At the height of Paris Couture Week, Balenciaga made a surprise announcement: the fashion house would be returning to haute couture this July.

The last time the brand had shown a couture collection was in 1968, the same year that its Spanish founder Cristobal Balenciaga closed his atelier after declaring, “There is no one left to dress.” When there were, though, he was one of the best couturiers for the task.

Balenciaga was a master of technique and construction, having trained in tailoring since the tender age of 12. (His famous wedding gown, held together by a single seam, is the most compelling testament to that fact.) He also had a natural affinity for fabrics — especially silk gazar, his own textile creation — the way Michelangelo had with marble. And he was revered by fashion’s greatest designers: Chanel, Dior, Givenchy.

Balenciaga Infanta dress, 1939 (Photo credit: Balenciaga Archives Paris)
Balenciaga Infanta dress, 1939 (Photo credit: Balenciaga Archives Paris)

Most importantly, Balenciaga did not care for conventions. He showed his collections at a different schedule from the one decided by the Chambre Syndicale, France’s authority on haute couture. His models, like his clientele, were middle-aged, short-limbed and plump. Balenciaga’s Spanish heritage was also woven into designs like the Infanta dress, setting him apart from his French contemporaries. And when they embraced prêt-a-porter, he refused with the closure of his fashion house.

That iconoclastic vision is what shaped Balenciaga’s designs and, eventually, how women dress today — no hyperbole. From the balloon dress to the baby-doll dress, we take a look at how the Spanish couturier liberated the female form through his radical designs.

The balloon dress

Balenciaga balloon dress, 1950 (Photo credit: Getty Images)
Balenciaga balloon dress, 1950 (Photo credit: Getty Images)

The first hint of Balenciaga’s penchant for innovation emerged in 1950 in the form of the balloon dress. The bulbous taffeta gown, said to be “as light as two clouds”, was the antithesis of the New Look, the hourglass silhouette deemed by Christian Dior as the order of the day. The balloon dress would later blow up into other variations throughout Balenciaga’s oeuvre, including the balloon jacket (the prototype of today’s puffer jackets) and the famous cocoon coat.

The sack dress

Balenciaga sack dress, 1957 (Photo credit: Thomas Kublin, courtesy of Balenciaga Archives Paris)
Balenciaga sack dress, 1957 (Photo credit: Thomas Kublin, courtesy of Balenciaga Archives Paris)

Most of us wouldn’t think of a sack as something fashionable. The Parisian public certainly didn’t, as this video of a woman walking the streets in Balenciaga’s sack dress shows us. The straight, up-and-down wool dress was unveiled in 1957, back when a garment that hid a woman’s figure was considered radical. That soon changed, of course: the Swinging Sixties arrived, as did the shapeless shift dresses that became the sartorial symbol of the carefree era. The Mods certainly had Balenciaga to thank for their wardrobe.

The cocoon coat

Balenciaga cocoon coat, 1960 (Photo credit: Archives Balenciaga)
Balenciaga cocoon coat, 1960 (Photo credit: Balenciaga Archives Paris)

If you haven’t noticed yet, Balenciaga was a big fan of volume — and not so much of the waist. This was exemplified in his cocoon coat, unveiled in the same year as his equally shocking sack dress. The coat, like so many of Balenciaga’s iconic designs, liberated women from tight-fitting waistlines with its lack of one. Instead, the garment highlighted feminine, soft lines, with its curve even resembling an egg — an apt metaphor for the new silhouette birthed by Balenciaga.

The baby-doll dress

Balenciaga baby-doll dress, 1958 (Photo credit: Archives Balenciaga)
Balenciaga baby-doll dress, 1958 (Photo credit: Balenciaga Archives Paris)

The aforementioned sack dress was a precursor to the baby-doll dress that Balenciaga would introduce later in 1958. The first bell-shaped creation was made with delicate Chantilly lace, and it hung loosely from the wearer’s shoulders to create a triangular silhouette. The baby-doll dress was universally flattering, unabashedly feminine and, best of all, didn’t require a corset. The high-waisted frock has also proven to be timeless: it was the preferred mode of dress for style icons across generations (such as Twiggy and Courtney Love), and it continues to be reinterpreted on the runway today.

The empire dress

Balenciaga empire dress, 1959 (Photo credit: Balenciaga Archives Paris)
Balenciaga empire dress, 1959 (Photo credit: Balenciaga Archives Paris)

Think of the empire dress as the older sister of the baby-doll dress. It, too, had a high waistline, which was the defining characteristic of Balenciaga’s 1958 “Empire” evening wear collection. While Balenciaga didn’t invent the empire line dress, his version came complete with round-collared coats cut like kimonos. Balenciaga made a strong case for the empire gown as a symbol of evening elegance — one that still stands on the red carpet today.

Pameyla Cambe
Senior Writer
Pameyla Cambe is a fashion and jewellery writer who believes that style and substance shouldn't be mutually exclusive. She makes sense of the world through Gothic novels, horror films and music. Lots of music.