Exhibition Review: Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the 70s

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Yet again, the fabulous Nadine Stewart is offering us a wonderful review of a current exhibition (at the Museum@FIT, on view through April 18, 2015 (if you are headed to NYC). Be sure to check out Nadine’s photos at the bottom of the post as well!

Photo by Nadine Stewart
“Yves Saint Laurent + Halston” Photo by Nadine Stewart

“The Unlovable Decade.” That was what New York Times called the 1970s recently. That certainly the way I’ve felt about the period. I have too many memories of avocado kitchens, orange shag carpeting, huge macramé plant hangers, garish polyester double knits leisure suits, and “conversation pits” upholstered in brown velour. But, the latest exhibit at the Museum @ FIT has helped me to see the period in though a different lens. I may never really like the decade, but I can now see it more objectively.

Yves Saint Laurent + Halston does not attempt to be a retrospective of either designer or a definitive survey of the fashion of the 1970s. It uses the rich resources of the Museum @ FIT’s collection only, but that is enough to show how the two men’s careers paralleled each other. The curators in this well edited show confine themselves to a comparison of the careers of two designers who dominated the decade and come to some interesting conclusions.

The first thing one sees upon entering the gallery is a huge timeline between flashing mirrored disco balls. In the clear graphic it is easy to compare the trajectory of the two careers from the early 1950s when both careers began to the mid 1980s when Halston went off the fashion radar and Saint Laurent was no longer a young innovator, but a member of the Parisian establishment. One notable milestone is 1966, four years before the 1970s began, when YSL founded his first Rive Gauche boutique in Paris. Rive Gauche was important to Saint Laurent. This exhibit brings out the fact that the ready-to-wear line was the designer’s incubator for styles that later appeared in his haute couture line—a fact that has been forgotten over time.

Timeline at "Yves Saint Laurent + Halston" Photo by Nadine Stewart
Timeline at “Yves Saint Laurent + Halston” Photo by Nadine Stewart

1973 is another important date since that was the year of “The Battle of Versailles.” The Americans were declared the winners of this competition based on their simple breezy presentation that made the overly long, tedious French production seem tired and dated. Halston, already a well-known figure, rocketed to fame after this show. In 1975, Esquire magazine declared he has poised to “take over the world.” At this point in the timeline, it’s a good idea to enter the main galley to see how the garments compare.

Both Halston and Saint Laurent drew inspiration from menswear, exotic ethnic and vintage clothing, and previous periods in fashion history especially Art Deco and the Belle Époque. Saint Laurent made history with his menswear—Le Smoking evening suit of 1966, the safari, and “gangster” looks. All this at a time when pants were not something garments women were allowed to wear for evening or in chic restaurants. Indeed, Lauren Bacall in the 1968 American television show, Bacall and the Boys, makes this point as she models a pair of Saint Laurent trousers. “I’ll wear them everywhere,” she enthuses, “Even to restaurants! Just let them try to throw me out!”

Halson’s approach to menswear was less literal. He incorporated elements of men’s clothing into his line. The famous Ultrasuede shirtdress is fine example. It was wildly popular, adopted by women of every age in the wide range of colors. I do remember attending a cocktail party in the early 1970s where it seemed every woman who could afford it had one on.

Ethnic and vintage-inspired fashions were strong in the 1960s. The trend continued in the 1970s, with designers like Giorgio Sant Angelo mining every possible ethnic influence to produce a high end “hippy chic.” Saint Laurent took a more considered approach rooted in French tradition. His most famous collections were the “Ballet Russes” and “Opium” collections of the mid-1970s, which were dripping with Orientalist themes, but also on display are dresses from Rive Gauche, which show how he played with these themes for years. Also on view are pieces that echo Christian Dior and Chanel with influences that range from a medieval lace front velvet, a Belle Époque-inspired gown in shimmering purple and red with huge gigot sleeves, and sweater-skirt ensembles embellished with fur collars and cuffs.

Halston historicized more sparingly. He used eliminated the decorative elements of non-Western dress in favor of minimal garments that were inspired by the simple draping of ethnic clothing like the caftan and sarong.

Another important point. Both designers had very similar ideas in the early 1970s; so similar it can be difficult to tell their work apart. A pleasure of this exhibit is circular platforms on which pairs of garments are mounted. It’s fascinating to see how much alike they can be, especially the flowing gowns influenced by the Art Deco of the interwar years. Curator Patricia Mears has a good eye for important construction techniques and points out that Halston was an innovator in fine couture construction. He eliminated the interior shaping and linings. Inspired by the work of Madeline Vionnet and Claire McCardell, he also eliminated darts and waistbands.[1]

Saint Laurent, in contrast, continued to use interior construction, a remnant of his years of training in Dior’s atelier. His use of flowing materials, like Halson. gives his garments the sleekness of the Art Deco period.

After a walk through the gallery, it’s a good idea to go back to the timeline, which shows where the two men’s careers diverged drastically. In September 1977, both designers were featured on the cover of W magazine. Both were on top of their game with signature perfumes that were adding millions to their bottom line, fabulous apartments that were featured in shelter magazines, and hundreds of lucrative licensing agreements. It seemed they would go on to challenge each other into the next decade and beyond. But fashion is fickle. In 1982, Halston signed a multi-million deal with JC Penney to produce a lower price line called “Halston III.” This probably seemed like a coup for his business. JC Penney, after all, was the first American company to pick up Mary Quant in the 1960s. For Halston, the deal was a disaster. High-end department stores dropped his clothes since they lost their cachet. Saint Laurent continued to hold his place as a leader of the fashion establishment in Paris. He was honored with a career retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1983 curated by the former editor-in-chief of Vogue Diana Vreeland. By 1984, Halston had lost control of his company and could no longer design under his own name. The era of joint creativity was over.

This exhibit was extremely satisfying on many levels. It offered fresh insights into the work of two important designers and clarified why they defined their period of fashion history. By doing so, the curators allowed us to view the 1970s with fresh eyes. I may never get over those double knit leisure suits, but now, I’ll never forget the glorious work of these designers I saw on display. This exhibit is one to visit more than once.

Can’t make it to the exhibit? There’s an excellent website complete with the timeline. http://exhibitions.fitnyc.edu/ysl-halston/

– Nadine Stewart

[1] A personal opinion here. Halston got his start as a milliner, a topic the exhibit barely mentions. I feel this training enabled him to think in three dimensions—something a milliner must always do since a hat will be viewed from all angles. He was especially known for his ability to drape a turban, work that requires a fluid ability to work with material without an underlying structure. I think this contributed to his design of gowns that flowed and were wrapped and tied around the body, which became his signature style.

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