Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Anatomy of a Masterpiece II: The World on his Shoulders

How lucky was the woman who saw this face, in this degree of concentration, for Cristóbal Balenciaga would not allow a client to leave his atelier until her gown, day dress or suit had reached his standard of perfection.

"Balenciaga was renowned in the trade for inspecting and resetting sleeves that were not perfect--even after the garment had been shown in a collection or was being worn by a client. He acquired these exacting standards during his training as a tailor in San Sebastian; travel guides of this period state appreciation for the skill of Spanish tailors--and the cheapness of their products in comparison with those of the French. (Lesley Ellis Miller, writing in The Golden Age of Couture).

Balenciaga's designs, like the suit at left, were far from cheap. This model from 1950 would have cost around 110,000 francs (a mind-boggling $35,000 at that year's exchange rate). What that bought in practical terms was a suit that fit a finger's breadth from the body, which afforded an immaculate line that did not constrain movement. In aesthetic terms it afforded, says Miller, less fashion than "a sense of eternity, of the reconciliation of past and present".

As a Balenciaga original is beyond the wildest dreams of most of us, what we can do is strive to take away from this master the notion of fit and how it ought to work.

Specifically, the fit of a garment at the shoulders, and from thence down the arm. I think it's safe to say that when fashion amateurs shop, they concentrate on how a garment sits at the three points of traditional measure (bust, waist, hips). If those conform in an approximate way, the garment is deemed "to fit."

Fashion professionals (and for these purposes I include in this group anybody who loves clothing enough to explore its making and history) know that fit begins at the shoulder. If a dress, jacket, or shirt doesn't sit right there, it may look just fine, but it will never be elegant, chic, soignée--all those words that define Parisian ladies looking amazing, seemingly without effort. Their secret? Their clothes fit their shoulders.

In these trendily padded days when Balmain and the like are sending scare-the-crows upper arms down the runway, shoulder fit can so easily go to hell in a handbasket--especially if one buys a knockoff. Be vigilant, even as you work a trend. Fabric should drop cleanly down from a shoulder, no matter how padded it is. No bunching, no wrinkled and sorry jowls below the set-in seam, no pinching around the underarm. Have another look at the eternally fashionable suit above. A shoulder should fit like that.


  1. Your description if shoulder fit as being indispensable to a well fitting garment is spot on. That area really has been ignored by the mass producers. The only real way for the common consumer to experience great fit in this area, that I know of, is to make the garment themselves, have it made or have something seriously tailored. Great post!



  2. Thanks Jennifer! Watch this space--I'll be putting up a Balenciaga dress you probably saw at that Texas show, YOU'RE SO LUCKY!