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Hall of Mirrors
Through July 8, 2012, the Denver Art Museum plays host to Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective, a look back at forty years of work by one the twentieth century’s top couturiers. This is the sole North American venue for the exhibition, mounted by the Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent. In Europe it was mounted in Paris and Madrid. Why Denver? According to Pierre Bergé, it’s because the Denver Art Museum (in the person of director Christoph Heinrich) asked. This is as good a response as any, as it is perhaps the nature of fashion to offer more questions than answers.
The final space entered by visitors to the Denver iteration of Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective is divided into two portions. On one side are mannequins posed on red-carpeted steps, clad in elaborate evening gowns in shades ranging from smoky teals to shocking pinks, corals, and golds, gowns whose lavish detailing evokes different times and places. On the other side the viewer is confronted by an array of mannequins clad in variations on le smoking – the evocative French term for a tuxedo — black on black, or black on white, ranked against a stark black wall.
The space seems to embody the distinction Anne Hollander proposes in her book Sex and Suits. Hollander opposes the conservatism of women’s fashion – looking back to traditional dress in its understanding of the body as an object to be ornamented, “promoting the curiosities and varieties which essentially make a very old story” – to the modernity of male and male-inspired fashions, whose relative uniformity actually highlights the wearer’s individuality and capacity for movement. So what are these two very different approaches to clothing the body doing in an exhibition devoted to a single designer?
This chameleon sensibility runs throughout the exhibition. A gold-and-crimson wedding gown inspired by Baroque fashion is juxtaposed with the radically simple little black dress worn by Catherine Deneuve in the classic Buñuel film Belle de Jour. Sometimes mannequins are dressed as inhabitants of dream versions of India or Russia or China, or of occupied Paris; sometimes they are blank canvases to be decorated in homage to Picasso, Braque, or Matisse. Wild flights of fantasy share space with classic works of Parisian haute couture, garments as self-contained and aesthetically complete as a Renaissance chapel. After viewing the clothes on display in Denver, I would suggest that the significance of Yves St Laurent as a designer was not so much in his capacity for innovation, as in his ability to reinterpret existing forms, to reflect back to society its own contradictory ideas about the clothed body.
At the opening of the exhibition, DAM director Christoph Heinrich said that the question he was asked most often (after “Why Denver?”) was “Is fashion art?” I think Hollander in Sex and Suits provides as good an answer as any. Speaking of the divergence of fashion from traditional dress, she says that “clothing came to propose a three-dimensional and illusionistic program for the clothed body, a new fictional medium, a poetic form, something that conveyed imagined truths with the added status of reported facts, a drama using live actors. The body itself became fictionalized.”
Fashion is not just a covering for the body, but an idea about the body and all it represents. It’s also just about inescapable; even a worker’s denim trousers and lumberjack’s boots become fashion, the moment they’re no longer on a worker or a lumberjack. And that little black dress worn by Catherine Deneuve is as much an idea as a dress – the quintessential modernist fashion statement reduced to its absolute essentials. Its tidy collar and cuffs evoke both the modest office dress and the schoolgirl’s (or maid’s) uniform, but they are not white – the cuffs and collar are of delicate ivory satin, advertising not the wearer’s cleanliness, but her distance from labor of any kind.
In presenting Yves Saint Laurent as a reinterpreter rather than an innovator, I’m departing somewhat from the narrative created by the show’s curators. Saint Laurent shot to stardom in 1957 when, at the age of only 21, he took over the house of Christian Dior after Dior’s death. Only four years later, in 1961, Yves Saint Laurent founded his own house, with partner Pierre Bergé. Christian Dior was the architect of the New Look, the postwar return to wasp waists and crinolines, and to the most lavish traditions of haute couture.
In the show’s narrative, Saint Laurent’s first innovation was to “liberate” women from the defined, usually corseted, waist. However, there’s more than one way to look at this. Hollander, who believes that fashion moves from one visual extreme to another, that over-familiarity with one form gives its opposite a new allure, would argue that undefined waists were an almost inevitable response to a decade of wasp waists. In The Corset: A Cultural History, Valerie Steele argues that the literal corset of earlier eras was replaced during the twentieth century by the invisible “muscular corset” developed through diet and exercise – not necessarily a wholly liberating development. And the “trapeze” or A-line silhouette of the late fifties and early sixties, as imagined by Saint Laurent and other designers, depended for its effect on a lean, fine-limbed, body in motion.
A similar ambiguity informs Saint Laurent’s later promotion of pants for women. One of the videos playing in the space devoted to the seventies shows the designer speaking of how pants on women should be distinctly feminine, and in no way represent an assumption of male prerogatives; it’s a sentiment that sits a bit awkwardly with the nearby photos of feminist protesters on the streets of Paris.
Far more awkward in its day was the aptly named collection du Scandale of 1971, an exuberant pastiche of the fashions of the 1940s, featuring a memorable poison-green fur coat and a black velvet gown patterned with bright red lips (reminiscent of Elsa Schiaparelli’s surrealist fashions, as well as of the lipsticked mouths of the era). It also featured the exaggerated turbans and stacked heels once favored by the women of Nazi-occupied Paris. As a comedian might say, it was too soon; couture clients had no wish to be reminded of the Occupation and its moral dilemmas.
Young people, however, embraced it and the Rive Gauche ready-to-wear versions were a great hit. Here again, Saint Laurent had his finger on the pulse of the times. The counterculture had introduced a dress-up box element of pastiche into fashion, and as the seventies progressed the iconography of fascism became, for the most extreme of the rebellious young, another costume in the box.
The idea of fashion as costume, and costume as fashion, also permeate the spaces devoted to clothes inspired by Saint Laurent’s fantasy travels. In real life an unwilling traveler, except to his native North Africa (Saint Laurent was born in Algeria when it was French colony), the designer created fantasy versions of the lands he dreamed of. This has sometimes raised hackles as well – the name of the house’s signature scent, Opium, aroused controversy on its release in 1977, and recently led to a ban in China.
Indulgence in Orientalist and primitivist fantasy – in perfumery or clothing – has its own place in the history of modern couture, which brings us back to the chameleon theme. Paul Poiret, the first important couturier of the twentieth century, committed himself wholeheartedly to fashion as an Arabian Nights fantasy, and died in poverty and obscurity. Coco Chanel, whose own commitment to liberating the female body never wavered, is said to have looked down at a room full of women in Poiret’s bird-of-paradise gowns and announced that she would put them all into little black dresses. (Though the fallout from her own wartime collaboration slowed her career considerably – see what tangled paths a mere dab of perfume or well-cut suit can lead us down?)
Again, the significance of Yves Saint Laurent may well reside in his ability to balance these opposing forces. He could create both the little black dress and, for example, a saffron-colored evening gown flowing down in liquid pleats from an oversized bow, topped by a kingfisher blue cape lined in apple green, an ensemble that would have gladdened Poiret’s heart. One of the highlights of the Denver iteration of the show is a hallway lined with innumerable swatches of fabric, grouped by color, leading the visitor towards the final gallery where the rainbow array of evening gowns faces the wall of le smoking.
At the end of the passage, just before the turn into the final gallery, stands a mannequin in a flowing evening coat in infinitely subtle dove-like shades of taffeta, with rippling stripes of black velvet. It testifies to Yves Saint Laurent’s mastery of the techniques of haute couture. I have absolutely no idea how it was put together. It appears, for all intents and purposes, to be seamless, to have come into being whole, like a shell. Of course, it didn’t. It is the end result of innumerable processes, cultural, historical, aesthetic, and economic, bringing them together in material form in all their ambiguity and difficulty.
During the Renaissance, graphic artists sometimes depicted the “other” continents of the world as static figures in folk costume, while Europe was shown as a naked man carrying a bolt of cloth and a pair of scissors. The problems and promises embodied in that image are everywhere at hand in this show.