Yves Saint Laurent: The Restrospective

Susan Walicki, exhibit review

Yves Saint Laurent at the Denver Art Museum

            The Yves Saint Laurent: the retrospective exhibit at the Denver Art Museum is a retrospective of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. This exhibit displays Saint Laurent’s designs through the pass of time in which he tailored to the needs of women, and is inspired by women. Yves Saint Laurent was born August first, 1936 in Oran Algeria. He was a French fashion designer considered to be among the greatest of the twentieth century. Yves’ designs are created for women and are inspired by women. He created designs for the contemporary women of his time. “The most important thing for Saint Laurent is not to follow or precede, but to always be of his time. Not the past, not the future, just at the fight place.” (Dam, 1998)

            As a youth, Saint Laurent was interested in theatrical costume and set design. (Duffy, 1983) He is credited with fashion spurring distant cultures, and creating reputable ready-to-wear lines. He was the foremost assistant to Christian Dior, and was designated successor of the House of Dior at age twenty-one. His early collections are noted for their maverick quality, and his work in the 1960s and 1970s helped democratize the world of fashion. In 1961 he opened his own house of fashion in Paris. In the following years he revolutionized the fashion world by creating trousers for daytime wear, evening wear, and broad shouldered suits that became emblems of power for the modern woman.

            Yves Saint Laurent’s designs draw on “hardness, nostalgia, whimsy, exotic venues, painting novels, poems, and outright homage to predecessors like Chanel, into inspiration for a dress.” (Duffy, 1983) His designs of the 1950s and 60s are easy and contemporary, and inspired by the “little black dress,” revolutionized by Chanel in the 1920s and 30s, which “symbolized the off hand smartness of the modern working woman,” he dominated this concept in the way in which it fitted his “double-sided vision of women as ladies and tramps.” (Duffy, 1983) This double vision of women is displayed in one of the first garments shown in the exhibit, the Beatnik collection. The leather jacket gang inspired this line. In creating this line Saint Laurent delved into an inspiration he continues to examine in men’s clothing. Inspired by this leather gang, Laurent created a garment that accentuated the feminine in a black fur lined collar, addressed sexuality in the reflective leather midsection and empowered the woman in a broad shouldered, structured jacket. This piece introduces the audience to a feminine power in androgyny that Yves Saint Laurent embraced in creating clothing for the workingwoman.

            Saint Laurent’s made women’s pant suits and pea coats inspired by utilitarian men’s clothing. The pant suits made in the beginning of his career that later inspired his woman’s tuxedo called “the smoking,” influenced trends in women’s fashion and created garments acceptable to wear for an evening out, where wearing pants was previously taboo. These styles were suitable for the powerful workingwoman to wear during the day, and then into the night.

            The region-influenced collections (1970s) in the exhibit are displayed before colored walls and foliage shaped light illuminating the pieces. Both the pieces and the display in the exhibit allude to the mythical orient in these culturally inspired garments. The Moroccan collection uses a brightly colored palate, in intricately patterned designs inspired by Saint Laurent’s visits to Marrakesh. These fabrics from loose pants, with patterns in ‘jungle’ colors like pinks, yellow, greens, and browns. These pants are paired with intricately beaded tops, only suitable to wear in a hot climate, that ask for a closer look to their color and detail. These garments enhance and display the sensuality of the exotic woman much like Delacroix’s Women of Algiers.

            Within this aestheticized display is a collection inspired by Spain. Satin cloaks and high waisted, cropped pants, address the Spanish matador tradition. In these pieces, Saint Laurent uses a fit similar to traditional matador costume and feminizes it with color and extravagant detail. One of the ensembles from this collection gives the mannequin the presence of a theatrical matador with a jacket and pants embroidered in reflective gold thread with pink silk cuffs on the pants tied into feminine bows, and a fuchsia and purple ruffled shirt, giving the mannequin an appearance of a strong inflated chest. The pink silk cloak draped off the shoulder of the mannequin shows an inspiration by the movement of the woman wearing the garment.

            Yves Saint Laurent’s tributes to artist are displayed in the exhibit in a way that frames the clothing as pieces of art rather than merely fashion. The pieces are displayed on elevated, individual platforms, and are in a brightly lit white room, much like a gallery space. The bust and waist sculpture gowns made in 1969 frames gilded sculptures of model Verushka’s bust and waist, made by Claude Lalanne, in blue and black floor length gowns and hooded floor length veils. The black and blue, semi translucent material of the fabric drapes weightlessly to the floor and gives the mannequin sporting the garments an ethereal appearance that lifts the model to a dark angelic stature. The gold sculptures structuring the garment reveals a bare pair of breasts in one, and stomach in the other. The reflective gold sculptures are so detailed the model might as well be partially nude, the sculptures completely reveal the anatomy of the model Verushka. These pieces frame very feminine body parts modeled from what one might consider an ideal woman. Not only do these garments give the model an idealized other worldly appearance, but heroicize the feminine body of Verushka in gilded sculptures. In these pieces the body parts are frozen in time, unsusceptible to the influence of age and weight on the body.

            Yves Saint Laurent was inspired by cubism and color displayed in the art of Picasso, Matisse, Braque, and Van Gogh. One of the cubist inspired pieces in this collection is a wedding dress wrapped in bird forms, inspired by George Braque, made in 1988. The birds on the garment display an overlapping perspective that creates an extreme dimension through the movement of the woman’s body in space. The Van Gogh tribute jackets (1988) in this display are inspired by Van Gogh’s Irises and Sunflowers. These jackets are intricately beaded to match Van Gogh’s color combinations in the paintings. The beads are from a variety of materials and some are painted to achieve more color blending and variation. The size and shape of the beads and pearls embedded in the jackets not only copy the color of Van Gogh’s paintings, but also give the impression of the depth and relief of thickly applied oil paints.

            The Collision of Colors display showcases Saint Laurent’s exploration of color and displays gowns from his Haute couture collection from 2001 and 2002. Through these dresses Saint Laurent investigates mystery, line, and color in chiffon ball gowns. These garments are described as clouds of color that hug the body. The chiffon fabric gives the dresses a weightless appearance, and would float and sway with a woman’s movement.  

            The last room in the exhibit showcases a variety of his tuxedos and ball gowns appropriate for the red carpet. The tuxedo collection is displayed in layers of black with black walls, black stands, black clothes, and black mannequins. This display demonstrates Saint Laurent’s extensive investigation of the tuxedo and the variety of models he produced. The showcasing of these tuxedos accentuates the number of different styles he created, class, as well as their function for many women. The gowns are displayed on a stand of red stairs descending into the gallery space, and the mannequins seem to parade down the steps. This space reeks of the fabulous nature of celebrities and their clothing, and shows an evolution in time of red carpet garments. The exhibit comes to a conclusion in a heart pin Saint Laurent pined to his favorite design in each of his shows.

            Yves Saint Laurent was a designer that revolutionized women’s fashion and created lines inspired by the exotic, artists, and women. His clothing depicts the evolution of fashion in his engagement of contemporary women and his will to create within the present, for the present moment. The retrospective show at the Denver Art Museum guides the viewer through this evolution of fashion, and displays clothing as high art with a runway twist. This aestheticized realm reflects the decadent and influential nature of Yves Saint Laurent’s designs.






“Yves Saint Laurent.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (2011): 1.

 Academic Search Premier. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.

Duffy, Martha. “Toasting Saint Laurent.” Time 122.25 (1983): 112. Academic Search

            Premier. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.

Dam, Julie K.L., and Bruce Crumley. “All About Yves.” Time International (South

            Pacific Edition) 32 (1998): 64. Business Source Complete. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.

5 Responses

  1. Susan, your paper brought up some interesting points. I was especially intrigued by YSL’s early collections that experimented with androgyny, as well as the first women’s pants that were socially accepted to go out in. Was there any information on how this bold move was received? Did the clothing pieces look that daring to you today?

    I also liked how you brought art history into your analysis of YSL’s clothing. It made a strong argument for these pieces of clothing to actually be elevated to the status of art.

  2. Your paper is fantastic and I really enjoyed how you talk about the fashion as well as its relation to art. I really wanted to go to this show and you really describe each piece brightly and in great detail. As the comment above said, i also really enjoyed how you talked about YSL’s early collection and the experimentation with androgyny. This reminded me of a recent artist lecture I went to that talked about sexuality, gender and identification. What specifically stood out to you as making these pieces not focus on identifying with the normal ideas of gender?

  3. I really enjoyed reading about the first women’s pants, I’ve learned a lot from your paper and I really want to go check this exhibition out! You’ve helped persuade me to make the drive down to denver. From your paper, it definitely seems worth it. Wonderful detail and history.

  4. I really liked your paper, especially how you addressed the different methods of display in different rooms and how that affects the viewer’s perception of the work. I think people often forget to pay attention to details like lighting, wall color, etc. but they really do make a difference and were exceptionally well done in this exhibit.

  5. Susan, you wrote the best review of the YSL show I’ve read so far. You go into great detail about the different elements of the show, which makes your argument even stronger. Your attention to detail helped me visualize every garment you were describing, and made me feel like I was back at the museum. I too came away feeling the impact of his legacy, as well as satisfied at the execution of this monumental exhibtion.

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