“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, 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, 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 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.
Balenciaga Stand Away Collar, 1950’s
Balenciaga Evening Gown, 1952
Balenciaga “Sack” Dress, 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
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 Blue Jasmine Premiere
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 Gown, 1960
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 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 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, 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.
Diana 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.