I still remember seeing my first Yves Saint Laurent outfit; it was on one of my many visits to the V&A Fashion Galleries, long ago when they were hidden away in the museum’s basement, when I was a teenager. It was a dress from the Mondrian collection. I was struck by the combination of a simple shift dress and a homage to the well known painting, which I had only ever seen as a reproduction. It was clever because it was so obvious. I loved how he had drawn a line between dress and art, popular and highbrow culture. I also remember that the mannequin wearing the dress was poised at an angle, as if she had been stopped in mid bop to a Mod soundtrack. Everything about that moment inspired in me a life long fascination with clothes, dress and fashion curation.
Therefore, I was not going to miss this year’s Yves Saint Laurent: Style is Eternal exhibition at The Bowes Museum in County Durham, which is finishes on 8 November. The Bowes Museum is not the most accessible place when you come from London and getting there involved a train, bus, taxi and bicycle. However, when I turned out of Barnard Castle, the market town adjoining the museum, and into the grounds, I knew it was worth the journey. The Bowes Museum is built in the style of a French chateau, an intentional design on the part of its creators John and Josephine Bowes. Both Francophiles, they decided to create a museum for their widening collection of French artefacts and after many years of planning and building, the doors opened to the public in 1892.
It was the museum’s established appreciation of French decorative arts and design that drew the Fondation Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent to the possibility of an exhibition in this country. According to various media, Joanna Hasagen, the museum’s keeper of fashion, encouraged a dialogue between the two institutions that has culminated in the first exhibition dedicated to Yves Saint Laurent in the United Kingdom.
Ever since Saint Laurent became the first living designer to have a retrospective in 1983 at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, he has continued to have a productive relationship with museums and fashion curation. However, unlike that first exhibition, this one is a much smaller affair, with only 54 outfits on display across three rooms. Yet, it is an interesting and cleverly organised presentation, even if it may not tell us anything new about the designer or his intentions for fashionable dress.
Curated in partnership with the Fondation, the Bowes Museum has arranged the outfits according to five themes that not only reflect Saint Laurent’s designs but also their permanent textile and fashion collection. These are Haute Couture, Masculin/Femme, Transparence, Art and Spectaculaire. In arranging the majority of outfits according to these themes, the exhibition promotes the notion of Yves Saint Laurent as the individual genius, aligned more with the world of art than the world of commerce. References to his interest in colour, form and the work of other artists abounds throughout the display. The image of Yves Saint Laurent as a contradiction remains; he states that shyness is his worst trait yet he can be seen posing in the nude for the promotion of his male perfume in 1971.
But, as Breward (2003) points out, what made Saint Laurent different from Dior or Balenciaga was the canny marketing of his designs, the diversity of clothing lines and his self promotion as a brand. He expanded the couture house model way beyond the business of making clothes for wealthy clients. Although the mechanics of this are not considered within the exhibition, despite reference to a range of artefacts that demonstrate the importance of publicity and promotion, we are given glimpses of the design process that are equally enjoyable.
The exhibition takes place over three rooms, which form a horizontal line. You enter through the middle room, which is really just a space in which to move between the two end rooms. While you wait to go into the other rooms, there is a video of catwalk shows featuring some of the outfits on display to keep you occupied . Everything else in the room is shrouded in long, dark net curtains.
The exhibition really begins in the end room to the left. There, you find yourself in the museum’s permanent textile and fashion gallery. Cleverly, the exhibition is threaded through this space so you engage with both the permanent and temporary displays simultaneously. This is done by adding an Yves Saint Laurent outfit to the existing display cabinets. As a result, you have to navigate through the permanent collection in order to locate the temporary outfit. The only other clue is the addition of a collection board featuring the Yves Saint Laurent outfit. The outfits had been carefully chosen to reflect the patterns, textures, colours and silhouettes of the textiles and garments on permanent display. The overall effect reminded me of Yves Saint Laurent’s comment about everyone having ‘aesthetic ghosts’ that they required in order to live. Here were his ‘aesthetic ghosts’, haunting us temporarily from within the permanence of fashion history.
The same room also focuses on Yves Saint Laurent’s design approach, with displays of his paper dolls and a film featuring him talking about his work. In between these two items is a selection of toiles, samples and items from the Yves Saint Laurent workshops. These are stunning, from examples of Lesage embroidery to trays of buttons to half finished toiles. These all highlight the detail and attention given to the designing of haute couture. They also posit Yves Saint Laurent, the designer, as a craftsperson who spent as much time caring about his staff and how they made his designs as he did about self-promotion.
The third and final room, which is to the right of the entrance, focuses on displaying the majority of the outfits on loan. These are arranged according to the themes introduced in the previous room and, overall, this is achieved in how you might expect in a fashion exhibition: groups of mannequins standing together in various poses, dressed in specific examples. As a result, the examples were bold, well known and extravagant. These include a Mondrian dress, a Picasso dress, a peacoat, a safari jacket and a nude look dress. There are also examples from his designs for the theatre. Supporting the clothes are newspaper clippings, audio interviews, magazine editorials, promotional videos and photographs that capture both the outfits and the designer in situ.
Despite being such a small exhibition, it is rich in content and interesting in form. I thought the decision to position Saint Laurent’s outfits within the existing fashion and textile gallery innovative and effective. I also appreciated so much attention given to the process of fashion design, from the paper dolls to the collection boards.
I was slightly disappointed by the lack of diversity amongst the visitors, given that this exhibition is the first of its kind. The fashion writer Holly Brubach said that once Yves Saint Laurent’s interest in fashion began to wane, so did his appeal and his audience never quite went beyond ‘middle aged women’ (1999:129). This did seem evident by the demographic of the exhibition’s visitors. I was interested to hear that this year, Saint Laurent, which Yves Saint Laurent is now known as, announced it would revive its haute couture line. I wonder if this will reignite a younger audience for the brand. I would hate to think of future generations missing out on what this innovative and contradictory designer gave to fashion.
Christopher Breward (2003) Fashion Oxford History of Art
Holly Brubach (1999) A Dedicated Follower of Fashion Phaidon