Yves Saint Laurent: Style at the De Young Museum

My dearest Yves,


Your designs changed the way women dressed for good. Until you came along, no woman would be seen walking on a city street in a trouser suit, not to mention wearing one to work. At a time when a woman would be barred from entering a swank New York City restaurant because she was wearing one, as Nan Kempner was when wearing one of yours, you, as a courtier, gave women permission to do it and we ran with it. That was 1965.


Following closely behind in 1966 came Le Smoking tuxedo suit. It’s not that you invented either one; you followed in the tradition of Coco Chanel’s “little boy” look, cardigans and bell bottoms; and pushed beyond going hand-in-hand with women as we broke into those male-dominated bastions of boardroom, trading desk, and engineering lab wearing our pant suits with feminine attitude as well as ever any man wore them in all his male-ness.


At the exhibition of your work that closed just yesterday at the De Young Musuem in San Francisco examples of both were shown, but unfortunately were scattered about. Perhaps the curators wanted us, the viewers, to sense their staying power, but what I wanted were groupings showing how you evolved these over the years as we, too, evolved becoming more comfortable and skilled in our roles working side-by-side men making business decisions, money, and inventions in ways that feel right to us. I wondered whether the young women, dressed in jeans and tees, with their necks wrapped in big cotton scarfs, who swarmed the exhibition yesterday, could grasp the full impact that these seemingly male designs have had on our lives.


Or did they focus more on the amazing creations that evoke the costumes of the savannas of Africa, the souks of the Middle East, and the steppes of Russia? Born in Oran Algeria, you came into this world, already with an eye open to what our western eyes call the exotic, the romantic, the outrageous. Nurtured by your love for theater, painting, and literature you skillfully translated the aesthetics of Mondrian, Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Proust, among others into dresses, jackets, and skirts. When the counter-culture said, “Look at us. We have bodies.” You replied, “Yes, and I shall not ‘curb your freedom.'” But, then you also said, “Look back to other times and reinvent yourselves. Go out of yourselves as you are today to other worlds and times. Refresh yourselves.” And with that you created quite a stir when your collection leapt backwards to the 40s at the beginnings of the 70s. At the same time, you were never vulgar or crude and when you felt things going astray you clung to your center, to elegant freedom, exquisite line, and enduring leitmotif.


That’s not all you did either. With your Rive Gauche boutiques you brought your aesthetic and attitudes to prêt-à-porter giving access to women who love the clothes but lack the bucks. You crossed the river to the other side where imagination, adventure, and participation are so important. I’ll never forget the first time I ever entered one. It was on Madison Avenue. I was in my early 20s and had come up to New york City from Princeton for the day. I was transported, transformed, and mesmerized all at once, although today I can only remember the feeling and not a stitch of any of the clothes I saw that day.


It was all there in your exhibition at the De Young. I only hope that that every visitor had the patience, fortitude, and knowledge to piece it together. Chosen from so many, the examples of your work followed a serpentine river through a dark cavern without enough light and space to allow the visitor to contemplate and connect them with their place in time, how they were used in films or on the streets, and who brought them to life. How I wanted to see Catherine Deneuve wearing your clothes in Belle de Jour in that very instant. If only Loulou de la Falaise would appear strutting down the streets of Paris in one of your Le Smoking tuxedos. Or, Betty Coutroux, your twin sister, would dash out in a black satin jumpsuit of your design. It was with some anxiety that I maneuvered through crowds blocking the aisles to watch videos of your runway shows. They had good reason. They understood instinctively that it is in movement that design comes alive so faced with a choice of static mannequin or video, they chose the latter. But there was also much to learn by closer examination of material and technique; and I’m afraid that many easily missed this experience as the eye was continuously drawn up to the overhead videos.


I hope this shall not be the last exhibition of your work available to a large public. And I say this because of the many young women who shared the narrow passageways with me yesterday. They were hungry, amused, and reverent; and so was I.



All original content copyright 2009 Mary E. Slocum



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