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Review | The Master of Us All By Mary Blume

Posted by Rebecca G. Aguilar, M.Ed. on March 1, 2013

The Master of Us All by Mary Blume

ISBN-13: 9780374298739
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 2/5/2013
Pages: 240

One-of-a-kind dresses, gowns and suits hand-sewn for a select clientele at the house of Balenciaga would for a generation of designers define classic haute couture against its disruptive and imitative cousin, prêt-à-porter.

Christian Dior is attributed to have said Cristóbal Balenciaga was the master of us all.

Fashion columnist Mary Blume researches an impeccable ode to the famed fashion house and its reclusive couturier in her newest biography, The Master of Us All: Balenciaga, His Workrooms, His World.

“In the profitably dystopian fashions of our times, it is hard to imagine an approach whose aim, and achievement, was quite simply beauty: a beauty that because it evolved naturally could endure.”

According to Blume, Balenciaga’s designs were consistent for the subtle perfections of his previous lines, not the large seasonal overhauls characteristic of most couturiers.

The book, a quick read with beautiful photos, traverses the life of Balenciaga from a simple Basque childhood in the fishing village of Getaria to the 1997 reprise of his fashion house by Nicholas Ghesquière.

The cover photo features a charming 1927 portrait of Balenciaga with expressive hands peering from the tailored cuffs of his double-breasted suit. Blume writes that those hands were trained in the dressmaking his mother plied as a trade in Getaria. He began helping her sew at the age of six and would soon expertly tailor coats and suits as well as cut soft fabrics for dresses and gowns. Never considering himself an artist, he took great care as a skilled technician and a brilliant businessman. He eventually adapted to ready-to-wear when clientele demanded and created lucrative branches in Madrid, Barcelona and San Sebastián.

By the age of 21, Balenciaga was dressing the queen of Spain.

Blume writes that he fled for Paris in 1936, not because he feared the Franquists, “but because he knew that luxury trades do not flourish during a civil war.”

Blume’s most eloquent source about Balenciaga came from his top vendeuse and friend, Florette Chelot, the first person he hired to staff his workrooms at 10 Avenue George V. Her productive black book contained names like Mme Cesar Ritz and buyers from Bloomingdales and Harrods.

Florette provided Blume with facts about the couturier’s creative genius as well as his shrinking from fashion society. She offered intimate details around atelier quarrels, indulged house models and celebrated clients as well as color stories from winter and spring collections at the house of Balenciaga.

“M. Balenciaga is in a barely controllable state of nerves. And then out lope the Mannequins, cool and indifferent in the finest clothes in Paris, Languidly waving the outfit’s number printed on a card or sometimes pocketing them, as if to suggest that actual selling is not the point. They are said to be the ugliest models in Paris.”

Balenciaga preferred the aplomb of the unphotogenic Colette, who would inspire a signature loping walk with a long stride, a back tilted torso and forward thrusted hips. Harper’s Bazaar columnist and Vogue editor Diana Vreeland praised Balenciaga as the greatest dressmaker ever. His envelope and bubble dresses marked protégés de la Renta, Courreges, Ungaro and Givenchy forever.

The Master of Us All by Mary Blume is a worthwhile read for the intimate color behind the fashion house of Cristóbal Balenciaga and his influence on modern haute couture.

Category: Nonfiction, Biography

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