The Shock and Awe of Yves Saint Laurent in 1971

The most shocking element about a new exhibition at the YSL Foundation isn’t the assortment of broad-shouldered jackets, flirty dresses with bacchanalia prints, and peep-toe shoes that recalled post-war, Liberation-era garb and, when shown in 1971, scandalized some fashion professionals. The idea of retro had yet to enter the mainstream, as it had by the time Saint Laurent referenced the look again in 1996.

No, what’s most shocking is the fact that journalists were bold and free enough to run such headlines as “Saint Laurent Insults Fashion” or to write that it was “truly hideous,” as the Herald Tribune’s Eugenia Sheppard did. You’d be hard-pressed to find such directness today.

Aside from the startling journalistic rejection, the small exhibit — curated by Olivier Saillard — is a touching reminder of a bygone couture heyday. The reprinted show notes list 93 outfits, which sounds like eternity today, and use such quaint parlance as ‘afternoon dresses.’ A video of the show starts with a suave warning that no “photographic device” would be accepted and loud commentary was prohibited. Another video, from a TV program, shows the models larking and playing in what looks like a Coney Island arcade. They exude an endearing Parisian insouciance and (inevitably) recall the joie de vivre of Sonia Rykiel.

These outfits from 1971 that harked back to WWII — their original sketches are displayed in large format on the walls — were conceived after Saint Laurent saw the incandescent Paloma Picasso in flea-market finds. They mark the designer’s most fruitful period, when his antennae captured the buzz around him, as well as elements from the past that he knew would shock his audiences. Hedi Slimane aims to shock, too, and certainly the invitation to compare the two is not accidental.

Yves Saint Laurent 1971, March 19 – July 19, 2015, Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent, Paris

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