Mary Blume, “The Master of Us All: Balenciaga, His Workrooms, His World”

I’m going to start with a quotation here, and if you don’t like it you can just move on, because while I adored The Master of Us All, not every reader wants to devote a few hours to a long-dead Spanish fashion designer. See how this tickles your fancy:

The sleeve was, as is well known, Balenciaga’s obsession: everyone connected with the house remembers anguished cries of la manga and the awful sound of the master ripping one out at the last moment.

“The sleeve was a mania with him and always a problem,” Florette said. “In those days the buyers came by ship and their orders had to be ready to leave with them, not on the next ship. Once I had a huge delivery and I saw he was taking apart the sleeves of a dress I had to ship that night. I said, Monsieur Balenciaga, you can’t do this, they have to be there at six p.m. He said, they can’t leave like this, and kept on working. I finally started to cry and he said I was bad-tempered — et en plus elle a un mauvais caractère – and kept right on pinning.”

Maybe The Master of Us All is the literary equivalent of one of those wonderful fashion documentaries like The September Issue or Valentino: The Last EmperorIt offers the insider’s view, the unscripted moments. Missing, of course, are color and motion, but what you do get with a book is the ability to control the pace of your experience. And I found that valuable with The Master of Us All: there are so many delicious moments that I wanted to linger over or return to. Like the fact that when Christian Dior died, “his otherwise hard-headed business manager told Japanese television that it was because God needed Dior to dress His angels.” (It was Dior who dubbed Balenciaga “the master of us all.”) Not wholly relevant, but too good to leave out, I guess.

Irving Penn photo of his wife Lisa Fonssagrives in a Balenciaga taken for Vogue 1950. Courtesy National Gallery of Art

Irving Penn photo of his wife Lisa Fonssagrives in a Balenciaga dress, taken for Vogue in 1950. Courtesy National Gallery of Art

This little book is full of splendid nuggets like that. I got the sense that Mary Blume had been collecting material for years. Her primary source seems to have been Florette Chelot, Balenciaga’s head vendeuse, a position of enormous power (and earning power) in the heyday of couture. Blume was lucky enough to get to know Florette in the 1960s and to benefit from Florette’s generosity with discounted Balenciaga outfits. She stays out of the story until the end, though, preferring to showcase Florette, an appealing, good-natured but hard-headed woman who thought the world of Balenciaga.

If you’ve read this far, it’s because you you admire the clothes. There aren’t many glamorous photographs in the book — there are other books for that — mostly grainy black and white candids, with a slender insert of color. You’ll know also about Balenciaga’s famous reticence, dignity, and perfectionism. As Blume says, “Those who admire him want to know him better, aware that we cannot really know him at all. A paradox, and mighty unsatisfactory, but also a homage of sorts — to the art, the discretion, and even the contradictions of the man.”

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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