Pierre Balmain: the most refined

A perfect lady in a perfect gown with a perfect companion in perfect surroundings — this is how Pierre Balmain envisioned his perfect client.

Suzy Parker wearing a Balmain gown, 1956, Paris. Photo by Richard Avedon.

The commonly accepted fact is that Christian Dior created his new look from scratch on the barren ground of the 1940s fashion with its heavy padded jackets, knee-length skirts, wedge,s and the zazou-style, which he hated so much. And then Dior came and magically transformed the dreaded zazou-girls into gorgeous feminine flowers whose hourglass figures were accentuated by the opulent ankle-length skirts. This is the official legend of the House Dior.

Audrey Hepburn with Simone and Barbara Mullen wearing evening dresses by Balmain, Dior, Patou, Maxim’s, Paris 1959

So what did really happen? During World War II Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain trained with Lucien Lelong, who owned one of the most famous Parisian couture houses of the art-deco era. Both Dior and Balmain later mentioned how much they owned to Lelong and yet how they wanted to leave him and work for themselves at the same time. Dior wrote in his memoires that he and Balmain were planning on opening a new fashion house together, but Balmain beat him to the chase and in 1945 founded the Pierre Balmain fashion house. Dior sadly admits he was a lit bit jealous of this, but it is safe to assume that the two couturiers were discussing their work and exchanging ideas.

Мари в леопардовом костюме Pierre Balmain, 1954 год.

The historical truth, however, is that the need for a new silhouette was practically hanging in the air during that time. It was obvious that after the hardships of war with its scarcity of goods, women would crave exaggeratedly feminine garments, thus creating a whole new luxurious fashion era as opposed to the wartime simplicity. Moreover, clothing with accentuated waists and wide skirts start appearing all around Europe independently of each other. For example, the prominent Italian designer and prodigy
dress-maker Germana Marucelli, who basically created Italian high fashion (Alta Moda), was using this silhouette in her dresses long before Dior. Balmain was doing exactly the same thing, and his bias-cut skirts and corsets also seeing the light before Dior's. Dior gets full credit for taking this aesthetic and deeply engraving it into his brand's DNA, taking the new look even further by making it almost grotesque and ornamental. Meters of fabric, hundreds of underskirts and petticoats all contributed to the slightly archaic and decorative image of Dior's "flower-women".

Pierre Balmain at a fitting, 1952.

But there was always a big difference between Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain, the latter being much more subtle in his design. His idea of femininity was less extreme than Dior's; he was fond of clean lines and sophisticated decorations. Dior used to say that Paris post-war generation of designers evolved from Baleciaga's great-coat, and you could definitely see those influences in Balmain's work.

Pierre Balman backstage, 1954.

Balmain's style was called "Jolie Madame," like his first perfume made for him by Germaine Cellier, one of the first female master perfumers. This style was the embodiment of concentrated elegance and sophistication, something we might call "aristocratic."  A perfect lady in a perfect gown with a perfect companion in the perfect surroundings -- this is how Pierre Balmain saw his perfect client

Anne St Marie wearing Pierre Balman, 1955.

Dior's woman is flirtatious, Balmain's woman — not so much. The quintessence of Balmain style is captured on Henry Clarke's photograph from 1955, where the breathtakingly thin and breathtakingly beautiful Anne St Marie is posing in a tight pencil skirt and a small black cape with black gloves. Sharp, almost graphic elegance is what distinguished Balmain from other designers of that era. If he used a bow, like the bow on this jacquard black-and-white dress, you could be sure that it would be reminiscent of Malevich graphics rather than a playful ornament.

Audrey Hepburn wearing a Balmain gown on her wedding day with Mel Ferrer, 1954.

Balmain's famous clients loved him for this feminine elegance. Audrey Hepburn was wearing a Balmain gown on her wedding day with Mel Ferrer in 1954: the perfect dress with a high collar, puffed three-quarter length sleeves, and a circle skirt. Elizabeth Taylor was also a big fan of Pierre Balmain because of his subtlety and sophistication.

Pierre Balmain couture gown, 1960s.

When you look at this gorgeous one-of-a-kind Balmain gown, you immediately recognize the refined simplicity that we now call "Parisian chic" and it becomes obvious why all these famous women adored Pierre Balmain.
The same goes for this dark-blue wool crepe couture dress: while serving a different purpose this dress is as exquisite as the one mentioned above.


Pierre Balmain draped couture dress , 1969.

This complex simplicity and aristocratic vibe were part of the brand's DNA even after Pierre Balmain's death in 1982 and were preserved both by his close friend and partner Erik Mortinsen and Oscar de la Renta, who was the creative director of Balmain from 1993 to 2002. This all changed with the arrival of Christophe Decarnin in 2005 and, according to the gossip, when Emmanuelle Alt, the fashion director of Vogue Paris, started consulting the brand. Soon the refined sophistication changed into  over-decorated glamour, and all the celebrities started wearing Balmain military jackets and tailored jeans. But vintage Pierre Balmain is absolutely precious and unique, and it's doubtful that the resale prices of modern Balmain pieces will rise as much as prices of vintage ones.

Pierre Balmain show, 1965.

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Author: Elena Stafyeva


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Pierre Balmain: the most refined


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