His name evokes the grandeur and golden age of haute couture, yet Cristóbal Balenciaga, the Basque son of a sailor and a seamstress, continued to look homeward to Spain long after he’d become one of the most feted couturiers in Paris. “What’s really been astonishing,” says Hamish Bowles, the Vogue editor at large who curated “Balenciaga: Spanish Master,” a new exhibition opening at New York’s Queen Sofía Spanish Institute (November 19 to February 19, 2011), “is that you can look at anything of his and there is Spain somewhere, no matter how subliminally.” Balenciaga was 42 and dressing marquesas and queens (and Señora Franco) when he fled the Spanish Civil War to set up shop on avenue George V in 1937, the year the show begins. But even at his most abstracted, Bowles says, Balenciaga’s references to Spanish regional and liturgical dress abound. Beyond the show’s toreador boleros and flamenco-inspired ruffled dresses, there is a caped coat “the exact scarlet of a cardinal’s robe” and evening gowns from the Sixties that, he says, suggest the silhouette and form of a mother superior’s wimple. Oscar de la Renta proposed the show to Bowles, who visited Balenciaga’s humble hometown of Getaria as well as the Prado Museum, which was “revelatory,” he says, “because it was just one Balenciaga after another! Whether it’s the way a piece of drapery falls in an El Greco or that bow in an Infanta’s hair that you realize he’s scattered all across an evening dress in the Sixties.”

Look for the 1967 black crepe sheath with a cape that can be worn as a headdress and references the volumes of the mantilla worn by one of Goya’s aristocratic sitters. There, says Bowles, “you’re really seeing his pure, unadulterated vision, before the clients got to it and staged their own intervention!”

Courtesy of Craig McDean