Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective at the DAM

Elissa Buchalter

Contemporary Art Exhibit Paper- Yves Saint Laurent

Currently showing at the Denver Art Museum is the Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective.  Over Spring break I was able to attend this incredible exhibit, which will only be shown in Denver, Madrid, and Paris.  This exhibit features over 200 of Yves Saint Laurent’s haute couture fashions showcased alongside photographs, personal sketches/notes, videos, and replicas of the designer’s fashion studio.  This exhibit follows a timeline starting with how YSL began his career in fashion and walks the viewer through his life’s works/accomplishments regarding haute couture.  This show conveys the true art of high fashion and how a garment can be a form of wearable art.

Yves Saint Laurent became Christian Dior’s assistant in 1955 and was made head designer of the House of Dior in 1957 when Dior died of a sudden heart attack (DAM).  In 1961 YSL created his own haute couture house and became a revolutionary designer.  An example of how revolutionary YSL was is the introduction of the trapeze dress.  He created this new “freer” silhouette as “an act of youthful rebellion” (DAM).  Women no longer had to be ‘nipped’ in at the waist.  An example this from the spring/summer 1958 collection is shown below:

Yves Saint Laurent was a true artist regarding his fashion designs and believed “above all else it is not altogether an art, but it [fashion] requires an artist to exist” (DAM).  YSL was a true artist when it came to designing clothes, because he never worked on a wooden mannequin; only on live women.  He wanted to show not the beauty of the garment, but the “beauty of the model in the dress” (DAM).  His fashion sketches expressed the reality of the garment and he worked very spontaneously; none of his designs were ever ‘planned’ and he strived for “creation in the purest state” (DAM).

YSL was a revolutionary artist in the world of fashion because he was the first designer to transform men’s work clothes into fashionable women’s wear.  YSL created somewhat of a gender revolution by showcasing the “Tuxedo” or “Le Smoking” jacket in 1966.  YSL decided to do men’s wear for women because he thought, “men had far more self confidence when dressed” (DAM) and wanted the women who wore his designs to exude that same confidence.  The Tuxedo and pants made for women were originally seen as “gauche” and “scandalous” in the 1960’s because women typically only wore skirts and dresses at this time. (http://onthisdayinfashion.com/?p=3750).    According to YSL the smoking jacket for women was “more modern than an evening gown.” And created a sense of gender ambiguity (http://onthisdayinfashion.com/?p=3750).

One of my favorite parts of the YSL exhibition was the section titled  “The Colors of Yves Saint Laurent”.  There was a large hallway with several examples of his most strikingly colorful and draped evening gowns.  The garments were all enclosed within glass and the walls of the hallway were covered in a myriad of fabrics of different textures and colors.  YSL utilized color to enhance the garment and his design in order to stand out from the crowd.  Another section of the exhibit that I found particularly inspiring was “The Last Ball”.  This final room of the exhibition featured a replica of the red carpeted stairs of the Opera and had dozens of mannequins poised on the steps wearing haute couture evening dresses.  I thought this was an incredible grand finale to the exhibit, because I found Yves Saint Laurent’s evening gowns to be his most artistic of designs.

Overall I thought this Exhibition was the most impressive I have ever experienced.  I think the show was curated and put together absolutely beautifully.  I really appreciated how the show not only had YSL garments on display, but also featured videos of him working in his Paris design studio and had replicas of fashion closets and his working space.  I thought the inclusion of elements such as his personal sketches and ad campaigns were nice touches that really helped me as a viewer gain insight into his creative process and workings.

The Yves Saint Laurent exhibit also featured an audio supplemental “tour” which I have never experienced before in an exhibit.  Upon entering the exhibition, a museum employee gives you a remote looking object that you can hold up to your ear to hear more information throughout viewing the exhibition.  Certain garments throughout the show feature a number, and that number can be typed into the audio remote in order to hear an in depth explanation.  I thought this was a great idea, because the exhibit was quite crowded and it was not always possible to read the small signs next to the specific garments.  I thought the audio tour provided a lot more of an educational aspect to the exhibition, which I appreciated. I feel that in the past I have attended an art exhibit and only “looked” at the art—I sometimes don’t have the patience to read all the information provided to me. In the past I usually walk away from an art exhibit thinking I “saw” beautiful or interesting work, not that I have necessarily learned anything.  However, walking away from the YSL exhibit I feel like I learned a good amount regarding his creative process and the history behind his designs.

Yves Saint Lauren was a revolutionary artist in the field of Fashion.  He was responsible for the invention and design of innovative garments, which sparked gender revolutions and was responsible for pushing the boundaries of fashion as art.  Overall this was the best art exhibition I have had the fortune to attend and would highly recommend everyone to go and see it before it leaves in July.

3 Responses

  1. This sounds like an amazing event! Part of me wishes I would have chosen this particular art exhibition to experience. You gave a great background on YSL–it is incredible that he chose only to work on live women, rather than on mannequins. I think this is evidence of his brilliance in the field of fashion. I like that he wasn’t afraid to tip the gender balance and explore the possibilities that lay in between. “The Last Ball” area sounds exquisite. You gave great detail and enthusiasm in this paper, and the organization and curation of this exhibition sound superb. I am absolutely going to have to check this one out in the summer.

  2. The history you give about YSL is incredible for understanding the exhibit and showcasing what you learned. I also liked how you broke the exhibit down and discussed the exhibit itself. You make the exhibit seem very vibrant and I definitely want to go see it!

  3. I wanted to read your paper because I wanted to see how you would approach the issue of fashion being art. In more traditional approaches to art history, fashion has often been excluded from the canon.

    I suppose fashion has not been included in art criticism, usually, because it is a sort of commercial product. However, that isn’t sufficient to disregard it because one could argue the art world is moving towards a greater emphasis on the market of art objects, for better or worse, blurring the line between luxury good and art. Damien Hirst, for example, puts so much emphasis on the material value of his art objects that they approach being commercial products.

    Equally, the inclusion of ready-mades in art criticism and the contributions of pop art would allow for the inclusion of fashion design in art criticism.

    Equally important to remember is that the way in which designers like Yves Saint Laurent work, that is draping and sewing by hand, and especially as you said on women, rather than on dress forms, adds a performative aspect to this that makes them seem very much like art. Process is obviously of extreme importance to his creative output.

    In total, I think one can comfortably include fashion design in the realm of art criticism and that it would be limiting not to.

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