Beauty, reappraised - Page 3

Two looks at the serious pleasures of "Yves Saint Laurent: 40 Years of Fashion"
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At this point in his career, the designer was fully occupied, dreaming up four full collections a year — two for ready-for-wear and two for haute couture — composed of as many as 100 ensembles. Yet he still loved to design for stage and screen. This job led to a lifelong friendship with Deneuve. One iconic frock from Belle de Jour — the sublimely austere, black wool barathea A-line with proper white satin collar and cuffs — is on display at "Yves Saint Laurent," the exhaustive YSL retrospective at the de Young. An ever-so-slightly-hip-slung black patent belt nearly disappears beneath an invisible front placket closure: black on black. There may be more memorable outfits in the film — particularly the buttoned-up Severine's protective-shell outerwear — but this piece, redolent of maids, nuns, schoolteachers, and other archetypal images of traditional female service — throws the distance between Severine's desire for debasement and her icy, blue-eye-shadow-frosted hauteur into stark relief. It's a study in contrasts: puritanical, yet in its girlish, unconstrained, almost innocent lines — also found in the gray trapeze dress Saint Laurent dreamed up for Christian Dior in 1958 — it eschews the predictable sexuality of the previous era's "New Look," with its nipped waists and full womanly skirts.

TAKE TWO Saint Laurent never shied from fantasy, and the Orientalist/colonialist dreams of the designer, who was born in Algiers and spent much of his later life in Morocco, are in full effect at the de Young — Jean Paul Gaultier dined out on the hyper-exaggerated cone breasts that Saint Laurent first conjured in his 1967 African collection. But equally fantastic, if pegged to more utilitarian, workday pursuits, are the examples of women's wear influenced by salty Mediterranean seafarers, pin-striped swells, and animal-skin-clad hunters. Saint Laurent takes the functional and elevates it until it is almost painfully, acutely sensuous: witness 1968's suede thigh-high boots accentuating an all-legs Amazon, accompanied by a figure-masking suede tunic and visor-ed hood. Nearby is his first safari jacket from 1968, laces descending from the neckline above a hip-riding ring belt, shorts, and tall boots. Tom Ford borrowed such insouciant lacing to revive moribund Gucci in the '90s. Veruschka famously struck a pose in this outfit for the fashion press, but I can't help but imagine longtime Saint Laurent muse and his femme counterpart Betty Catroux as its genuine inspiration.

Less lioness than angular blonde whippet, perpetually booted, putf8um blonde, and a permanent member of her and Yves' imaginary band Les Saints (Catroux's maiden name is Saint), the androgynous Catroux — who haunted the exhibition's media preview at the de Young — was a mannequin for the house of Chanel when Saint Laurent spied her at a nightclub and insisted she work for him instead. A year after their meeting, Saint Laurent designed his first smoking jacket or tuxedo for women: "It was his first step in the exploration of masculine dress within a feminine framework," writes Alicia Drake in The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius, and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris (Back Bay, 2006). "The idea of girls dressing like boys and the tensions and attraction that could evoke was a daring new concept in fashion after a decade characterized by graphic, doll-like dresses, white tights, and bouncing hair." This huntress is the flip of Belle de Jour's anti-heroine — aggressive, sexually liberated, and ready to loosen those lacings.

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