Balmain's father, who died when the future designer was seven years old, was the owner of a wholesale drapery business. His mother and her sisters operated a fashion boutique. Balmain studied architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts, but did not complete his studies. He spent his time there designing dresses. While attending the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Balmain went to Molyneux, who promised to give him a trial. Balmain then left his architectural studies to work for the fashion designer Edward Molyneux, for whom he worked from 1934 until 1939. He joined Lucien Lelong after World War II and opened his own fashion house in 1945. The house showcased long bell-shaped skirts with small waists - a line which later became popular as Dior's New Look. In 1951 he opened branches in the United States selling ready-to-wear clothes. (Picture: Erik Mortensen)
During the 1950s, Balmain popularized the stole for day as well as evening wear and created a vogue for sheath dresses beneath jackets. His talent as a designer lay in his ability to make simple, tailored suits as well as grand evening gowns, all with the same aesthetic of slender and elegant lines. Balmain also designed the iconic uniform of the Singapore Airlines Singapore Girl, loosely based on the traditional Indonesian kebaya.
Pierre Alexandre Claudius Balmain (b. Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, Savoie, 18 May 1914 – Paris, France, 29 June 1982) was a French fashion designer. Known for sophistication and elegance, he once said that "dressmaking is the architecture of movement." His companion was the Danish designer Erik Mortensen, who worked as a designer at Balmain from 1948 until 1991. When Pierre Balmain died in 1982, Erik Mortensen took over as head designer of the house. Mortensen died in 1998 at the age of 72.
Haute-couture deux-pièces (dress & jacket), ca. 1950s (©27)
L to R- Paulette Caillaux, Erik Mortensen (assistant/companion), Lina, Marie-Thérèse, Pierre Balmain, Rhodia Textile representative, Geneviève Richard, Carole Jacquet and Marina 1954
Evening dress, 1957
This evening dress has a low necked and adorned bodice which drops to the hip level at the sides and is tightly fitted to the body by curved seams and long darts. It is of tulle stretched over taffeta and mounted on a firmly boned foundation. Springing from the lowered waist is a frou-frou skirt of accordion-pleated triple flounces in frail tulle edged with shining satin ribbon. At the sides additional fullness is achived by tiers of enormous rosettes of pleated tulle interleaved with supporting ruches of nylon crin.
Pierre Balmain (1914-1982) opened his salon in 1945. Having studied architecture he worked on the structure of garments, defining the body with simple, modern lines. This cocktail dress, designed for the increasing elegant youth of the late 1950s is inspired by ballet and Spanish flamenco dress. It epitomises Balmain's harmonious balance between extravagance and elegance.
Lady Elizabeth von Hofmannsthal (1916-80) was one of the Paget sisters, a Maid of Honour at the 1937 Coronation, and like her aunt, Lady Diana Cooper, one of the most beautiful women in England in her day. She married Raimund von Hofmannsthal (son of Hugo von Hofmannsthal), with whom many English girls were in love. She gave her yellow Balmain evening dress of 1956, and a black Balmain cocktail dress of 1957 to the V&A Museum. After her death her son, Octavian, donated a beautiful Cartier make-up case monogrammed with her initials. It still contains blusher.
Evening dress, 1956
Pierre Balmain maintained that 'the basic job of a couturier . . . is to dress women for everyday living' (My Years and Seasons, 1964). For his clientele, normal life often involved numerous grand evening occasions, and Balmain is perhaps best known for the lavish ball-gowns he created for these events. The vertically looped ribbon decoration and the full, long skirt of this dress were inspired by 18th- and 19th-century garments.
This dress was worn by Lady Elizabeth von Hofmannsthal and forms part of the Cecil Beaton Collection. This Collection was brought together by the society photographer Sir Cecil Beaton (1904-1980). With great energy and determination Beaton contacted the well-dressed elite of Europe and North America to help create this lasting monument to the art of dress. The Collection was exhibited in 1971, accompanied by a catalogue that detailed its enormous range.
Evening dress, 1957
Lady Gladwyn was the wife of the British Ambassador to Paris from 1954 to 1960. She hosted the state visit of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip at the Embassy in April 1957, and invited her great friend Diana Cooper to attend the dinner held at the British Embassy on Tuesday 9 April, at which this dress was probably worn. It was designed by Pierre Balmain (1914-82), and the bodice features the appliqué technique favoured by him.
Lady Gladwyn wrote in her diary: "The supper was, I think, just right for the occasion: cold salmon, chaudfroid of chicken, a salad, oranges and lemons filled with sorbet, and a wonderful Bollinger... The difficulty was to get rid of all the guests. They lingered on, and at half past one in the morning Cecil Beaton was still sketching Diana Cooper in the Ionian Room".
In 1971 the society photographer Cecil Beaton collected several of the dresses worn during this particular state visit to donate the V&A. These included the Queen's embroidered ivory gown by Norman Hartnell (1901-79), Lady Gladwyn's lilac lace gown by Jacques Fath (1912-54), and Baroness Alain de Rothschild's spotted tulle gown by Christian Dior (1905-57).
Evening dress, 1950-1955
Pierre Balmain (1914–82) opened his couture house in 1945. He had previously trained alongside Christian Dior at the couture house of Lucien Lelong.
Balmain became one of the most successful couturiers of his generation and by 1956 his house employed 600 workers, with 12 couture workrooms and in-house fur and millinery ateliers.
This youthful summer dress has a boned petticoat, showing the care given even to the under-garments.
Evening dress, 1950-1955
This evening gown was designed by Pierre Balmain (1914-82), and may have been a debutante's presentation dress. The gown is embellished with ostrich feathers, sequins and rhinestones.
Working such a light-weight fabric required great skill, and would have been commissioned from a specialist workshop such as Lesage. Balmain’s fellow couturier Christian Dior (1905-1957) explained, 'a ball dress may be entirely covered with millions of paillettes, or pearls, each one of which has to be put on separately'.
Evening dress, 1953
After studying architecture for a year, Pierre Balmain changed his focus to fashion. He began as a sketch artist for the house of Robert Piquet and then went on to work as an assistant designer at the House of Molyneux from 1934-1938. His next position was with the designer Lucien Lelong, working there in 1939, and then from 1941-1945. While at Lelong, Balmain designed alongside his contemporary Christian Dior. Stated appropriately by the fashion historian Farid Chenoune, Balmain was one of "the supreme practitioners of the New Look generation,” along with designers Dior and Jacques Fath. Maison Balmain opened in 1945, and in addition to promoting the New Look silhouette, Balmain is credited with popularizing the stole as an accessory. His work is characterized by its simple elegance and impeccable detail. The dress featured here is an exquisite example of the designer's best work.
Balmain also created perfumes, including Vent Vert (1947), his first successful scent and one of the best-selling perfumes of the late 1940s and early 1950s, Jolie Madame (1953), Ivoire (1979), and Eau d'Amazonie (2006). His first perfume, launched in 1947, bore his company's Phone Number, Elysées 64-83.
Balmain was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Costume Design and won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Costume Design for Happy New Year (1980). Additional Broadway theatre credits include costumes for Sophia Loren in The Millionairess (1960) and Josephine Baker for her eponymous 1964 revue. He also was a costume designer for 16 films, including the Brigitte Bardot vehicle And God Created Woman, and designed on-screen wardrobes for the actresses Vivien Leigh and Mae West. He made a lot of dresses for Dalida.
Balmain's 1964 autobiography was titled My Years and Seasons.
Erik Mortensen worked as a designer at Balmain from 1948 until 1991. Also the later very successful Danish fashion designer Margit Brandt worked as a young designer with Pierre Balmain in the early 1960s.
Balmain was mentioned in Peter Sarstedt's 1969 hit song "Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)".
Balmain's vintage couture gowns remain chic, sought after and popular among the international jet-set, movie stars and socially prominent women, and have been seen on Angelina Jolie, Penélope Cruz, Alexandra Kerry, Tatiana Sorokko, Kate Moss and Kristin Davis, among others.
Erik Mortensen was born in 1926 in the North of Denmark. He studied with Holger Blum, Copenhagen's premier couturier.
In 1948, Mortensen joined the house of Pierre Balmain, and became Balmain's right-hand man in 1950.
When Pierre Balmain died in 1982, Erik Mortensen took over as head designer of the house. He was noted for his elegant evening wear, and stylish cocktail dresses. His collections ensured that the house of Balmain would continue to be very successful.
Mortensen won the France Haute Couture Golden Thimble Award for his Autumn/Winter 1983/84 collection and his second Golden Thimble for his Autumn/Winter 1987/88 collection.
Erik Mortensen stayed at the house of Pierre Balmain until 1991, after he had completed 43 years. He then spent the last years of his life working at the house of Jean-Louis Scherrer. He later wrote a book in Danish about his life at Pierre Balmain.
One of his most famous dresses was the "Octopus" frock which showed tentacles of an Octopus spreading out over the dress. This was made into a bronze sculpture by Jens Galschiot and in 1999 it was erected in front of the Dress Vocational School in Odense.
Mortensen died in 1998 at the age of 72.
Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time by Elisa Rolle
Paperback: 760 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1 edition (July 1, 2014)
Amazon: Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time
Days of Love chronicles more than 700 LGBT couples throughout history, spanning 2000 years from Alexander the Great to the most recent winner of a Lambda Literary Award. Many of the contemporary couples share their stories on how they met and fell in love, as well as photos from when they married or of their families. Included are professional portraits by Robert Giard and Stathis Orphanos, paintings by John Singer Sargent and Giovanni Boldini, and photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnson, Arnold Genthe, and Carl Van Vechten among others. “It's wonderful. Laying it out chronologically is inspired, offering a solid GLBT history. I kept learning things. I love the decision to include couples broken by death. It makes clear how important love is, as well as showing what people have been through. The layout and photos look terrific.” Christopher Bram “I couldn’t resist clicking through every page. I never realized the scope of the book would cover centuries! I know that it will be hugely validating to young, newly-emerging LGBT kids and be reassured that they really can have a secure, respected place in the world as their futures unfold.” Howard Cruse “This international history-and-photo book, featuring 100s of detailed bios of some of the most forward-moving gay persons in history, is sure to be one of those bestsellers that gay folk will enjoy for years to come as reference and research that is filled with facts and fun.” Jack Fritscher
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