It’s always intriguing to observe past scandals when our contemporary eyes have become accustomed to much more outrageous! The Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent has decided to look back into its archives to propose an exhibition dedicated to the French designer’s Spring/Summer 1971 “Libération” or “Forties” Haute Couture collection. At the time, the show had instantly caused much discussion and shock as the six models had nonchalantly and insolently presented the 84 outfits inspired by the war years and in particular, the style of women living in an occupied Paris. ‘It is with the arms of elegance and fashion, perfect manners, a cold kindness that the French woman has resisted’, had written Curzio Malaparte, in 1947, yet to 1970s commentators, the allusion was this time described under the terms ‘hideous’ or ‘tragic reference to the nazi years’.
Thus short fluid dresses, Platform shoes, square shoulders, turbans, tight waists and exaggerated make-up were some of the explicit citations Yves Saint Laurent had decided to highlight, influenced by his muse, Paloma Picasso who had promptly adopted a retro look inspired by the glamorous film stars she admired in 1940s productions and that suited better her voluptuous figure rather than the pop androgynous fashions of her time. Indeed, Yves Saint Laurent had not really invented anything, he had simply observed the outfits of his entourage – many Parisian teenagers would then rummage thrift stores to mingle 1920s, 1930s and 1940s pieces of clothing as they tended to evoke the glories of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich as they rediscovered classic films. The French designer had also met Andy Warhol and his Factory within which individuals like Candy Darling had also adopted a nostalgic allure without ever provoking any scandal.
So why did Yves Saint Laurent’s provoke so much controversy? Let’s look back at the period. Cristobal Balenciaga had closed his house in 1968 at a time when France was facing drastic social changes and Gabrielle Chanel had died three weeks before Yves Saint Laurent’s show. The young designer’s presentation resonated with the end of a certain aristocracy of couture and it seemed as though, by creating that infamous collection, he was letting go of the heavy burden his mentors had left him and had refused to be considered haute couture’s prodigious child. Rejecting classicism and conventions, Yves Saint Laurent also refused the futuristic aesthetic proposed by such designers as Pierre Cardin or André Courrèges. To him, innovation laid in the past and the revival of a dramatic glamorous and sexualized allure. Thus, although the reference to World War II and occupied France was brutal and considered disrespectful to many clients and journalists that had experienced the moment, it appears that the scandal had more to do with Yves Saint Laurent’s new take on haute couture rather than the sole historical evocation. Actually, the inspirations for the show were much more diverse. One can only recognize a hint to Elsa Schiaparelli in the embroidered lips and cigarettes on a velvet coat while evening dresses ressemble Greek classic tunics. Of course, the narrative is more sensual thanks to the audacious transparency, the slits and the erotic prints.
Surely commentators focused on the 1940s references to emphasize their scorn but didn’t the scandal have more to do with his aim to consider a younger generation – a project initiated with the opening of the ready-to-wear Saint Laurent Rive Gauche shop, in 1966 – the mocking of the bourgeoisie and the introduction of an overtly sexy and eccentric silhouette? And most of all, how Yves Saint Laurent audaciously invited, in a highly provocative way for the time, street fashion on couture catwalks? He had declared to the French Elle: ‘What I want? Shock people, force them to think. Haute couture is now only about nostalgia and taboos. Like an old lady. What counts is that young girls that have never known this style, would want to wear it. The others, will obviously want to imitate them afterwards.’ With the help of the (only) 28 models exposed and wall blow ups of all the show’s drawn silhouettes, we can observe how boldly, Yves Saint Laurent had indeed completely repudiated the boundaries that had until then been clearly established between ready-to-wear and haute couture. We read the condemning articles and observe the cutting-edge films proposed by a younger generation that had understood and accepted the designer’s aesthetic. We also identify Francine Crescent’s radical judgement and how as the editor of Vogue Paris, she was a rare journalist to admire the new style and feature it in the pages of the magazine, through the lens of a certain Helmut Newton: who better would have captured the sulfurous silhouettes and their sensual wearers? 1971 became a shifting year: the collection, a manifesto and the designer, the mediator of a new liberated generation – the same year, Yves Saint Laurent posed nude for Jeanloup Sieff to promote his new perfume. He introduced an aesthetic that now dominates the industry, that of the retro, but also established fashion into the world of marketing and spectacle. And thus contributed to the creation of the sophisticated scandal, the one feared and desired at once, the one that brings the attention on the brand…
How ironic to see Yves Saint Laurent become a public enemy just as his mentor, Christian Dior had with his New Look when that now classic style is exactly what the young designer rejected. What are Yves Saint Laurent’s sensual evening dresses compared to Alexander McQueen’s bumsters, Hussein Chalayan provocative burqas or Vivienne Westwood’s revival of the oppressive corset? The French couturier simply initiated what would now become classic: the spectacular show: from Thierry Mugler’s blockbusters to John Galliano’s dramatic yet provocative narratives. How poorly scandalous may Yves Saint Laurent’s arrogant models appear compared to Rick Owens’ naked masculine models or Jean-Paul Gaultier’s antipodean mannequins.
With a very small display, much is said although I must admit I would have loved to be given a greater angle with a better comprehension of the context: a comparison of Yves Saint Laurent’s collection to that of fellow designers of 1971 and also, why not an opening on the greater theme that is the fashion scandal. Nonetheless a bright and pedagogic exhibition worth seeing!
The display is on until 19th July at the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent
There’s an ideal responding exhibition at the FIT: Yves Saint Laurent + Halston – Fashioning the 70s
And the book: McClendon, Emma and Mears, Patricia. Yves Saint Laurent + Halston Fashioning the 70s. New York: Yale University Press, 2015.
You can have a look at the show here