One of the highlights of any visit to New York is a visit to the Museum at FIT. This past trip was no exception with the two shows they had going being not only beautiful, but thought-provoking.
Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the ’70s is the first exhibition that has ever focused just on these two giants of the 1970s. I came of age in the 1970s, and I’ve been well-acquainted with the work of both designers for over 45 years. But it was a revelation seeing their work side by side. It seems that the clean modernist (Halston) and the romantic historian (YSL) had a lot more in common than is at first apparent.
Because the museum’s holding of both designers is extensive, there was a lot of material for the curators to work with. They were able to look at the clothes with an eye for how each interpreted a certain theme. This approach reveals not only how the two designers were different, it also points out some startling likenesses.
One of the games that people are playing with this exhibition is “Guess Who?” Instead of immediately reading the notes on each garment, people were trying to guess which was the YSL and which the Halston. It was a fun exercise, though in most cases there were little details that gave the answer away if one was fairly familiar with both designers’ work. In the top photo, the ensemble on the left is by Halston, and the one on the right is Saint Laurent.
Can you guess which is the Halston and which is the YSL? It probably would help to know that Halston worked mainly in solid colors, so the dress on the right is his.
Can you see the tiny hems on these layers of chiffon? The workmanship that came out of Halston’s workrooms really astounded me. Someone described Halston’s designs as simple clothes that were expensive. Add to that description that they were made from top quality fabrics by highly skilled sewers.
One of the themes that the exhibition explored was how each designer was influenced by menswear. Much has been written of Yves Saint Laurent’s appropriation of menswear, especially in the famous Le Smoking, or tuxedo suit for women. He also did tailored suits in the style of 1930s or 40s men’s suits, seen above in blue pinstripes.
Halston’s use of menswear was much more subtle, but no less influential. In his hands the man’s shirt was elongated and narrowed into a flattering shirtdress.
Another theme of the exhibition was how each designer used the “exotic” in their designs. This was quite easy to see in the work of YSL, as he was known for using all kinds of cultural influences in his work. Whole collections were designed around Russia or China. In his hands the word “peasant” took on a whole new meaning.
Halston’s use of the exotic often was expressed in the form of caftans and pajama set with capes. These great tie-dyed pajamas date from 1970, and the red caftan is from 1972. The set on the left and the caftan are from the wardrobe of Lauren Bacall, who donated 700 items to FIT while she was still alive.
And finally, the exhibition looked at how both designers used historical references in their work. Again, Saint Laurent was much more literal in his use of historic fashion. His clothes often contain references to the work of Chanel, and he was especially fond of paying homage to the 1930s and early 40s.
Halston paid his respects to the past in his use of the bias cut in the manner of Vionnet.
And in his hands the cashmere twin set of the 1950s became luxurious (and warm) evening wear.
In taking in this exhibition, and I had to see it twice, I was struck at how my own sense of style was shaped by these two designers. I was fifteen in 1970, and so these were the years that I was really into fashion. Many of the shapes and designs in the exhibition have been in my own closet through the years, and I still love a fitted sweater over slacks and a good bomber jacket.
In the late 1970s I made a dress that was very similar to the Halston on the left (are those Warhol flowers?) to wear to work, and I would have worn the YSL on the right as well, given the chance. I still have a shirtdress in my closet, and I’m seriously thinking of making one in gingham. Hey, if it was good enough for Lauren Bacall, why not?
This exhibition is in the basement gallery, which I love. The display space is large and is arranged in a non-linear way so that rambling and contemplation is encouraged. The clothes are arranged so that most of them can be seen from more than one angle. In the hallway there is a timeline of the careers of both designers. It is very helpful in tying it all together, and as a special treat, it’s online.
And I want to say a special thanks to the museum for allowing photos. This is the first time I’ve ever been to an exhibition there where photos were allowed. I hope it leads to a loosening of the no-photo policy.
Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the 70s was organized and curated by Patricia Mears and Emma McClendon. It is open until April 18, 2015.