Woman's Suit by Balenciaga



Clothing and Dress


Woman's Suit by Balenciaga


ca. 1950-1954


This two-piece women’s suit was donated by Michael McKenna and Carlos Benevides, owners of Artifice of Warwick, Rhode Island. The suit is comprised of a double-breasted jacket and straight skirt, made from a navy and white wool tweed fabric. The jacket relies on a princess seam and dart on each side front, and three panels on each side of the center back seam to achieve a highly structured fit. Other details include four sets of navy-colored buttons with bound buttonholes, a lining of navy blue, and turned up cuffs. The skirt, 29 inches long from the narrow waistband to the front hem, is unlined, with a waist measuring 23 inches. The fitted shape indicates that the suit was probably made in the early 1950s, after the “New Look” emerged post-WWII.

Accession records indicate that the garment was “reportedly owned by Mrs. Firestone.” Artifice, LLC was a business dealing in high-end resale of designer clothing in Warwick, Rhode Island. The label, at the back of the jacket neck, appears to have been removed and re-sewn into the garment after the donation. It reads, “Balenciaga, 10 Avenue George V. Paris”. The skirt appears to have been reworked. The lining has been removed and the hem stitching is unprofessional. The waistband may have been altered as the side seams and darts don’t align and the metal zipper is clumsily hand sewn into the left side seam. It has been narrowed, leaving an exposed inner raw edge. However, the wide seam allowances and hand sewn seam finishes indicate the garment’s couture beginning.

Elizabeth Parke Firestone (1897-1990) was the daughter-in-law of Harvey S. Firestone, Sr., the founder of Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. Elizabeth believed in representing her husband, family, and the Company. She also believed in the power of her personal appearance and always dressing her best. “Her personal appearance and her homes were elegant and highly admired by others…. Every detail of her wardrobe was important to her, and she strove for perfection….” (Orr, 2006). Traveling to Europe often, she developed relationships with many couturiers. Balenciaga was referred to as her favorite because he always provided her with the look she liked. “Balenciaga catered to women on the best-dressed list who were willing to pay his top prices. His designs were known for this perfect fit and their relation to art, both of which were important to Elizabeth.” (Orr, 2006). The Firestones owned a home in Newport, Rhode Island and the family donated numerous garments and accessories to the Historic Textile and Costume Collection after Mrs. Firestone's passing. The navy blue suit in the URI collection may well have been made for Mrs. Firestone: a Christian Dior suit in the Historic Textile and Costume Collection known to have been worn by her has a waistline measurement of 23 inches and similar size jacket.

Cristóbal Balenciaga was born in Spain on January 21, 1895. Studying needlework and dressmaking with his mother, a seamstress, inspired him to go into the world of fashion. He began his own tailoring business with the help of a wealthy neighbor and patroness, the Marquesa de Casa Torres, who sent him to Madrid to receive formal training in tailoring  (Martin, 1997). Balenciaga opened his first fashion house around 1914/15 in San Sebastian. Other stores followed in Barcelona and Madrid before the Spanish Civil War prompted a move to Paris.

The House of Balenciaga opened in 1937 on Avenue George V and quickly became the most expensive couture house in Paris. Balenciaga changed the silhouette of women’s clothing during the 1950s with the introduction of his designs for a tunic, chemise, and suit. He removed the waist from dresses, used his knowledge of pattern-making and construction to create unusual forms, and favored heavy fabrics to create architectural silhouettes. He is credited with developing the sack back and baby doll dresses of the 1950s. “With the methodical skill of an expert tailor, he created garments of fluidity and grace…He was able to drape, cut, and fit his own muslin patterns, known as toiles.” (Charleston, 2004). The clothing he designed was different than the typical, curvy hourglass shape that Dior designed.

Balenciaga’s Spanish heritage influenced many of his luxurious designs. His frequent motifs included flamenco dresses, matador outfits, and black lace (Victoria and Albert Museum, 2021; Arts and Culture, 2011). Later in his career, Balenciaga produced new shapes that were never before seen in women’s fashion. “His garments lack pretension because they are characterized by self-assured couture of simple appearance and reserve in style.” (Martin, 1997).

When he closed in 1968, many of his loyal customers experienced a real loss. Almost two decades later, a new wave of designers brought the brand into the twenty-first century (Fashion Quarterly, 2020). In 1987, The Bogart Group obtained the rights to Balenciaga. Michael Goma was the first designer to be in charge of designing colorful ready-to-wear collections. This was important because Balenciaga never made RTW collections, only couture pieces for his clients (Fashion Quarterly, 2020). Goma was followed by Josephus Thimiste in 1992, then in 1997 Nicolas Ghesquiere was chosen as the head designer. Ghesquiere is considered one of the most significant fashion voices of the early 2000s; the influence of his gladiator boots and hyper-floral prints now part of the house’s legacy (Fashion Quarterly, 2020).

Alexander Wang became head designer of Balenciaga from 2012 to 2015, his time notable because Wang paid homage to Balenciaga with his cocoon coats, peplums, and bubble skirts, all referenced with an American twist. Wang promoted the brand by designing for the red carpet; his dresses were worn by stars such as Lady Gaga and Julianne Moore (Fashion Quarterly, 2020.)

The latest head designer, Demna Gvasalia, began in 2015. Demna connected his own history with the love of street fashion and the brand’s penchant for draping and broad shoulders that showcase the female silhouette. “Tongue-in-cheek pop culture references, including a mountain of graffiti used as the set of his latest show, along with a sportswear aesthetic, reinvent the brand once more.” (Fashion Quarterly, 2020).

Balenciaga set the standard for haute couture, influencing many designers in his time, and in our modern day. His sculptural approach to design was very complex because of his knowledge of cut and construction. “Balenciaga alone is a couturier in the truest sense of the world. Only he is capable of cutting material, assembling a creation, and sewing in hand, the others are simply fashion designers.” (Victoria and Albert Museum, 2021). Balenciaga paved the way for modern fashion by being bold, creating new silhouettes, and ultimately using his Spanish heritage to be his most authentic self.


Admin. “Balenciaga.” Vintage Fashion Guild, 17 July 2010, https://vintagefashionguild.org/label-resource/balenciaga/.

Baudot, Francois. Fashion: the Twentieth Century, Universe, 1999, p. 158.

Charleston, Beth Duncuff. Metmuseum.org, 2004, www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/bale/hd_bale.htm.  

“Cristobal Balenciaga.” The St. James Fashion Encyclopedia: a Survey of Style from 1945 to the Present, by Richard Martin, Visible Ink Press, 1997, pp. 28–32.

“Cristóbal Balenciaga: A Timeless Legacy - Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa - Google Arts & Culture.” Google, Google, 2011 https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/crist%C3%B3bal-balenciaga-a-timeless-legacy-cristobal-balenciaga-museoa/ywJyh4WFJqdgIg?hl=en

Fashion Quarterly. “A Short History of Balenciaga.” FQ, 15 Dec. 2020, www.fq.co.nz/gallery/short-history-balenciaga/.

Hughes, Tyler. “Ocean Lawn, The Firestone Estate, Newport RI.” The Gilded Age Era, 1 Jan. 1970, https://thegildedageera.blogspot.com/2012/12/ocean-lawn-firestone-estate-newport-ri.html.

Martin, Richard. The St. James Fashion Encyclopedia: a Survey of Style from 1945 to the Present, Visible Ink Press, 1997.

Orr, Lois. “Elizabeth Parke Firestone: Her Couture Collection and Her Role as a Woman of Influence .” University of Akron, 2006.

Thieme, Otto Charles. Simply Stunning: 200 Years of Fashion from the Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati Art Museum, 1988.

“V&A · Introducing Cristóbal Balenciaga.” Victoria and Albert Museum, 2021, www.vam.ac.uk/articles/introducing-cristobal-balenciaga


Donor: Artifice LLC
Michael McKenna and Carlos Benevides


URI 2001.02.02a, b


Hannah Wood
Susan J. Jerome, MS '06


Cristóbal Balenciaga


Cristóbal Balenciaga, “Woman's Suit by Balenciaga,” Historic Textile and Costume Collection, accessed March 27, 2023, https://uritextilecollection.omeka.net/items/show/475.

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