A life’s work evolves over time. Ten years ago, I slid into an uncomfortable writing desk chair at school, and opened my notebook. I had to prepare a topic for my master’s degree thesis. This topic had to unique, compelling, and something that would make my heart sing. I stared blankly at the empty sheet of paper in front of me. Of course, nothing tangible came to mind. I sighed as I shifted around on the unforgiving plastic seat, and began writing anything that came to me. My stream of consciousness scribbling when something like this:
Elegance. What makes fashion timeless? Balenciaga. Foreign designers. What is it like to be a foreigner designing fashion – how is your identity and style impacted when you belong in two different worlds?
The last line was compelling. For most of my life, I had dreamed of living in a foreign country. I never felt that I quite fit in, and the allure of travel seemed to promise that I could somehow find myself. Maybe I belonged somewhere else. In middle school, I decided to study Italian and started an elaborate plan to move to Italy. This plan took over a decade, but was successful. For about a year, I lived in Florence in my early twenties.
Sketch by Antonio Castillo, 1965. Image courtesy of The English Group.
What I thought would be some sort of cataclysmic homecoming fell short. While I wasn’t quite a typical American, I definitely was not European. After the initial bleakness wore off, I realized how much of my identity existed between two worlds. Slowly, I understood that I could adapt and feel at home anywhere. Yet this adaptation comes with growing pains. Some days, you feel that you belong everywhere – that you have friends, family, and a home all over the world. Other days, you feel an agonizing and endless loneliness, where no one seems to understand or welcome you.
I wondered if fashion designers and artists also felt this sense of plasticity. They must, I decided. I blinked a few times, now aware the I had filled pages of my notebook with these musings on identity and fashion. I closed my notebook, got up, and walked into my appointment with my advisor. We discussed these ideas, and she told me that I should explore the work of Antonio Castillo.
Antonio Castillo, c.1953. Photo by Jacques Rouchon. Image courtesy of Parisen Images.
The results of this meeting was a decade of researching the designer’s work. I felt such an affinity for Castillo’s journey, and somehow understood myself better by learning about his work. (New to my site? You would enjoy my previous posts about Antonio Castillo.) A brief synopsis of Castillo’s career indicates he, too, lived in multiple worlds:
Born in Madrid in 1908, Castillo left Spain in 1936 at the onset of the Spanish Civil War. He fled to Paris, where he soon started working for various couture houses. By 1937, Castillo was employed by Paquin and was designing haute couture collections with head designer Ana de Pombo. De Pombo left Paquin in 1942, making Castillo her successor, a position he held until 1945. During his time at Paquin, Castillo successfully designed collections and executed costumes for the film La Belle et La Bete (1946) by Jean Cocteau. In October of 1945, Castillo left Paris for New York. n October of 1945, Castillo left Paris for New York. Here, he was the designer for the Elizabeth Arden Fashion Floor, the couture branch of the cosmetics and fragrance house. At Elizabeth Arden, he created made-to-order designs for five years. Then, in 1950, Castillo received an invitation from Jeanne Lanvin’s daughter, the Comtesse Jean de Polignac, to revitalize the house of Lanvin. Through this period he trained assistant designers, who included Oscar de la Renta and Dominic Toubeix. Castillo continued to design for Lanvin until 1962, when he was asked to leave the house.
I felt that I had long ago closed this chapter of my life. But recently, I was contacted by Jessica. She had this coat by Castillo and hoped that I could tell her more about it. I realized my own work on this topic was still evolving.
After a somewhat unexpected departure from Lanvin in 1963, Castillo announced his plans to open up his own design house. The 1960s was a period of economic and culture change worldwide, and couture was declining with the rise of ready-to-wear and a more casual lifestyle. Castillo designed ready-to-wear collections for Zacari, Ltd., a Seventh Avenue manufacturer, and well as for the now-defunct department store Best & Co’s private label Miss Cosmopolitan. These licensing deals segued into Castillo launching his own couture house and boutique in January of 1964. (Source: New York Times Historical)
Castillo for Zacari label. Image courtesy of a private collection.
Castillo designed through the late 1960s, where the fashion press consistently praised his design sensibilities. The New York Times went so far as to say:
“Antonio del Castillo’s elegant instincts all come surging out in his evening clothes.” (New York Times, 4 March 1966, 29.)
What is striking to me is how Castillo could communicate elegance without borders. The 1960s was a decade in which cultures, American in particular, were completely transformed. People everywhere were questioning authority as they knew it. Anti-establishment sentiments soared, exemplified in the Civil Rights Movement, the rise of youth culture, advances in feminist political policies, and protests against the war in Vietnam. The shifting tide also meant an upheaval for fashion. Interest in couture waned. Ideas of “appropriateness” in dress and beauty varied drastically. Manufacturing and sizing changed from country to country.
Castillo was able to keep pulse on the world and it’s changes. His collections appealed to a more global citizen, a modern woman. In 1964, his line was described:
“The clothes are French in spirit . . . but American in sizing and the fashion needs they are intended to meet.” (New York Times, 10 January 1964.)
His success was due to living in multiple worlds – Paris, Spain, and New York. If he was anything like me, his heart must have always softly lingered in a favorite alleyway in Paris or coffee shop in New York regardless of where he was physically present. Whether at home or abroad, his role was always that of a charming foreigner. As someone that feels they don’t quite belong, you’re able to see the dazzling beauty in the ordinary streets and regular people that otherwise get swept away in the current of life. And it’s this ability to see the dazzling beauty in the ordinary that impacts your style and identity when you belong to different worlds.
N.B. – based on the rather conservative silhouette of Jessica’s blazer, I would date this piece to 1964-65. This would coincide with the opening of Castillo’s eponymous house as well as the fashions of the time.