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Yves Saint Laurent, whose retirement last week occasioned all sorts of “the king is dead” pronouncements in the fashion press, has been credited with, among other things, the ascents of the peasant blouse, the trench coat, the safari suit, the feminized tuxedo, the pea jacket, and the padded-shoulder 1940s day dress. But given that many of these breakthrough designs showed up in Saint Laurent’s collections in the 1960s and ’70s, isn’t it possible that the masterful Yves was simply reflecting what was in the air and on the streets in those heady days of sartorial rebellion? Saint Laurent may have stuck a peacoat on a catwalk, but does anyone really believe that all those military-surplus wearers who swept through the world in the summer of 1968, insistent on comfort and swagger, were inspired by a runway show?
Suzy Menkes, the fashion critic for the International Herald Tribune, says in her farewell to Saint Laurent that “it is the fate of every successful revolutionary ultimately to be embraced by the establishment.” There was indeed a fashion revolution in Saint Laurent’s time, and it was in fact eventually embraced by the fashion establishment, but Saint Laurent was not the author of it. For that elusive patron, we must look elsewhere: to the struggle for women’s liberation (the triumph of pants), to the distrust of nationalism (all those Guatemalan jackets and Mexican blouses), to the critique of colonialism (the safari jacket worn with a wink), to the subversion of militaria (the wholesale raiding of the army-navy canon). Yves may have been early in spotting these trends, sprucing them up and putting them in a runway show, but he can scarcely be responsible for a rebellion that involved hundreds of thousands of bra-discarding, girdle-disdaining, spike-heel-eschewing women.
No one would argue that Saint Laurent wasn’t a master of cut and line and form, those qualities that mean so much to fashion insiders and the infinitesimal number of the world’s citizens who can afford to worry about such things. The problem lies with his hagiographers, who insist that the radical shifts that overtook fashion in the latter half of the 20th century had something to do with Saint Laurent. Even in his wildest days, when he posed nude in perfume ads, and put models dressed as strumpets on his runways, and drowned himself in alcohol and cocaine, Saint Laurent was nowhere near as radical as the first woman who bought an old rayon dress in a thrift shop and wore it out on the town. This is when the real revolution took place: not at a fashion show by Saint Laurent, or any other single designer, but the day that thrift shops stopped being equated with impoverishment, the day the first person got a sheepskin coat from the Tibetan store or a pair of baggy pants from the Indian shop, the day in 1967 that somebody painted his or her body with Day-Glo colors and called that being dressed up.
Saint Laurent once launched a collection that was called the rich peasant look (could there be a more revolting oxymoron?), and of course, the fur and velvet concoctions he offered under that rubric were only available to the extremely well-fixed. But the fun of fashion in the years since the 1960s is that anyone, rich or not so rich, can be a rich peasant. The embracing of secondhand shopping, the existence of places with fabulous cheap stuff, like H&M, or leftover expensive stuff, like Century 21, along with a willingness to explore unconventional venues for hidden treasures, have made interesting clothes available to shoppers wealthy in imagination if not much else.
It’s ironic that Saint Laurent, who was so close to the street in his ideas, sold his ready-to-wear business to Gucci in 1999, keeping only the highly rarefied, staggeringly unprofitable couture line for himself. Though the fashion press dutifully covers the couture, a strange institution where everything is made-to-order and a single unadorned dress can cost $10,000, even the most doting fan has a hard time denying its irrelevance. Desperately clinging to the flimsy excuse that it serves a purpose as a “laboratory” for ready-to-wear, the couture, like royal families and debutante balls, should have been extinct long ago. It was a sad place for a guy who loved trench coats to end up.
Saint Laurent had the invitations to his press conference hand-delivered, the way people to this day are summoned to fashion shows in Paris. In his statement to those who assembled at his behest last week he said, “For a long time now, I have believed that fashion was not only supposed to make women beautiful, but to reassure them, to give them confidence, to allow them to come to terms with themselves.” He meant it to be sweet, but it’s more than a little patronizing: Women started to gain confidence and come to terms with themselves as each successive wave of feminism swelled; the fact that they may have donned a pair of pants and an army coat to take to the streets had little in the end to do with Saint Laurent.