Although there are conflicting stories regarding their courtship (and because this is a story about a fairy-tale wedding dress, for goodness sake), the romantic in me will tell you that 50 years ago today on December 15, 1960, a royal love match was made official. Doña Fabiola de Mora y Aragón, a 32-year-old Spanish hospital nurse, nabbed Europe’s most eligible bachelor: 30-year-old King Baudouin I of Belgium.
There are no written accounts of bets being placed on which couturier would design Fabiola’s wedding dress. This is because only one designer was likely ever considered for the job. Cristóbal Balenciaga had three things going for him: He was a friend of the family (he designed the bride-to-be’s first formal ball gown), Spanish and, not unimportantly, one of the top couturiers of the era, right up there alongside Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain. (To wit, upon his death in 1972, Women’s Wear Daily announced, “the king is dead.”)
The wedding dress was not only designed by Balenciaga, but also executed by his own hand in the utmost secrecy in the designer’s Madrid apartment. Under his personal workmanship, the mink-trimmed, ivory silk gown that emerged captured a style that was timeless and modern, sumptuous and understated—even with a 20-foot train. By royal standards it was somewhat unconventional: There was none of the requisite antique lace (despite the fact that she married a Belgian—gasp!), the bodice and dropped waist highlighted the bride’s small figure and, with a masterful Balenciaga touch, the mink neckline gently draped off the back of her shoulders, as though the future Queen was Dovima or Dorian Leigh rather than a future leader of Belgium. The skirt was conservative, featuring a slight pouf and gentle drape, and the gown offered nary a pearl, jewel or sparkling embellishment of any kind. The dress was, simply, a Balenciaga.
As with the gown, the new Queen’s accessories were both simply elegant, yet extravagantly rich: drop pearl earrings, opera-length silk gloves, a small spray of flowers and a tulle veil supported by a single mark of royalty: Her new mother-in-law’s staggering 1926 Art Deco diamond tiara.
Unlike “common” wedding gowns, Fabiola’s dress starred in not one but two ceremonies. First, a civil ceremony was held in the Palace of Brussels before a religious one at the Church of St. Gudule. The wedding hosted the largest congregation of royals since Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, with five kings, four queens and 46 prince and princesses in attendance. In addition, 150 million people tuned into their still-new television sets to watch a very nervous Fabiola parade from the palace to the church. The fidgeting bride struggled with her train twice. Once she came close to tears as the yards of tulle caught on a chair during the civil ceremony, but was reassured by the whispers of her new husband.
But for the Belgians, their new queen—a woman Time magazine dubbed “Cinderella Girl”—could take no misstep. According to Time, “The Belgians seemed delighted with the dark-eyed Spanish girl King Baudouin picked for their queen.”
Like all designers, Balenciaga was influenced by myriad sources. But most significantly, he was influenced by the women who wore his clothes. He often sought new ways to enhance the shape of a woman’s body, even calling on architectural techniques and crafting infinite styles. Fabiola’s wedding dress illustrates the masterful way Balenciaga viewed the woman and expressed her personal silhouette. Not three years after he famously introduced the empire-waist “baby-doll,” the designer returned to the drop-waist for Fabiola. With a subtly sophisticated and chic wedding dress, Balenciaga created a royal style for a queen. —Katrina Ernst
Photographs: Images from the wedding are primarily found from the January 6, 1961 issue of Life magazine. The rest were found through various sources, photographers unknown.