Yves Saint Laurent. About the Art of Fashion

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“Mon arme est le regard que je porte sur mon époque et sur l’art de mon temps.”
Yves Saint Laurent
Yves Saint Laurent
Fashion Designer
Exhibition view / Yves Saint Laurent aux Musées / Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2022
Exhibition view / Yves Saint Laurent aux Musées / Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2022

Yves Saint Laurent of course is one on THE designers of the 20th century, mostly known for shaping Fashion from the late 50s to the 90s with his minimally elegant style. What is often overseen is the fact, that Yves Saint Laurent was one of the rare designers, who sought inspiration in Art throughout his career – returning again and again to various (modern) artists as well as diverse schools of thought as inspiration during his career of 40 years. In tribute to the 60th anniversary of the house of Yves Saint Laurent, six Parisian museums are staging different exhibitions focusing on the Art of Fashion of Yves Saint Laurent. A feast for all lovers of the fascinating as well as polarizing relationship of Fashion and Art!

First and foremost: BEAUTY

No matter if we look at the early ‘beatnik’ years of his house or at the very elegant if not to say conservative later decades of his epoch shaping career, the Fashion of Yves Saint Laurent is – first and foremost – one thing: Beautiful.

No matter which source he drew his inspiration from, one can always recognize pure and simple perfection of form, color and shape in his designs. Whether it’s the years at Dior, his first collections during the 60s, the African dresses, the Russian looks or the cool Sahariennes and the tuxedo suits for women – on can always recognize a distinctive elegance. An elegance, that is pure, reduced, even minimal while the woman wearing YSL is elegant and confident.

ART: A rejuvenating cure

“Poliakoff and Mondrian rejuvenated and refreshed me in an extraordinary way: They taught me purity and balance.”
Exhibition view / Yves Saint Laurent aux Musées / MAM, Paris, 2022
Exhibition view / Yves Saint Laurent aux Musées / MAM, Paris, 2022

Yves Saint Laurent started his career as the assistant of Christian Dior and became his successor when Monsieur Dior died surprisingly in 1957. For three years Saint Laurent continued the legacy of Dior – with huge success. But at the same time – at the very beginning of the 60s – a different air de temps began to rise. The super elegant style of Dior was not up to date with the cooler, shorter and younger generation. But Yves Saint Laurent was: He quickly designed clothes, that matched this new fresh air. But how did he do it? Via Art, his other passion.


Yves Saint Laurent was a very cultured man: Always interested in cinema, literature and the fine Arts, he was mostly obsessed with modern painting. He soon started collecting Art himself and during his life assembled a very famous Collection of Art, auctioned at Christie’s for incredible prices after his death. It’s from the beginning of the 60s, that he is going to use Art as his visual as well as intellectual reference for his designs.

“Je ne les ai pas copies – qui pourrait s’aventurer à le faire?”

Copying was not his style – but rather translating an artistic concept into the world of Fashion. He was rather taking two-dimensional paintings and translated it into three-dimensional clothes. And what clothes!

Exhibition view / Yves Saint Laurent aux Musées / Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2022
Exhibition view / Yves Saint Laurent aux Musées / Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2022

DIVING into the surface of MONDRIAN

Yves Saint Laurent’s certainly most famous Art dress is his earliest: His HOMMAGE À MONDRIAN dress, created in 1965. “Mondrian’s rigor” as the designer stated himself “could only seduce” him. Diving into the pureness of Mondrian’s paintings and his neoplasticist style Yves Saint Laurent created an icon of 20th century Fashion. And while it looks as if the abstract, geometrical motifs of Mondrian were ‘only’ used as a visual reference, Yves Saint Laurent actually applied the geometry to the cut of the dress.

Exhibition view / Yves Saint Laurent aux Musées / Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2022
Exhibition view / Yves Saint Laurent aux Musées / Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2022

The clothing’s pattern seems reduced to squares and rectangles, but infact is following the shape of the female body as you can see of the side of the dress (the side line being infact curvy no matter what rectangular ‘impression’ it makes. And as a taylor I can tell you: This is anything but easy to make. Creating a flattering dress, that follows the shapes of the body while appearing to be coming straight out of an all-but-curvy Mondrian painting.

Exhibition view / Yves Saint Laurent aux Musées / Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2022
Exhibition view / Yves Saint Laurent aux Musées / Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2022

A fashionable HARLEQUIN

A very similar form of interpretation can be seen with Saint Laurent’s black & white dress of 1979, which was created in reference to Picasso’s cubist works. The intertwined forms of the painting ‘Arlequin et femme au collier’ from 1917 are directly evoked through the intertwined silk pieces of the dress. And of course the aesthetic codes of harlequin costumes are overall visible here: A somehow playful but still very elegant dress is the result of Saint Laurent’s passion for Pablo.

Exhibition view / Yves Saint Laurent aux Musées / Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2022
Exhibition view / Yves Saint Laurent aux Musées / Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2022

About the Art of APPROPRIATION

Similar conclusions can be drawn when looking at many of his other encounters with the geometric Art of the 60s and 70s. No matter if it’s his interpretations of Alain Jacquet’s pixel-esque paintings or Victor Vasarely’s op-Art works: Yves Saint Laurent applies their aesthetic to his perfectly shaped, minimal 60s dresses, jackets and looks.

Talking about a-p-p-l-y-i-n-g: In order to evoke his Art references Saint Laurent often applied pieces of fabric imitating the Arts’ motifs. Black pieces of silk imitate the forms of Matisse as well as Robert Delauney. When looking at Yves Saint Laurent’s interpretation of Picasso’s cubist works a similar approach can be seen: He applied the motifs of the painting ‘Le Violon’ via embroidery to the back of a very elegant cape, setting the painting’s surface, which imitates three-dimensional forms on a flat canvas, into motion via a broad piece of clothing.


Other forms of appropriation of Arts’ motifs contain dying the dots of the Nabis or concentrating on special colors of some artists. Raoul Dufy’s vibrant color palette was just as inspiring as Giorgio de Chirico’s specific greens.


So far we have been strolling through the Centre Pompidou and the Musée d’Art Moderne. But in the later years of his career Yves Saint Laurent has also been fascinated by Baroque Art – and this in all its splendor. Several embroidered jacktes are exhibited at the fabulously golden Galerie d’Apollon at the Louvre where it mimics the splendor of its decor and exhibited jewelry.


“In order to survive, every man must have, as Nietzsche says, aesthetic ghosts. Life is only possible thanks to them. I think I have found them in Mondrian, Picasso and Matisse, but also, above all, in Proust. I am entirely eclectic.”

One part of the exhibition at last stands out visually: The staging of #YSLauxMusées at the Musée d’Orsay follows a different concept. Proust is the referenced ‘artist’ of the micro-exhibition, and as such he’s not only the key figure of the art chapter, that the Musée d’Orsay is focusing on, but was also a life-long passion of Yves Saint Laurent. Of course we do not see direct visual Art references here but rather an atmosphere, that evokes the times of Proust.

Exhibition view / Yves Saint Laurent aux Musées / Musée d'Orsay
Exhibition view / Yves Saint Laurent aux Musées / Musée d'Orsay
“To me nothing is more beautiful than a woman dressed in men’s clothes.”

In this context another important pillar of Saint Laurent’s meaning to Fashion is to be mentioned: The influence he had when it comes to male Fashion elements being introduced into female Fashion. To be precise: Black, austere suits as well as his famous tuxedo for women have their direct source in the cultural scene Proust represented.

The staging of the suits in front of the famous clock of the Musée d’Orsay brilliantly evokes the designer’s creative dialogue with the Art of his times and simultaneously is THE symbol of Proust’s era (as it’s a very famous part of the building of the Musée d’Orsay, which was a train station before being turned into a museum).


Henri Fantin-Latour, Hommage à Délacroix, 1864, Musée d'Orsay
Henri Fantin-Latour, Hommage à Délacroix, 1864, Musée d'Orsay

The only thing, that could have enhanced the exhibition’s set-up, would have been to have put one famous painting facing the wonderful suits: Henri Fatin-Latour’s ‘Hommage à Délacroix” (which is equally at home at the Musée d’Orsay). This painting, depicting a group of male intellectuals and writers, would have gloriously illustrated the claim of Yves Saint Laurent’s tuxedo Fashion: That the ladies, who have mostly been excluded from intellectual circles during the 19th century, powerfully arose in society through the Fashion of Saint Laurent 100 years afterwards.

For the sake of ART

#YSLauxMusées is a rare and wonderful occasion to see many examples of Yves Saint Laurent’s life-long dialogue with the Arts. No matter if it’s Proust, Matisse, Dufy, Picasso or Mondrian, Saint Laurent was for sure THE Fashion designer, who not only integrated Art’s concepts into his Fashion designs but through his clothes pointed out the importance of modern Art not only for Fashion but also for the Art world itself.

Exhibition view / Yves Saint Laurent aux Musées / Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2022
Exhibition view / Yves Saint Laurent aux Musées / Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2022

Becoming an ICON through Fashion

Mondrian for example might seem to be one of the top ten names of modern Art nowadays but back in 1965 he was practically not present in French museum of Modern Art. Believe it or not: It was only four years after Saint Laurent’s Mondrian collection that the first grand retrospective exhibitions of Mondrian’s oeuvre were staged in Paris.

Exhibition view / Yves Saint Laurent aux Musées / MAM, Paris, 2022
Exhibition view / Yves Saint Laurent aux Musées / MAM, Paris, 2022
What an achievement! Not only did Yves Saint Laurent open up a very new chapter for Fashion Design, he also introduced the one or the other artist to pop culture and therefore amplified their status. Facing these developments the omnipresent as well as endlessly annoying question of whether Fashion is an Art seems completely redundant - and - after Yves Saint Laurent - needs no answer at all.
Madame F

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