Prior to her marriage to Count Edward Bismark, American-born Mona Bismarck was the wife of utilities millionaire Harrison Williams. In the 1930s they bought a home in Paris, where she continued to live for the rest of her life. From 1930 to the 1950s, she was a fixture in society columns and fashion magazines. In fact, in 1936 Cole Porter mentioned "Mrs. Harrison Williams" in the song lyrics for Ridin' High. She was often photographed by Cecil Beaton. In her early years in Paris, she purchased items from many different designer houses. Eventually she shopped almost exclusively at Balenciaga and, later, Givenchy. Over the years, Countess Bismark offered many of these garments to the Smithsonian.
Cristobal Balenciaga Eisaguirre was born in the small fishing village of Guetaria in the Basque region of Spain. He learned to sew from his mother, who was a dressmaker. After apprenticing with tailors in San Sebastian and Madrid, he opened his own shop in San Sebastian in 1919. Eventually he opened to two houses in Spain, naming them Eisa, after his mother. With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1937, he fled to Paris and established his own house. There he developed a large clientele of wealthy women, including a number of Americans such as Countess Bismark. Admired for the sophistocated, timeless style and cut of his designs, he was called "The Master" by his fellow designers. Many of his designs were inspired by Spanish regional dress and influenced by paintings of the old Spanish masters. He retired in 1968 and died in 1972. Exhibited in Mona Bismarck, Balenciaga, Cecil Beaton, Paris, France, 1994.