Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a renowned couturier of the 1950s, who designs clothes for the European aristocracy and socialite. Below and beyond the glamour of visiting dames and princesses, whose garderobe he designs from their first communion through first season as debutante to wedding gown, he lives a monkish life. His passion can only thrive in his dogged insistence on routine, whose disruption sends him into rants and rages. Unsurprisingly, women wither away into oblivion by his side, until he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a few decades his junior, who becomes his lover and muse. Phantom Thread is a luxurious, yet menacing story of two strong-willed personalities who find their own, predictably bizarre solution to how to maintain their relationship before the divisive and isolating tendencies of creativity.

The movie`s Reynolds Woodcock is

“a control freak with a monomaniacal zeal for dressmaking largely based on the real-life fashion forefather Cristóbal Balenciaga,”

the The New York Times writes. Director Paul Thomas Anderson was searching for the most cinematographic artist type for his main character when, debating between writer and painter, he picked up a biography of Balenciaga at an airport. “I generally didn’t have that much knowledge or interest in the fashion world until I started finding out a little bit about a guy named Cristóbal Balenciaga,” Anderson said. “He led a very monastic life, completely consumed with his work — sometimes at the expense of other things in his life. Our characters become something very different. Our story focuses on if you have a character like that, what would it take to disrupt his life. Usually, it’s love that does that.”

Balenciaga in 1950, and a cocktail dress designed in 1951.

Phantom Thread indeed diverges liberally from Balenciaga`s life in some ways (for one, Balenciaga was homosexual), but it keeps some of the core elements of the Basque designer`s personality, lifestyle and art. Known as “the King” in the fashion world in general, Christian Dior called Balenciaga “the master of us all,” and Coco Chanel once said he was “the only couturier in the truest sense of the word.” The formal purity, sobriety and sculptural design of his work reflected Balenciaga`s aversion to extravagance. He was reclusive, and prayed daily in a nearby church. He was a true misfit in his environment; as Joseba Zulaika quotes Roland Barthes, “the idea of fashion is antithetic to the idea of sainthood” (That Old Bilbao Moon, 184). In the only interview he ever granted, in his characteristic spirit of brooding melancholy Balenciaga said this about the most opulent of professions:

“Nobody knows what a hard métier it is, how killing is the work. Under all this luxury and glamour. Now c`est la vie d`un chien [it`s a dog`s life].”

Balenciaga was born in Getaria in 1895, and before he designed for the world`s elite, he would first dress Neguri`s and San Sebastian`s upper class through his exhibitions in Bilbao. His designs incorporated elements of Basque traditional costumes. The 1949 December issue of Harper`s Bazaar featured on its cover a Balenciaga dress inspired by the azpiko gona, a long gathered wool underskirt, generally red, decorated with horizontal bands. “Much of Balenciaga`s creation was nourished by the tension between Spanish and Basque traditional designs and European high modernism,” Zulaika writes in his Old Bilbao Moon (185).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Balenciaga dress inspired by the azpiko gona, 1949.

 

The Balenciaga Museum in Getaria.

 

 

 

 

The movie received 6 Academy Award nominations for 2018. For an article about Balenciaga`s person behind the movie in Spanish, see the review in El País: https://elpais.com/elpais/2018/01/23/estilo/1516726594_429501.html

For Phantom Thread, see the trailer here: