Today we bring you insight from co-curator Emma McClendon on Yves Saint Laurent’s inspiration from Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. For more information on the many inspirations of Yves Saint Laurent, check out the essays in the book Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the 70s.
Historical pastiche was a significant part of Yves Saint Laurent’s design strategy throughout his career. It was especially important during the 1970s, when he was developing his unique voice, and the signature styles of earlier French couturiers became a crucial source of inspiration. These included Christian Dior’s ultra-feminine silhouettes from the 1950s, as well as the hyper exoticism of Paul Poiret from the 1910s. But the couturier of greatest importance to Saint Laurent was Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel.
Chanel affected not only Saint Laurent’s aesthetic, but his entire approach to fashion. He felt by 1970 that Dior’s tradition of unveiling a new silhouette with each collection was out of date. In Saint Laurent’s own words: “Now it is ridiculous to think that clothes must change, that hemlines must change, that women want pants this season and not the next.”1 In contrast, Chanel’s interest in creating a fashionable uniform or “style” inspired Saint Laurent to search for a “uniform” of his own. As reporters Claude de Leusse and Patricia McColl recounted in Women’s Wear Daily in 1970, “[Saint Laurent] says he’d be perfectly happy to see every woman in the world in the same dress. ‘A uniform for day and a uniform for night.’… It is in essence, the Chanel approach to fashion… Evolution rather than revolution.”2
In 1972, the picture above appeared on the front page of Women’s Wear Daily. It shows Saint Laurent strutting down the street surrounded by models in his latest designs. Underneath the photograph, de Leusse and McColl declared, “Yves St. Laurent continues the spirit of Coco Chanel. His clothes for the Rive Gauche fall/winter collection are as relaxed and easy as Chanel’s were. But the look is pure Yves.”3
Saint Laurent’s Chanel-inspired uniform developed into a vocabulary of essential garments that he proclaimed to be the new basics of the fashionable wardrobe. During the 1970s, this uniform of basics became the backbone of Rive Gauche (his ready-to-wear line and “laboratory” for new designs). Once set, it allowed Saint Laurent to manipulate a broad range of motifs, materials, and inspirations within the same lexicon of style.
In the exhibition Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the 70s, Saint Laurent’s indebtedness to Chanel is most apparent in the knit suits seen above. Their long knit sweaters, wool skirts, and silk blouses seem to fuse Chanel’s iconic post-war suits with her 1920s chemise-silhouette ensembles (see below).
This connection to Chanel is further emphasized in photographs of a model dressed in Saint Laurent from the August 1973 issue of Vogue (below). Here, the same Rive Gauche, fur-trimmed sweater as the one on view in the exhibition at MFIT has been accessorized with a close-fitting, cloche-like hat (left). The model poses in profile, nonchalantly placing one hand on her hip.
On the opposite page the same model appears in a similarly styled ensemble consisting of a long knit sweater worn over a high-neckline dress, punctuated by a bow at the base of the neck. The model’s angular, cropped bob completes both looks, and seemingly transforms her into a clone of Chanel herself.
Beyond the examples discussed here, Chanel’s influence on Saint Laurent can be felt throughout his work, from his le smoking tuxedos to his exotic evening pajamas. Chanel’s dedication to creating streamlined, androgynous, and modern garments for women with an active lifestyle inspired Saint Laurent to transform the fashionable wardrobe in the 1970s, and the effects of his developments can still be seen today.
1. Yves Saint Laurent, quoted in Nina Hyde, “Saint Laurent” in The Washington Post, November 26, 1972, p.F1.
2. WWD, by Claude de Leusse and Patricia McColl, “On the Yves of Evolution” in Women’s Wear Daily, June 15, 1970, p.4-5.
3. “YSL- Sure and easy” in Women’s Wear Daily, April 24, 1972, p.1.
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