Paige Hirschey Exhibit Paper: Yves Saint Laurent

Paige Hirschey
April 25, 2012
Yves Saint Laurent: Succès de Scandale
Although haute couture has finally begun to make a name for itself in the realm of high art, it’s often a begrudging categorization. The fashion world is stigmatized as superficial, the art of a vapid, over-privileged class, lacking depth or true vision. Yves Saint Laurent defied such petty expectations by using clothes as a way of breaking down social barriers (both in terms of gender and race) while maintaining an air of grace, beauty, and above all, individuality. A retrospective currently at the Denver Art Museum explores the four decade long career during which he transformed the world of female couture, making a name for himself with his controversial ideas and timeless silhouettes, many of which still influence high fashion today.
The most surprising and fascinating parts of the exhibit was the way in which it addressed how the public received Mr. Saint Laurent’s work. Many were no doubt surprised to learn that his clothes, while ultimately celebrated, were quite scandalous when they were first shown.The first rooms of the exhibit were devoted to some of his earliest and most controversial collections. The exhibit opens with a section dedicated to his time at Dior. He raised eyebrows with his final collection for the brand (“Souplesse, Legerete, Vie”)in 1960 whose biker chic attire was inspired by the French gang, Les Blousons Noirs, so-named for their distinctive black jackets. Taking inspiration from a group of delinquents was unprecedented in the world of haute couture, and likely lost Saint Laurent the coveted spot of head designer at Dior. Striking out on his own, he continued to shock with his flair for androgyny and penchant for highlighting the female form. The former was on display in the next room with two rows of pantsuits, peacoats and safari jackets from throughout the designer’s career flanking the viewer’s pathway. These pieces, though stylish, seemed altogether ordinary, certainly nothing one wouldn’t be able to find in a department store today. Yet the screen at the far end of the room and informational guides painted a very different picture. Back in the 1960’s, he shocked the world with his brazen androgyny, daring to put a woman in pants for both day and evening. Yet, far from attempting to shock, these pieces were meant to act as equalizers, putting women into the same realm as men in a world wherein their roles were becoming more entwined than ever. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he had the foresight to realize that the way women dress affects the way that she is perceived by society. His goal was not to hide their femininity but to embrace it. By wearing the same clothes as men, their gender is highlighted while their power is equalized. Obviously, not everyone was so receptive to his avant garde vision. A video, played on repeat at the end of the room features a man commenting with disdain that the line between men and women was becoming too narrow.
The star of this section was, in my mind the lace-up safari jacket, worn by Veruschka on the cover of Vogue. The piece combines the rugged feel of a traditional safari jacket with a more formfitting silhouette and lacing down to the waist. Far from rendering her indistinguishable from the men whose style she copies, the model’s gender is very much pronounced. The masculinity of the jacket and surroundings are offset by the scandalously unlaced bodice. This sort of feminine touch is common throughout even Saint Laurent’s most androgynous ensembles. Once again, he hoped to maintain a woman’s feminine graces while granting them all the metaphorical power of men’s clothing. Although this was a superficial sort of change, it compounded a shifting social order, wherein men and women were becoming equal both at home and in the workplace.
Saint Laurent’s clothing did not stop at gender equality. He took inspiration from cultures the world over, using native fabrics and traditional silhouettes, something which proved groundbreaking in a notoriously Euro-centric industry. One room was devoted entirely to these pieces, ranging from a gold lamé sarong inspired by his time in Morocco, to flowy Russian peasant blouses, even his own take on a kimono. While these are arguably somewhat exoticized, theatrical interpretations of their respective cultures, the fact that he was incorporating non-Western traditions into the fashion world at all was a major development. Even more impressive, he was the first couturier to use women of multiple ethnicities in his shows. He saw women as individuals not mannequins and wanted his clothing to highlight distinct personalities and backgrounds as opposed to being displayed on nondescript canvases. The curator expressed this desire in a slideshow of Mr. Saint Laurent’s most famous and diverse patrons, juxtaposed with pieces of the designers work that they owned. Mona Hayoub, a French socialite, opted for a slinky lace and sequin design held together only by two pink ties on the left side. The designer took a more modest approach though when designing for Lauren Bacall. Her tunic sweater and trouser combination is equally representative of his work but, at the same time much more reflective of Ms. Bacall’s taste. This impressive range reflected his desire to offer women the opportunity to use their clothing to express their individuality. Not only did he offer a wide range of styles, his pieces often allowed women to adjust them to their specific tastes. One could argue that this quest for expressing womens’ individuality was as much a remark on women’s power as his trademark menswear looks. He insisted throughout his career that women were creative, unique beings, a far cry from the glorified housewife image that was still prevalent up to the 1960’s.
While Saint Laurent’s messages were obviously a large part of his work, he was, first and foremost an artist. A reproduction of his studio at the front of the exhibit is accompanied with a list of his inspirations both living and deceased. While some of these influences had only a subtle impact on his body of work, like his collections for Dior which captured the rebellious essence of Pop Art, other pieces were granted a much more obvious interpretation. In one of the last rooms of the exhibit, we see many of his pieces which offer a direct interpretation of some of his favorite works. The Mondrian shift dress, for example is covered in the geometric color blocking associated with the artist. Likewise two encased, embroidered jackets feature beaded versions of Van Gogh landscapes. As a clothing designer, he, unlike these inspirations, had to adapt all of his ideas to the female form, something which, for him, also provided a wealth of inspiration. One of my favorite pieces in the collection reflected this presence of the female form in his work. Created in a collaboration with French sculptor Claude Lalanne and inspired by Veruschka, these gowns were embellished with metal casts of the model’s body, raising the female form beyond mere fascination to the level of art. This interest also manifested itself in more controversial forms. In one of the most scandalous pieces displayed, he celebrates the female body with a sheer organza confection embellished with black ostrich feathers and adorned with a metallic gold belt around the figure’s waist under the sheer fabric. The combination of the gauzy chiffon and heavy ostrich feathers creates a beautiful, airy silhouette while the belt highlights the figure’s waist beneath it and accentuates the sheerness of the fabric.The piece caused such a stir when it was shown in Europe in1968 that it was forbidden in the United States.
Despite all the drama surrounding Saint Laurent’s work, it would be sacrilege not to discuss the sheer beauty of his designs. Likewise, as an aspiring curator I must mention how the arrangement and display of the work did an incredible job of enhancing the pieces without overwhelming them. Instead of a strictly chronological approach, Muller’s vision combined time-specific rooms with some which span the length of his career. The result: a captivating experience which builds in anticipation while maintaining some semblance of a timeline. The spaces increase in drama as the viewer walks through the exhibit, working from a simple white space full of  ready-to-wear to an imposing thirty foot wall covered in tuxedos. My favorite display of the exhibit is practically an artwork in and of itself. Representing the rich color Saint Laurent favored in his work, the room was decorated floor to ceiling with a veritable rainbow of richly hued swatches. Amidst the array of colors, sherbet hued gowns are hung and backlit in individual alcoves. The setup embraces his flair for vibrant colors in a creative way while letting the pieces themselves shine. Still, the final room is without a doubt the most extravagant in the exhibition. The viewer is confronted with a giant black wall filled with several adaptations of Saint Laurent’s trademark, le smoking. However, the real star of the room is the stunning collection of evening gowns, artfully arranged on a long staircase in a way that looked as if the mannequins are mingling on the steps outside of  some glamourous party. Although some of the gowns are somewhat dated, the majority are just as chic and of-the-moment now as they were when they were first dreamt up by Saint Laurent himself.
Yves Saint Laurent’s clothing was as revolutionary as it was beautiful. Through his daring approach and defiance in the face of criticism, he left behind a legacy that is, to this day, unmatched. To see this many of his pieces at once was quite an experience. This collection was nothing short of a feast for the eyes, with every room somehow better than the last. Shown only otherwise in Paris, this gem of a collection was truly a gift for the Denver Art Museum and I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to see it firsthand. Equal parts educational and beautiful this retrospective was exceptionally well designed and will almost certainly play a role in validating Denver as a serious art center in the future.

2 Responses

  1. First, I thought your essay was very well written! Your description of the exhibit painted it in a beautiful light, and it’s obvious how much you enjoyed it. I’m also disheartened with how fashion is perceived as superficial, and not even categorized as art. With that being said, I’m really glad you emphasized the importance it had on a changing society, and had the purpose of empowering and celebrating women. In your essay, you really did convince the readers that fashion serves much more of a purpose than just being aesthetic.

  2. I really enjoyed reading your paper and you did an excellent job of describing the exhibit. I haven’t been yet, but I really want to see it and your review makes me want to go that much sooner. I didn’t know how much of an impact he had on the fashion industry and the way he empowered women of his time. Your review did a good job of not only giving an overview of the exhibit but also your personal experience and analysis. This was really informative and a good read.

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