Woman's Evening Gown by Balmain
Pierre Balmain (1914-1982) was one of the most revolutionary designers of his time. His architectural studies and subsequent work for Edward Molyneux and Lucien Lelong shaped him into the designer he became. Balmain created the ‘new French style’ which included chic tailored suits and, most famously, his elegant evening wear. Expanding to the American market caused him to face backlash from his peers, but eventually, they too expanded to America.
Balmain had an instinct for design and technique that catered to an elegant and sophisticated woman. He preferred simplicity rather than lavish or bold designs and avoided following trends.
Pierre Balmain was born on May 18th, 1914 in Saint Jean de Maurienne, France. His father owned a drapery business while his mother and sister owned a fashion boutique, exposing Balmain to fabric and fashion at an early age. Originally an architecture student at École des Beaux-Arts, at age twenty he began working as a sketch artist for the House of Piguet. Pierre quickly advanced, and began working for the House of Molyneux in 1934. Balmain worked for Lucien Lelong before opening his own house in 1945.
The House of Balmain was an immediate success. Gertrude Stein wrote “From Dark to Day” for Vogue in response to Balmain’s first show, most of it a memoir of her friendship with the young man during WWII with statements such as “Alice Toklas insists that one of her suits [that Balmain made for her during the war] was as wonderful as any he was showing at his opening….” This publicity helped guarantee Balmain’s good fortune.
By the end of the decade, Balmain had extended his business to New York City and entered a new market with a perfume called “Jolie Madame.” In 1951 he established a company in the United States to manufacture and sell his ready-to-wear clothing line. This was at a time when French designers were concerned about keeping control of the fashion industry, focusing on the French market and dressing French women and those who could afford the high prices. Balmain’s expansion to the United States and into the ready-to-wear market, were perceived by some as a rejection of, and possible weakening of, this dominance.
During his career, Balmain designed the garments for a Broadway show, TV shows, Hollywood stars on and off the screen, and the flight attendants for TWA and Malaysia-Singapore airlines. Although Balmain was an influential and inspirational designer from the1950s through1980, his business deals led to the dilution of his name as a high-end designer, as luggage, jewelry, and other accessories joined the brand once successful at selling women’s clothing and perfume. Balmain believed that the ideal of elegance in clothing came from simplicity. The French designer offended the American fashion press by stating that Seventh Avenue [in New York City] fashion was vulgar. “As a couturier, he wasn’t interested in fashion per se; rather he sought to dress women who appreciated an elegant appearance and possessed sophisticated style.”
It is interesting to note that Balmain was asked to design the wardrobe for Queen Sirikit of Thailand when she accompanied her husband on a six-month long state tour in 1960. This began a long association between the two which lasted until Balmain’s death in 1982. Colin McDowell suggests that this relationship lowered Balmain’s reputation for some, who considered the Queen “had little to do with French high fashion.”
This garment is made from a dark blue fabric called linen crash. The term “crash” is used to identify fabric made with yarns spun from a variety of fiber lengths. Lower quality (shorter) fibers are spun with the longer flax fibers to utilize as much of the plant as possible. This combination of long and short fibers creates a nubbly yarn that, when woven, produces a textured material. Cotton, flax, and jute or other fibers can be combined during the spinning process. Often used for toweling, drapes and other household textiles, linen crash became popular for clothing after WWII.
The sleeveless gown’s design is simple, with a semi-fitted bodice shaped with a single dart stitched vertically from the waistline seam in each side front. The bodice fabric is cut on the bias which provides some ease for the wearer. The slim skirt is cut with a center back seam and a seam down each side of the front, into which a pocket has been placed. Cut on the straight grain, the skirt fits with just a few gathers along the center front and a short dart on each side back. A narrow stand-up collar completes the use of the blue linen. The garment closes in the center back with a hand-picked zipper. The garment is fully lined with a dark blue, satin weave fabric installed entirely by hand.
Known for using sophisticated satins and taffetas with rich beaded elements, Balmain decorated this gown, made from what some may consider a plain material, with glass, metal and wood beads and charms. The decorations set off the simple neckline, each pocket opening, and a separate belt. The fabric used for the belt is an off white twill variation, also used to highlight the neck and pockets. These choices for fabric and decoration are in keeping with the movement for using natural elements in clothing that began in the 1970s.
Pierre Balmain was a great influence and inspiration to the fashion industry. He used the basic principles of fashion to inspire his designs and create for elegant and sophisticated women. His successors, who included Oscar de la Renta, took his techniques and designs and built them into the modern world. Many are inspired by his work and his ability to create something out of nothing. Balmain is considered to be one of the founding members of the ‘New Look’ or ‘New French Look’ and this is how he is best remembered today.
AnHistorian. (2020, 07 02). Style History: Balmain. An Historian About Town. https://anhistorianabouttown.com/history-of-balmain/
Balmain: The History of a French Powerhouse. (2021, February 10). FarFetch. https://www.farfetch.com/style-guide/icons-influencers/balmain-style-couture-heritage- and-youthful-opulence/
Blumberg, N., Bhutia, T. K., & Pauls, E. P. (2020, June 25). Pierre Balmain. Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Pierre-Balmain
Crash. (April 2021). Beloved Linens. https://www.belovedlinens.net/fabdico/Crash.html
Donahue, C. (n.d.). Reeling Back the Years. Her. Retrieved 2021, from https://www.her.ie/style/reeling-back-the-years-history-of-fashion-house-balmain-118389
Dudbridge, S. (n.d.). Balmain Biography. Catwalk Yourself. Retrieved 2021, from http://www.catwalkyourself.com/fashion-biographies/balmain/
The Editors of Encyclopedia. (July 1998). Crash Cloth. Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/crash-cloth
Fashion A-Z. (n.d.). Business of Fashion. Retrieved 2021, from https://www.businessoffashion.com/education/fashion-az/darts#:~:text=Darts%20are %20a%20dressmaker's%20punctuation,pressed%20down%20to%20one%20side.
Major, J. S. (2013, December). Pierre Balmain. Love to Know. https://fashion- history.lovetoknow.com/fashion-clothing-industry/fashion-designers/pierre-balmain
Mar, L. (2020, June 22). A Brief History of Balmain. History of Yesterday. https://historyofyesterday.com/a-brief-history-of-balmain-fce4e21e931f
Major, J. (2014, March). Pierre Balmain. 20th Century Designers. https://20thcenturydesignersfinalproject.weebly.com/pierre-balmain.html
McDowell, Colin. March 2, 2016. “News & Analysis: Pierre Balmain (1914-1982) in The Business of Fashion in the https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/news-analysis/pierre-balmain-1914-1982/
Pierre Balmain- Fashion Designer Encyclopedia. (2021). Encyclopedia of Fashion. http://www.fashionencyclopedia.com/Ba-Bo/Balmain-Pierre.html
Stein, Gertrude. “From Dark to Day.” Vogue, Vol. 106, iss. 10, December 1, 1945, p. 126-127. Accessed through the Vogue database at the University of Rhode Island Robert L. Caruthers Library.
Donor information states that this dress, and a second Balmain dress donated to the Collection, were owned and worn by her mother-in-law.
Susan J. Jerome, MS '06