Just for the Sake of Fashion? A Review of ‘Yves Saint Laurent: Dreams of the Orient’

Over the holidays, I was fortunate to visit the Yves Saint Laurent: Dreams of the Orient exhibit, currently on display at the Musée Yves Saint Laurent in Paris until 27 January 2019. The exhibit showcases fifty haute couture designs—clothes, accessories, and sketches—that were inspired by Indian, Chinese and Japanese culture. The fashions are flanked by pieces of traditional Asian art that Saint Laurent would have studied. Another focus of the exhibit is the highly controversial launch and ad campaign of Yves Saint Laurent’s first perfume Opium.

Images of ‘Yves Saint Laurent: Dreams of the Orient’, Musée Yves Saint Laurent, Paris

Much was on my mind as I walked through the small but very well designed museum. Pot lights illuminating the dark rooms provided a sense of liminality, as if one is half-way between a public and private space. I found it particularly interesting to walk through the exhibit with alongside my brother, who could not help but notice that the displays of Orientalist fashion echoed the theoretical discourse put forward by Edward Said in Orientalism, his foundational text on postcolonial theory. As a student of international relations, my brother went into the exhibit with a mind primed for the cultural impetus of Saint Laurent’s designs. As we made our way through the museum, he could not help but comment that Saint Laurent had problematically fashioned his collection out of a homogenised Western imagination and depiction of the Orient. 

In order to construct his vision for the show, Saint Laurent referenced Western literary works and histories that convey a dominant image of what the Orient represents. Saint Laurent drew on his own imagination to create designs that reflected the frames, tropes and categorisations of the Orient as described by these Western authors—without having ever travelled to these countries (save for Japan) himself. Although Said’s book was only published a year after Saint Laurent’s 1977 ‘Les Chinoises’ collection was unveiled to the world, the display today nonetheless challenges us to reconcile the production of Orientalist knowledge and fashion with our own understanding of how Western history depicts and represents the Orient. Linked to this is the idea of cultural appropriation that evokes the same themes of colonialism and oppression still largely dominating political and societal discourse to this day.

Image taken of ‘Yves Saint Laurent: Dreams of the Orient’, Musée Yves Saint Laurent, Paris

At the same time, is important to consider the exhibit in light of the manner in which Saint Laurent originally expected the designs to be viewed. For instance, the exhibit deliberately includes the word ‘dreams’ in the title, a fitting word choice that allows one to appreciate the collection as a dream representing a fantasy of the exotic beauty Saint Laurent imagined the Orient could offer viewers through fashion. Irrespective of the political implications, the sheer beauty, artistry and craftsmanship of the collection are undeniable and should not go unnoticed. Saint Laurent’s clothes remain true masterpieces and their elegance, finesse and uniqueness should be appreciated in the specific cultural context and historical processes in which they were designed.

Perhaps the designs can only be fully appreciated if we view them as an exhibition of a collection that reflects a particular cultural, historical and political understanding present in 1977. However, if these same designs were sent down the Fall/Winter 2019 Saint Laurent catwalk, would we be able to continue to acknowledge their beauty and artistry, or would we feel compelled to criticise them for their cultural appropriation?

Alumni Interview: Hannah Jackson

Hannah Jackson completed both her BA and MA at The Courtauld Institute, and is now Assistant Curator at the Bowes Museum in Durham. Here she discusses how 19th century dress construction lead to a photography-focused MA dissertation and the joys of the recent Bowes Museum exhibition “Yves Saint Laurent: Style is Eternal”.

Yves Saint Laurent 'Mondrian Dress', at the Bowes Museum 2016

Yves Saint Laurent ‘Mondrian Dress’, at the Bowes Museum 2016

Having completed your BA at the Courtauld in the History of Art, what led you to decide to pursue your MA in the History of Dress at the Courtauld as well? 

I came to The Courtauld to study a BA straight after completing an art foundation at Falmouth University. During my foundation course I specialised in the construction of 19th century dress, taking my inspiration from textile collections in local museums across Cornwall. So during my BA I was always trying to squeeze in dress history into my various course options. In my third year I researched the depiction of drapery in 18thcentury French painting. Following this I knew I wanted to focus purely on dress history and the MA felt like a natural progression.

Reflecting on your experience during the MA, how did your research interests evolve throughout the year, and if so, how did these interests coalesce into your dissertation?  

Having spent the previous three years as an art historian I found it difficult initially to break away from that method of analysis. I was very image focused so most of my research leaned towards photography, looking at the works of Cecil Beaton and Eugene Atget. This informed my dissertation topic on Madame Yevonde’s Goddess Series. I examined several photographs from the Goddess series in detail, demonstrating the ways in which Yevonde seized the opportunities offered by neo-classical dress and the new technique of colour photography to explore deeper themes of female identity and representation.

What role did the Courtauld MA in the History of Dress play in defining your professional trajectory? 

My love of imagery combined with the stories behind objects in museums has always been a big part of my enjoyment in the subject. During the MA course Dr Rebecca Arnold organised some incredible trips to national and international museums including the American Folk Art Museum in New York and Museum of London and V&A. These trips ‘behind-the-scenes’ were so interesting and I knew this was a world I wanted to be part of.

Can you describe what your average day as an Assistant Curator at The Bowes Museum entails? 

It’s a combination of things… at the moment we are de-installing our permanent display of fashion and textiles to make room for our next exhibition Shoes: Pleasure and Pain which opens in June. I also handle any enquires or offers of donation to our department. If new donations are accepted then I ensure they are catalogued and stored. The curators also work closely with the textile conservation team on exhibitions and loans. Earlier this year our team catalogued a very large collection of privately owned quilts, which will soon be divided between family members, with some pieces being sold. Last year I spent quite a bit of time on events relating to temporary exhibitions including a dance/costume performance with Fertile Ground, a Newcastle based dance company and a film symposium with Durham University which coincided with our Summer 2015 exhibition Yves Saint Laurent: Style is Eternal.

How did The Bowes Museum’s “Yves Saint Laurent: Style is Eternal” exhibition come about? 

A few years ago we loaned a Canaletto painting to the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris. When the Canaletto was being installed, my colleague met a freelance curator working on the show and mentioned how similar The Bowes’ history was with the Jacquemart-André. My colleague mentioned the fashion and textile department here and how it has grown and developed, with past exhibitions such as Stephen Jones and Vivienne Westwood. The freelancer said that she had close affiliations with the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent and that she could put us in touch with them. My collegue Joanna Hashagen, Curator of Fashion and Textiles, established the working relationship with the Fondation from that moment. The Bowes Museum’s co-founder was a fashionable Parisian woman, and the building itself is in the style of a French château, so our French roots were integral to our partnership with the YSL Fondation.

Were there any particular theoretical and aesthetic approaches that informed your work on the exhibition? 

The show itself was co-curated by Joanna Hashagen (Curator of Fashion & Textiles at The Bowes) and Sandrine Tinturier (Responsable de la Conservation Textile et Arts Graphiques at the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent) so this question is probably better aimed at them. They really wanted to celebrate Yves Saint Laurent’s love of women, art and fashion, as a designer notable for equality in fashion. The exhibition was split into five themes: Haute Couture, Masculin/Féminin, Transparence, Art and Spectaculaire. The pieces were carefully curated, making links to our own permanent display of fashion and textiles, which highlighted Yves Saint Laurent’s distinct relationship with history and art.

Did you learn anything particularly fascinating about Yves Saint Laurent or his maison while researching and preparing the exhibition?

The most fascinating thing I found out about Yves Saint Laurent was how truly dedicated he was to his subject. This may seem obvious but he started at such a young age. As a teenager he designed collections for a series of hand-made paper dolls by cutting out silhouettes from his mother’s favourite magazines such as Vogue, calling it ‘Yves Mathieu Saint Laurent Haute Couture Place Vendôme’. The paper-dolls were all named and he created model programmes for each collection and put on fashion shows for his siblings and mother.

What was your favorite piece from exhibition? 

The toiles were my favourite pieces in the show. I really like seeing the making process and the ‘before-hand’ pieces, they were essentially 3D sketches. The selection of toiles were displayed in a completely white space, so they really had their own voice in the exhibition. Even the toiles were effortless couture, every inch of the stitching and design was immaculate.

Are there any exciting curatorial or research projects you are working on at the moment?

Last April I was one of five to win the Art Fund’s New Collecting Award which encourages curators to pursue new avenues for collecting in their museums. We won a total of £60,000 to collect French haute couture. I aim to acquire key pieces of French fashion which reflect the Museum’s founder Joséphine Bowes. Joséphine was a shopaholic, purchasing garments from The House of Worth during the 1860s. The John and Joséphine Bowes Archive in our library holds a number of bills which relate to the establishment of the museum but also all of Joséphine’s shopping receipts which reveal a lot about the type of fabric she was buying, how much and from which establishments. Joséphine was extremely fashionable but unfortunately none of her wardrobe survives today, so I want to collect pieces which reflect her identity and shopping habits, using the extensive archive of bills as evidence. I have a year left on my contract at The Bowes Museum so I am also focusing my time on selecting garments for the gallery redisplay, planned for 2018.

Yves Saint Laurent toiles, Bowes Museum 2016

Yves Saint Laurent toiles, Bowes Museum 2016

Fashion and Art Collide in Yves Saint Laurent’s Love Cards

Garden

Anyone who knows anything about fashion has heard of Yves Saint Laurent. But what people may be less familiar with is his informal career as an artist.

Galerie-Love

Hidden away in the Jardin Marjorelle in Marrakech, which Saint Laurent bought in 1980 with Pierre Bergé, and where his ashes were buried after his death in 2008, is the ‘Love Gallery.’ I arrived at the Jardin Marjorelle seeking some refuge from the African sun, and instantly understood why Saint Laurent and Bergé were drawn there: it is a beautiful oasis full of blossoming foliage in a city that is predominantly dust and sand. The rather ambiguously named ‘Love Gallery,’ a tiny blue square on the garden map, caught my eye and I wondered what it could possibly hold. The tiny, one roomed building, tucked away on the edge of the garden, houses the entire collection of Saint Laurent’s ‘Love Cards.’ He created one every year from 1970 to 2000 to send to his family, friends and clients in order to welcome the New Year. The cards are boldly coloured and graphic, and the message could not be clearer; it is declared through the use of one, four letter word: ‘LOVE.’

Galerie-Love-2

The cards, often humorous and whimsical, allowed the recipient then and the viewer now a glimpse into the consciousness of the legendary fashion designer. They often include the things he held most dear, his bulldog Moujik, or the fountains of the Jardin Marjorelles. However, they also serve to reinforce his artistic abilities. They are clearly well thought out, aesthetic pieces of work, and highlight how talented he was in the visual arts, as well as in fashion design.

Love

They also show an appreciation of the history of art, and the influence of many famous, twentieth century artists is clearly visible. The 1991 card is an homage to Andy Warhol: it displays four images of Saint Laurent’s beloved Moujik, coloured in different hues on a bright yellow background. The caption definitively states Warhol’s influence, reading ‘this is Moujik, my dog, painted by Andy Warhol. Me, I am Yves Saint Laurent.’ However the curling French script juxtaposed with the imagery is reminiscent of Renee Magritte’s ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’. While the influence of these two artists is clear, Saint Laurent ensures that the viewer knows exactly who made it, and it is his talent as an artist that is important here. He is drawing on his knowledge of the history of art to create a piece that is unique to him and specific to the time and culture in which he was working.

Love-Sun

Henri Matisse’s influence is also evident in the cards, many of which employ the same collage technique with bright colours and bold, simple shapes that he turned to later in his career. The 1986 card is arguably the most basic in composition, yet also one of the most effective. It consists of a yellow background and cut out shapes in four different shades of blue which are used to create a scene of the Jardin Marjorelles itself. Despite the limited colour palette and simplicity of the shapes, Saint Laurent has captured the feel of the garden perfectly, and it would be instantly recognizable to anyone who had visited. The dark blue against the bright yellow background creates the effect of the oppressive sun and the cool shade offered by the trees.

IMG_8641_2

The cards created during the 1970s have a definite look that clearly identifies them as part of the same epoch. Graphically, they are more complex than the later compositions, more closely aligned with The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine imagery than the work of any particular artist. The 1977 example is particularly complex. It shows a woman wrapped in a long flowing piece of fabric that is decorated with rows of triangles and curving lines. She could be interpreted as a Muslim woman covered by her hijab, and thus a symbol of Algeria, Saint Laurent’s place of birth and childhood. However, he has given her a modern twist, updating the traditional religious garb for the 1970s by dressing her in a colourful, geometric pattern. It has a hypnotic quality, as if the viewer is seeing something that does not quite exist. The 1973 card is an erotic picture of a naked woman, coiled in what appear to be tentacles or snakes. Unlike the later cards, which tend to employ very simple compositions- some are simply large blocks of different colours- the cards of the 1970s are more figurative.

Hijab

These cards show a different side of Yves Saint Laurent. They highlight his enthusiasm to experiment in different media and test his design skills on a two-dimensional surface, as well as on the human body. However, they also depict him as playful, light hearted and, above all, deeply loving.

MA Study Trip to New York City: The Museum at FIT

In February the MA History of Dress students had a week long study trip to New York to visit archives and museums. The next six posts will share various aspects of the trip and the objects we saw. 

Part of the Yves Saint Laurent and Halston: Fashioning the '70s exhibition.

Part of the Yves Saint Laurent and Halston: Fashioning the ’70s exhibition.

FIT02

A Halston dress from the Fashioning the ’70s exhibition.

On a recent study trip to New York, the MA group were invited to an Alumni event at The Museum at FIT. Emma McClendon, who graduated from the Courtauld in 2011 is now an assistant curator at FIT, hosted the event, which was an exhibition she had co-curated: Yves Saint Laurent and Halston: Fashioning the 70s. The exhibition is the first to examine the careers and work of two of the biggest designers in 20th century fashion side-by-side. As both Saint Laurent’s and Halston’s designs came to exemplify, the 1970s has been considered a ‘singular and dynamic era in fashion history,’ and was also a decade framed by three themes which inspired the designers’ collections: menswear, exoticism, and vintage historicism.

When entering the space, the clothing is separated into platforms and pods.  The clothing on the platforms framed the pods, and also demonstrated how the designer’s visions and approaches to dress resulted in very similar outcomes, often indistinguishable from one another. Whereas, running through the middle of the exhibition space the pods established the juxtapositions between the designers, through the three themes and really showcased the differences, particularly towards the end of the decade. This was especially highlighted in the last pod, which was dedicated toward the influence of historical referencing upon the designers.

Saint Laurent was heavily influenced by fashions of the Belle Époque, which can be seen in some of his more feminine, yet, dramatic creations. He also drew upon the trend for vintage dressing, which had been emerging on the streets of Paris at the time. On the other hand, Halston was enamoured by the Hollywood glamour of the smaller time period of the 1930s and 1940s. He looked to women couturiers that had dominated high fashion during the inter-war period as sources of inspiration for his own pieces. Here, the identities of the two designers are really established.  For me, the third section really solidified the vocabularies of both designers as Halston became known as ‘the streamlined, unisex, minimalist,’ whilst Saint Laurent became ‘the fantastical colourist.’

This streamlined and minimalistic nature of Halston’s creations is effortlessly captured in the construction of the blue evening dress shown in the accompanying image. Made in 1972, the dress was gifted to the museum by Lauren Bacall. The blue, silk jersey dress features two long bands of fabric that can be tied in various ways to show the amount of skin desired. The fabric is what makes the dress, there are no obvious decorative elements, for example no buttons or zips can be seen, even as closures. This is because Halston did not believe in his clothes as having any ‘ostentatious decorative elements’ to them, and looked toward the inspiration of designers, such as Madeleine Vionnet and Claire McCardell for this more streamlined approach. This look also drew influence from 1930s bathing suits. In this respect, Halston appropriated the silhouettes of daytime swimwear and turned them into eveningwear ensembles.

Sources

https://i-d.vice.com/en_gb/article/ysl-and-halston-show-brings-the-sexy-70s-back-to-nyc