Smithsonian - National Museum of American History, Behring Center

Costume Collection - Women's Dresses

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Dress, 3-Piece - click to enlarge

Dress, 3-Piece - click to enlarge

Dress, 3-Piece - click to enlarge

Click photos to enlarge.

Dress, 3-Piece

Catalogue number: CS*278873.011

Date: 1951

Maker: Balenciaga

Designer: Cristobal Balenciaga


White strapless floral lace on black net ground; DRESS-full length evening, with separate pink cummerbund; long panels/train in back and separate taffeta petticoat; full gathered lace skirt; bodice has scalloped lace applied along top edge and skirt hem edge; boning on back side and front of bodice; lined in gray silk taffeta; full gathered skirt with gray silk organdy underskirt attached at waistline; underskirt has darts in front and gathered in back, to minimize bulk in front; left side zipper closure sewn to bodice and extends into organdy underskirt; side opening on lace skirt fastens with snaps; grosgrain ribbon waistline stay sewn along upper edge inside edge of bodice waist to stabilize dress to body; PETTICOAT-five panel gray silk taffeta; waistline darts to minimize the bulk; left side opening with snap closure; 4-inch-wide band of horsehair braid stitched 11 inches down from waistline and another band of braid along hemline; horsehair band is encased in taffeta and stitched in place; 1/2-inch bias binding around waistline; CUMMERBUND-pink silk taffeta, boned; with folds; contour-shaped front, narrowing in back; center back hook and eye closure; lined in same fabric; two long pink panels, one 55 inches (139.7 cm) long and the other 38 inches (96.5 cm) long, attached to left side end of cummerbund with a gathered loop attached to left side long edge to form a knot; panels have a 1-inch hem along lengths and 2-inch fringe at lower edge.


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.

Credit: Gift of Countess Mona Bismark