New Exhibit Puts Yves Saint Laurent and Halston Side by Side

A look at "Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the ’70s," now open at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology.
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A look at "Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the ’70s," now open at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology.
Left: Halston dress, printed knit cotton, c.1976, gift of Ms. Gayle Osman. Right: Yves Saint Laurent dress, printed silk chiffon, 1971, gift of Lauren Bacall.

Left: Halston dress, printed knit cotton, c.1976, gift of Ms. Gayle Osman. Right: Yves Saint Laurent dress, printed silk chiffon, 1971, gift of Lauren Bacall.

There are films about them. There are books about them. They are loved, and envied. They are the victims of gossip, too, often compared and contrasted in the press. But no institution, until now, has ever put the works of Halston and Yves Saint Laurent side-by-side, using their clothes as ways to get into their heads.

On Feb. 6, the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology will open its latest exhibition, “Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the ’70s.” The timing seems serendipitous; '70s vibes are all over the runways and red carpets right now. That louche, free style, bouncing around as recent trend, appears to have real staying power.

On Wednesday afternoon, I met Patricia Mears, deputy director of the Museum at FIT, and Emma McClendon, the assistant curator, in the school’s lobby to learn more about the upcoming show. As we walked down a flight of stairs into the exhibition space, they first pointed out a graphic timeline, separated from the main show space. The timeline highlights Halston’s and Yves Saint Laurent’s achievements and accomplishments, from the late 1950s through 1984. On the wall are rare images of both designers (a photograph of Halston in his first showroom, a Jean-Luce Hure shot of Saint Laurent strolling the streets of Paris). There are facts I never knew (Saint Laurent designed the costumes for the film "Pink Panther"). What's clear is that Saint Laurent and Halston worked liked men possessed.

Halston was one of those rare designers who wanted his clothes on the backs of the most superlative socialites and the women of Middle America. But such a desire came with serious setbacks -- and those setbacks help explain why the timeline featured in the exhibition ends at 1984. At this point in Halston’s life, the designer’s name appeared on J.C. Penny’s dresses. His Halston Limited line, once considered exceptionally exclusive, no longer hung on the racks at Bergdorf Goodman. And according to legal contracts negotiated by Norton Simon, Halston was banned from having anything to do with the designs and products — clothes, accessories, cosmetics, perfumes — bearing his name. He was not even allowed to walk into his own office.

This is not to paint a negative picture of one of America’s most creative designers. These are simply some unfortunate consequences of Halston’s ambitions. Some say he spread himself too thin. As a perfectionist, he didn’t delegate tasks very often and struggled to keep up with many of the industry’s demands. 

A red evening caftan by Halston, c. 1977. Photo: FIT Museum

A red evening caftan by Halston, c. 1977. Photo: FIT Museum

For Saint Laurent, 1984 was more fortuitous year. The Metropolitan Museum of Art presented the Oran-born designer with his own retrospective, curated by Diana Vreeland. It was just as much a sensation as it was a scandal. No working, living designer could claim this honor, Mears says before we walk into the main exhibition space, which is white and “stripped of everything.”

As we enter, Mears tells me the one thing she hopes viewers will notice. “I want people to learn that Halston was a great technical dressmaker,” revealing that his clothes (a red caftan is one of her favorites) have a rather graceful quality and are visually simplistic. The can look beautiful on many body types. She leads me over to a nearby stage, which showcases two halter-neck dresses, pointing out, “You see no closures, zippers, buttons… Very easy to wear.” McClendon mentions that the wearer can actually style the dress herself.

Of Saint Laurent’s halter, she says, “[His] chiffon [dress] actually has a corset inside. Even though the dress looks diaphanous, it’s a little misleading." McClendon adds, “Nothing is left to chance." Mears points out that Halston’s approach is more American "in that he does believe that the wearer has some say on how she wants to tie things.” 

Left: Saint Laurent Rive Gauche ensemble of off-white wool, brown velveteen and off-white nylon, 1976. Right: Halston ensemble of off-white wool, 1970-71. Photo: FIT Museum

Left: Saint Laurent Rive Gauche ensemble of off-white wool, brown velveteen and off-white nylon, 1976. Right: Halston ensemble of off-white wool, 1970-71. Photo: FIT Museum

But for all their differences, sometimes they are remarkably on par. One example is their take on capes. “You can tell which one is Saint Laurent and which one is Halston,” says Mears. The Halston, a red and black cape dress, is in wool, a bit more simplistic than the Yves Saint Laurent. Nevertheless, the silhouettes are similar. “Just the idea that they were using the same sort of materials and the same sort of concept…we think they were trying to find the vocabulary, which eventually comes out in their hallmark styles. But in the early years of the seventies — the late sixties and early seventies — they’re still looking for it, so a lot of time you really have trouble distinguishing who did what.”

McClendon, however, has no trouble pointing out one fact about Yves Saint Laurent and his ready-to-wear. “He was looking at Rive Gauche as the laboratory where he could experiment with potentially controversial or un-couture influences like exoticism and menswear and historical revival. Then, it would go up to his couture.”

If an idea worked well for ready-to-wear, it had a higher chance of succeeding in couture, that is. One idea was a new take on menswear. “Separates were important for Rive Gauche,” she notes. Arguably, this was born from a man’s approach to dressing -- combining different suit tops and bottoms at will. “Supposedly all the sales clerks in the Rive Gauche boutiques were trained that if someone came in and picked up a piece and looked interested in it, you would come over and offer a whole range of coordinated separates that might go along with it to build out this Saint Laurent wardrobe, a vocabulary of styles you could build to create this wardrobe with personality that is also somewhat uniform.”

One major difference in the designers’ clothes, which Mears points out, is that Halston’s work tends to be more reductive. She says that this actually makes his pieces look more timeless. “Yves Saint Laurent’s work is so beautiful but it [can] look a little bit dated.” 

In one area, we see Saint Laurent’s appropriations of Russian fantasies and Elizabethan ideals. With these, I can understand Mears’s theory. The garments, while striking, struggle to stand the test of time. Still, McClendon admits, “he did do sweater sets and skirts and more minimal day looks.” 

Starkly different from those minimalist styles are the show’s Chinoiserie garments. There are a few pieces here from Yves Saint Laurent’s famous collection of 1977: two dark evening ensembles in printed silk. A fuchsia skirt and coat, however, are earlier iterations from Rive Gauche. They predate the couture collection. Which proves that he was experimenting with these influences in ready-to-wear before bringing them to the couture salon.

Indeed, there is much more to see in this exhibition, many more questions to ask, ideas to explore. But cataloguing each look here would belabor a show that floats across a decade of decadence, aptly using examples of Saint Laurent’s lightest silks and Halston’s featherweight chiffons to show a clean side of ’70s style. Mears reminds me that in the 1960s, women were encouraged to take classes that taught them how to wear a girdle. Ha! By the ’70s, who even needed a bra?