Thursday, March 12, 2009

Some Enchanted Yves

Last weekend I finally made my way to the De Young Museum to see their massive Yves Saint Laurent exhibition--its only stop in the United States.

The exhibit covers nearly all of Saint Laurent's "greatest hits": the innovative looks that revolutionized the fashion world before becoming integral parts of the modern woman's wardrobe (pantsuits, trapeze dresses), as well as the gorgeous and fanciful collections, drawing inspiration from the most diverse sources, that fashionistas still talk about today (Mondrian dress, Ballets Russes collection). Many of the outfits were included in the huge retrospective fashion show that Saint Laurent staged upon his retirement in 2002, and a video of this show played in one of the galleries. This gives a chance to see the clothes in motion, the one thing that the exhibition could not otherwise permit. For instance, in the video, you can see Carla Bruni (already carrying herself like she's the most important woman in France) modeling a dramatic cape of marigold taffeta. But the cape is not included in the exhibition, because its allure is all in its float and billow.

Most of the mannequins in the De Young exhibition were not displayed behind glass, which really enabled you to get up close and examine the clothing's details. For instance, on the cotton blouse that's part of the original 1966 Le Smoking, there's the most perfect little ruffle--probably half an inch wide--encircling the cuffs. I doubt I'd have noticed it if I'd merely seen the suit in photographs.

The only dresses displayed behind glass were the ones inspired by flora and fauna, probably because their chiffon petals or feather trim are too delicate to be out in the open. This part of the exhibit, however, included perhaps my favorite dress of all: a green couture ballgown, very simple in silhouette, but embroidered all over with chiffon leaves and silk-ribbon flowers and stones and beads--an artificial garden more beautiful than a live one. This is the only picture of it I could find online, but the photo obviously does NOT do it justice. (It's the one on the right.)

The exhibit contained several outfits that I recognized from other sources. After Saint Laurent's death last summer, this photo of him with friends Betty Catroux and Loulou de la Falaise was widely reproduced. Betty's lace-up safari tunic was on view at the De Young, though shown with trousers and a chain-link belt rather than as a micro-minidress.

You can also see Catherine Deneuve's deliciously prim little black dress with contrast collar and cuffs from Belle de Jour--I mean the actual one made to order for her.

The exhibit was organized thematically rather than chronologically. For instance, you could see a range of dresses spanning thirty or forty years that all highlighted Saint Laurent's skill at graphic black-and-white looks:

...or the way he played with transparency, nudity and sexuality:

I think of these dresses as fanciful creative expressions, but they still provoked a lot of raised eyebrows from the museumgoers, especially little kids and their mothers. It can absolutely blow a child's mind to realize that not all people are ashamed of "private parts" the way Mommy and Daddy have taught you to be ashamed. (I remember having my own mind blown at the age of five or so, when at the Portland Art Museum I saw an exhibit about Andrew Wyeth and his nude model, Helga.)

For more photos, see the slideshow I linked to above and this slideshow. I wish I could reproduce all of the images here but this post is getting long enough as it is! I still haven't touched on the fact that Saint Laurent was one of the first designers to do "retro" (1940s collection from 1971), or one of the first designers to use black models and do an African-themed collection (including a dress with cone-shaped breasts, long before Jean Paul Gaultier and Madonna), or the many times in his career that he made clothes in homage to his favorite painters and writers. I always find it touching when one great artist pays tribute to another, acknowledging the universality of art, even though they live in different times and work in different media. (Beaded jackets in tribute to Van Gogh, below.)

Both Van Gogh and Saint Laurent at some times embodied the stereotype of the "tortured artist," and I wish that the exhibit had revealed something more about Yves Saint Laurent as a man. Because the clothes are grouped thematically, they give the impression that Saint Laurent was a remarkably consistent artist--if he ever had a fallow period, the layout of this exhibition conceals it. Nor are there any references to the toll that being an artist took on Saint Laurent--his struggles with depression and drugs. Yes, he was a boy-genius, a fashion superhero; but superheroes only become interesting when you know about their kryptonite.

I also wish that the exhibit had included more context for the clothes: seeing an extremely 1960s hippie ballgown with a patchwork calico skirt as part of a display on Saint Laurent's use of color is perhaps less valuable than it would be to know what he thought about hippies, how he saw his work as a reflection of his era, etc. Also, because fashion is a commercial art, did Saint Laurent ever have to bow to commercial pressures, or could he always remain true to himself because everyone regarded him as a fashion genius?

But what does "true to himself" mean, anyway? Where, in all this infinite variety, is the true Yves? How can the man who said his favorite color was black, who is known for the austere Le Smoking, also be the man who put together some of the brightest and most riotous color combinations of any 20th-century fashion designer? How, in the short span of a few years (the late 1960s), can a man go from designing Le Smoking, to raffia African dresses, to Deneuve's haute-bourgeoisie Belle de Jour clothes, to the aforementioned hippie ballgown? How would it feel to be universally acknowledged as the last-ever of the great couturiers--the end of an era? The exhibit offers no answers.

Still, it is a beautiful, beautiful thing to regard. In Montreal it was entitled "LOVE" but it seems to have dropped that title when it came to S.F. Perhaps Americans would find it corny, even in this city of hippies and flower children. Still, it feels appropriate. Saint Laurent was clearly a romantic, self-described as "hypersensitive" and keenly attuned to aesthetic nuances. His clothes bespeak a love of strong, powerful, sexy women; as Judith Thurman wrote,
No one has been so religiously gallant toward women or resistant to the temptation of modern fashion to make clothes as difficult, ironic, contemptuous, or ugly as modern art. Saint Laurent takes it upon himself to anticipate every potential humiliation in the bulge of a seam, the pucker of a pleat, the mockery of a bow. His cutting and drapery are a lover’s discourse with the female body.
Which chimes with Saint Laurent's own famous quote, included at the beginning of this exhibition:
The most beautiful clothes that can dress a woman are the arms of the man she loves. But for those who haven't had the fortune of finding this happiness, I am there.
Though the exhibit may not tell as much as I would have liked about Yves Saint Laurent the man, it gives an indelible impression of what it means to be a Yves Saint Laurent woman. Wearing clothes that both protect her and make her feel strong, she is elegant, cultured, confident, and proud to be female. This is a vision that transcends notions of fashion and social class. When you go to this exhibit, you can forget that we're in a recession, forget that the Van Gogh jackets cost half a million francs each and that that style of beaded jacket is typically very old-ladyish. You can only admire and aspire.

Recommended reading: "Swann Song," Judith Thurman's New Yorker article about Yves Saint Laurent and his final couture show, from which the above quote is taken.

Photos of lace-backed gown and Le Smoking from the LA Times.
Photo of Carla Bruni from the BBC.
Photo of green ballgown from Burton Rosenberg on flickr.
Photo of Catroux, Saint Laurent and de la Falaise from
"Belle de Jour" photo from
Photos of black & white dresses and sexy dresses from
Photo of Van Gogh jackets from
Photo of hippie ballgown from poetic_chic on flickr.

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