Wednesday, 2 February 2011

'The ugliest show in town' - The forgotten Yves Saint Laurent collection

Yves Saint Laurent’s long career was punctuated by success, from his famous Le Smoking to a Ballet Russes inspired spectacle dubbed ‘The New New Look.’ Yet the collection that was originally labelled ‘the ugliest show in town’ was, in fact, to spark a style revolution.

In 1971 Yves Saint Laurent’s Homage aux Années 40s caused scandal. From fox fur ‘chubbies’ that whispered woman of the night to turbans and tailored jackets, it was a highly controversial homage to the past. It seemed that Saint Laurent’s couture clients did not approve of drawing style inspiration from the Nazi occupied streets of Paris.

In an interview on Olivier Saillard, curator of the Louvre’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs describes the 40’s look Saint Laurent was drawn to: “Frenchwomen made skirts out of their curtains, wore men’s tailored jackets, and put their hair in turbans. The look was arrogant, rather than the neutral style one would expect from the women of an occupied country.”

In the 1970s young Parisiennes were reviving the fashions worn by their mothers, wearing turbans and picking up forties clothes in fleamarkets. Saint Laurent always cited “the fashion on the street” as his greatest influence; he was quick to tune in to the trends of the time and (in the words of Lucien Francois) “give them an aristocratic allure.”

Perhaps the allure of Saint Laurent’s highly colourful. retro collection of 1971 was lost on aristocrats of the time. Yet its impact can be seen throughout the years that followed and on both streets and catwalks today.

“From the end of the war through the ’60s, not much changed in the world of high fashion,” said Serge Carrera (an employee of YSL) in France magazine, “then with one collection, Yves Saint Laurent upended everything and made fashion fresh by borrowing elements from the past and mixing turbans with prints. All of a sudden, fashion moved toward the realm of spectacle.”

Controversial, colourful and eclectic, Homage aux Années 40 brought modernity to the catwalk, so much so that Saillard uses it as a marker for the beginning of contemporary fashion.

Saint Laurent’s forties look inspired Jean Paul Gaultier, giving birth to the look of the 80s. Ten years later his forties interpretation was revisited by Martin Margiela and along the way there have been countless other designers that have drawn from elements of that one 1971 collection. If you have ever seen someone walking down the street dressed like a stylish yeti you too have witnessed the effects of Yves Saint Laurent.

After the show Saint Laurent told French Vogue, “What I want to do is shock.” Sometimes it takes something shocking to create change. And sometimes it takes ‘the ugliest show in town’ to change the face of fashion.

Yves Saint Laurent's 1971 collection
Jess Cartner-Morley of the Guardian celebrates Chubby Chic
The Chubby, a YSL classic has inspired many designers, here Balmain (2010)


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