqualified to be talking about fashion, yet she was doing it on a high traffic website. Both she and the person who hired her need to be fired. Her for being a fraud, and her boss for not knowing the difference.

Yes, she’s entitled to her opinion. Yes, she has a right to dislike the gown.

But to criticize the designer and the artistry that went into it? No. To question Cate Blanchett’s fashion choices? Absolutely not. She’s not qualified. It’s like making fun of haute cuisine because it doesn’t taste like McDonalds. She was completely out of her league.

And it showed.

Let’s look at the history of this girl’s so-called “epic fail.”

Because it’s abundantly clear she never did.

Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895-1972) was a Spanish designer of immense talent who was at the height of his career in the ’50’s and 60’s. His exquisite architectural clothing did something no other label could: make matrons look like models. Anyone could wear his clothes and look amazing, but he was particularly adept at making less-than-perfect figures look svelte and chic. He was one of the most popular designers for women over 40.

Cristobal Balenciaga Balenciaga Design 1950s
Cristobal Balenciaga, 1930’s Balenciaga Design, 1950’s

He grew up in Spain but moved to Paris in the 1930’s. After World War II, Dior’s “New Look” was the most popular silhouette. Chanel hated it, which is why she came out of retirement and re-opened her shop in 1954, when she was 70. She knew that feminine frills and the wasp thin waist wasn’t for everyone.

Dior's New Look 1947 Balenciaga, 1950's Chanel and her classic suit, 1954
Dior’s “New Look” 1947 Balenciaga, 1950’s Chanel Classic Suit, 1954

So did Balenciaga.

Many of his silhouettes put emphasis on the shoulders instead of the waist, skimming over tummies and camouflaging hips. He preferred to use thick, firm fabrics that stood away from the body – silk gazar was the house’s signature fabric – and popularized collars that stood away from the collar bone, and heavily embellished “bracelet” sleeves. He was adored by women with real bodies and regal bank accounts.

Architectural collarBalenciaga Stand Away Collar, 1950’s

Balenciaga 1950's

Balenciaga Evening Gown, 1952

Balenciaga Sack Dress, 1957

Balenciaga “Sack” Dress, 1957

Balenciaga "Cocoon" Coat, 1957

Balenciaga “Cocoon” Coat, 1957

But he was also an old-school purist. He was one of the few premiere designers in fashion history who could actually draw, cut, sew, and embellish a garment himself from start to finish with flawless precision. He knew clothes.

Balenciaga Evening Gown 1950

Balenciaga Evening Gown, 1950

So when ready-to-wear, mod dressing, and hippies took over in the late 1960’s, he refused to “go with the flow.” Disgusted with where fashion was heading, he closed his atelier in 1968, proclaiming, “There are no more elegant women worth dressing any more.”

The elegant women he had been dressing took to their beds and wept. Haute couture was over. Clothes would never be the same again.

Sadly, they were right.

In the 1950’s, twenty thousand women a year descended on Paris each season to buy couture. Today, it’s less than two thousand. Most design houses rely on their ready-to-wear lines and licensing deals to pay the bills. The detailed art and artistry of couture is pretty much a thing of the past.

Except when daring fashion lovers like Cate Blanchett step up and remind us that although small, that rarefied world still exists.

Cate Blanchett in Balenciaga at the "Blue Jasmine" premiereCate Blanchett in Balenciaga at Blue Jasmine Premiere

Cate Blanchette with Blue Jasmine co-star

Cate Blanchett with Blue Jasmine Co-Star, Peter Sarsgaard
Balenciaga Dress Without the Cape

No, this gown isn’t for everyone.

Neither was Balenciaga.

He frequently challenged the status quo with his architectural silhouettes. But if you were pregnant or just had a baby, you could wear his clothes and look chic. Same if you were a grandmother. Or if you were plus size. Many of his clothes skimmed over typical trouble spots and emphasized the shoulders, hands, and legs. See why he was so popular? Name one premiere designer today who caters to this market. You can’t.

Balenciaga 1960

Balenciaga Gown, 1960

Balenciaga, c. 1967

Balenciaga, 1967

Not even the House of Balenciaga anymore.

Cristóbal Balenciaga died in 1972. But in 1986, a French company bought the rights to the House of Balenciaga and relaunched the brand as a ready-to-wear company. Señor Balenciaga would NOT have approved. The label struggled for years, until creative director Nicholas Ghesquière was hired in 1997 and began to bring the brand back to prominence.

Ghesquière generally favored Balenciaga’s strong lines and firm fabrics, but he also became known for “biker chic” and metallic “Star Trek” looks – a very different aesthetic from Balanciaga. Which may be part of the reason he left in November, 2012 and was replaced by Alexander Wang.

Balenciaga 2008

Balenciaga Spring 2008
Designed by Nicholas Ghesquière

Wang’s Fall 2013 collection is simple, crisp, and architectural, and is more reminiscent of the old Balenciaga style.

Balenciaga 2013 Balenciaga 2013 Balenciaga 2013

Balenciaga Fall 2013
Designed by Alexander Wang

Cate Blanchett’s movie premiere dress was a remake of a Spring 1967 Balenciaga dress – part of a capsule collection the house is calling Balenciaga “Edition.” The cape – a trapeze or trapezoid shape – is made of silk gazar, while the hand made silk flowers were hand sewn onto the tulle overlay of the dress. Beautiful!

I’m not wild about the cape – it overwhelms the dress, in my opinion, perhaps I’d like it better if it was shorter – but I LOVE the skirt. I’m wiping drool off my face over that skirt and those hand sewn flowers. You just don’t see these kind of high fashion details anymore.

Balenciaga 1967

Balenciaga, Spring 1967

Which is why we love Cate Blanchett. She’s one of the few women daring enough to wear something like this. Most actresses wouldn’t try – they’d play it safe. I understand. No one likes to be criticized. It’s hard to take the heat. Because usually, people either really like something like this or they really don’t. There is no in-between.

But to call yourself a fashion “expert” and make fun of the gown without mentioning Balenciaga, the architecture, or the artistry involved? Or to criticize Cate Blanchett’s sartorial choices when the woman has designers begging her to wear their clothes because she’s such a daring icon?  See why I was flabbergasted by the so-called “expert” on that website?  An expert would know the history. She’d know the Balenciaga aesthetic. She’d know Cate Blanchett’s track record.  She’d try to educate her viewers on the significance of the piece whether she personally liked it or not. She wouldn’t just throw out her opinion with no supporting evidence and expect everyone to agree with her. Only a naive, NON-expert would do that. Or an egomaniac. When you don’t do your homework, it shows.

So what’s the lesson here?

Be careful from whom you take your fashion advice. Opinions are a dime a dozen. If that’s all they’ve got – if you don’t learn anything – look elsewhere. Because backing up an opinion takes thought and knowledge, and if they don’t have it, you shouldn’t be listening to them.

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Diana Pemberton-SikesDiana Pemberton-Sikes is an image consultant and author of Signature Style Blueprint, a video course that teaches women how to create a signature style using their best colors, best features, and best styles. You can learn more here.

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38 Comments

  • Lesley Dx

    Reply Reply August 23, 2013

    Precise and lucid.

    Thank you x

    • Diana

      Reply Reply August 23, 2013

      Thanks, Lesley! Glad you liked it!

  • Gail

    Reply Reply August 23, 2013

    Diana,
    This was a great article. The dress is beautiful. I appreciate the background on the designer and the fashion history. Very interesting and informative!
    Great!
    Thank you,
    Gail

    • Diana

      Reply Reply August 23, 2013

      Gail – you’re welcome! Glad you enjoyed it!

  • Sandra Duncan

    Reply Reply August 23, 2013

    Re: Cate Blanchett’s critic–BRAVA!! Well said…I suppose ignorance is bliss.

  • Michell

    Reply Reply August 23, 2013

    Your article got me thinking. Thanks for the history lesson.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply August 23, 2013

      Thought-provoking? Awesome! Thanks for your note!

  • Andrea

    Reply Reply August 23, 2013

    Diana –

    Fantastic post to your website. I not only love the lesson of your post, which is to be careful about whom you take fashion advice from. But also, the detailed information on the history of the dress, the era and the designer. Absolutely fabulous!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply August 23, 2013

      Hi Andrea,

      Glad you enjoyed it!

      Most people don’t know a lot about Balenciaga these days, but he was cherished – and widely copied – “back in the day” for the very reasons I cited in the article: he made “average” bodies look chic. No one does that today.

  • Rosa

    Reply Reply August 23, 2013

    Precisely why I purchase your products! Thank you for the great commentary. Very insightful while also a great opinion piece. Now off to learn more about this designer! Love that you pointed out Cate chose to be dating and wear an unique throw back piece too.

    Rosa

    • Diana

      Reply Reply August 23, 2013

      Hi Rosa,

      Glad you enjoyed it! I watched and read several critiques about this dress – some loved it, some hated it, most didn’t know HOW they felt about it – but the girl in the tank top and flip flops just blew me away with her snarky comments. It’s hard to know every designer from every era, but if you’re going to offer an opinion, you really need to do your homework. Otherwise, you just look foolish…

  • Cathie

    Reply Reply August 23, 2013

    Thanks Diana, I really liked learning about Balenciaga. YOU sure know your stuff! 🙂

    • Diana

      Reply Reply August 23, 2013

      Thanks, Cathie! Glad you enjoyed it!

      I don’t know all the designers in depth, but he was such an original, he’s always piqued my interest. Perhaps I should spotlight others…

  • Alison

    Reply Reply August 23, 2013

    Diana

    I’m in agreement with you – not too keen on the cape. However, I would say that Ms Blanchett is obviously a lady who enjoys clothes and I always find her very elegant.

    Excellent article!

    Kind regards

    Alison

    • Diana

      Reply Reply August 23, 2013

      Hi Alison,

      Glad you enjoyed the article! The outfit is very yin-yang – strong cape with delicate flower skirt. Not everyone’s “cup of tea,” but I DO love that skirt!

      Yes, Cate Blanchett DOES know clothes, and she’s willing to take risks. Actually, it’s quite brilliant, especially when promoting a movie – it gets people talking about her, the clothes, and the movie. Very smart.

  • Well said, Diana. I saw an exhibition of Balenciaga’s work in Paris a couple of years ago. It showed his sketchbooks, and some of exquisite gowns and dresses. Lovely stuff.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply August 23, 2013

      Hi Jeannie,

      I would LOVE to see a Balenciaga exhibit! And in Paris? You lucky girl! I’m envious… 😉

  • Elizabeth

    Reply Reply August 23, 2013

    Diana, again you have enlightened us while giving us food for thought. I was a teenager very interested in fashion in the mid to late 1950’s and early 1960’s and remember well the Balenciaga designs. I loved them and in fact, had my mother to make a dress for a high school event similiar to one of his designs. However, I was not aware of the history of the designer. Thank you for sharing this with us. Thank you also, for expressing your opinion with grace and tact as always.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply August 23, 2013

      Hi Elizabeth,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article! And thanks for being living proof of his wide appeal! He could dress teenagers and grandmothers with equal finesse, and make both look age appropriate. It’s a rare, RARE skill, which is why he deserved every accolade.

  • Sameara

    Reply Reply August 23, 2013

    Thank you for posting this no-one really likes being called on their stuff but I’m glad you called her out. Maybe she will see this and decide to educate herself?

    I am no Cate Blanchett, but I admire her willingness to go outside of the mainstream. I am an eclectic/classic girl myself and get some heat for it by girls like this. For instance I wore a beautiful silk twill scarf and a friend told me to “take if off” because she didn’t like it, wearing scarves is weird… I still go by certain rules, i.e. dressing for my shape/height/coloring etc. So bravo and thank you again!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply August 23, 2013

      Hi Sameara – Glad you liked the article!

      I’d say Cate Blanchett’s clothing personality is Classic/Dramatic, which is why she’s at ease with bold colors and avant-garde styles. She’s also got the acting “chops” to back up these bold looks, so she, the clothes, and her projects all get lots of press.

      As for your friend telling you to take off your scarf because SHE doesn’t like scarves? Weird. Some people are just very uncomfortable with the new or different.

  • S

    Reply Reply August 23, 2013

    Great, interesting and thoroughly-written history. Loved it. I agree the critic was out of her league and probably totally unappreciative of the work and quality that went into those garments.

    But actually, that might have been the one thing going for her.

    If designers are so caught up in their artistry that someone who has a passing interest in fashion looks at their work and thinks it looks ridiculous, then in my mind the designer has become too self-absorbed – no matter how talented.

    You can be the most technically-correct architect, guitar player, hairdresser, singer, I could go on and on. But if the end result isn’t appealing, you’re just not going to be a success. With all due respect to the House of Balenciaga and Miss Blanchett, when I first saw her in that outfit I was rather dissappointed myself. Beautiful as it may be, the proportions are absurd. Kate Blanchett does not need to attract attention to her lovely self by wearing outrageous things the way a lot of young C-list actresses try to do. It’s a shame she ever stepped out in that.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply August 24, 2013

      Hi S.

      Glad you enjoyed the article! Thanks for your note.

      It’s absolutely true that if designers ignore their audience, the audience will go find someone else to watch. It happens a lot in fashion – and entertainment, music, and sports. You have to design clothes people want to wear.

      Do I begrudge the critic her right to an opinion? Of course not. As I said, the dress design is polarizing – either you really like it, or you really don’t. I’m not wild about the cape. You didn’t like it at all. But you offered a reason for your dislike: “the proportions are absurd.” Much more intelligent than, “Eww! It looks like it’s growing mold!”

      THAT’S the problem I had with her – she was presenting herself as an expert yet acting like a high school mean girl. She did not offer professional insight, just her opinion. What does her audience learn? Her opinion only. Not enough of a reason to tune in, IMO.

      As for Cate Blanchett wearing controversial clothes, I actually don’t have a problem with it. She likes doing things her own way – even if it’s not always popular – and I respect that. I also respect that she typically covers up and doesn’t show lots of skin for no reason.

      Thanks again for your input!

      -Diana

  • Carole

    Reply Reply August 23, 2013

    Love this article. I learned so much and enjoyed every moment of it. I will read it over again a few more times to soak in the knowledge to a deeper level, well try to anyway:-). Now I want to read more about this great designer. Thanks so much!!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply August 24, 2013

      Hi Carole – Glad you enjoyed it!

      Yes, Balenciaga was a complicated man, but he knew his audience and dressed them well. Some of his designs were very avant-garde and not to everyone’s liking, but others were just ridiculously chic. When you can dress a 15 year old and a 55 year old with equal aplomb, it means you have serious skills. Of course, almost anything looks more elegant with opera length gloves… 😉

      Thanks for writing!

  • Patti Walls

    Reply Reply August 24, 2013

    Thank you for a wonderful article. I totally agree with you.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply August 24, 2013

      Thanks, Patti! Glad you enjoyed it!

  • sarah liz

    Reply Reply August 25, 2013

    I did enjoy this article – you are quite correct in all you say. And I thnk the cape is a necessity, given what you say, if the house wants to re-emphasise it’s roots. It can be taken off later, as Cate did.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply August 25, 2013

      Hi Sarah – glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for your note. Thanks also for your insight – “getting back to their roots” by wearing archived items “as is.” Great point!

      -Diana

  • sirby

    Reply Reply August 27, 2013

    I loved the article. I always enjoy the history you weave into the articles.
    I think I also would like the cape a little shorter, but in the picture of the original, the long cape worked really well. Of course Cate Blanchett looked wonderful anyway.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply August 29, 2013

      Hi Sharon – I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for your note.

  • Dee

    Reply Reply August 30, 2013

    Here was a perfect teaching opportunity for this twenty something. Instead of berating her clothing publicly, like she did Cate Blanchett, you could have turned this into a learning experience for her. While I enjoyed your history lesson I couldn’t help but feel you needed a class in manners. In the beginning of your article you acted no differently than she. You are no better than her, maybe better dressed, but not better.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply August 31, 2013

      Hi Dee – interesting prospective. But I disagree with you. Fashion critics are expected to dress better than average because fashion is their business. This girl was presenting herself as an “expert,” yet her attire and critique called that expertise into question. I was calling her on it. It had nothing to do with manners or “being better” (a term I loathe, almost as much as “You’re just jealous!”). It have everything to do with credentials.

  • Alina

    Reply Reply September 7, 2013

    I LOVE the cape, the colour…Thank you for presenting us Balenciaga. Loved the clothes too.
    I wish I could afford these clothes or have where to wear them 🙂
    When people in the office wear flip-flops and beach wear, I stand out for wearing clothes.
    I would love to wear something so dramatic!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply September 7, 2013

      Hi Alina – Glad you enjoyed the article! Thanks so much for your kind note. Yes – it’s the stuff of dreams, that’s for sure. But dressing well at the price point you can afford is also dreamy – because it still makes you stand out from the crowd. Beachwear certainly has its place – but it’s not in the office, unless you’re a lifeguard…

  • iamloved

    Reply Reply February 6, 2014

    Love, love, LOVE this post! I generally love Ms Blanchett’s red carpet style and loved this outfit from head to toe – I think she has the height to carry off the length of the cape. And the Balenciaga designs! I especially admire the 1950’s stand away collar dress, incredibly elegant. Interesting to learn about the designer’s history and aesthetic, and I lament the fact that such an era of design has gone.

    I really like Alexander Wang bags especially – the edgy, contemporary aesthetic appeals to my tastes – so I’ll be keeping an eye on what comes out from Balenciaga now.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply February 6, 2014

      Thanks! Glad you liked it!

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