Was YSL a feminist?
This was a question that I’d never before considered relevant, let alone taken the time to ponder. Yet, when I went to see Laurent Cotta speak at the Bata Shoe Museum on a rainy Wednesday, he chose to focus on the relevance of YSL’s designs, his personal history, and his creative inspirations. Laurent Cotta is a Parisian fashion and art historian and has lectured on the influence of Yves Saint Laurent across Europe and North America since 2004. By the end of my short but thorough education, I had a new understanding of what YSL meant to fashion, historically and today.
In my mind, the name Yves Saint Laurent had always brought about a sort of fancy, unattainable feeling, a classic idea of a long-ago perfected look that is still constantly referenced and adored today. Few self-proclaimed fashion lovers are unaware of YSL’s contribution to the fashion world, and some, like Cotta, have even dedicated their lives to studying his personal history.
YSL started out in the mid-1950s as the young assistant of Christian Dior. Year after year, more of his designs were selected to be in the haute couture shows and, in 1958, after Dior’s death, he succeeded him as Head of House. Although newspapers hailed his 1958 collection as having “saved France,” his 1960 beatnik-inspired spring/summer collection was not well received by the public. The House felt his liberal use of leather and alligator-skin motorcycle jackets mixed with thin, feminine sweaters were a misrepresentation of Dior. This misstep led to his dismissal. One year later, YSL and his partner, Pierre Bergé, started their own house of couture, and just like that, the famed Yves Saint Laurent brand was born. YSL created a simple look accessible to both men and women, believing both genders could dress the same if they adhered to classic designs. As an example, he even posed in his own fashion shoots dressed in a similar way to his sister. A supporter of women’s liberation, YSL’s philosophy demanded that outfits be practical and easy to wear. He explored androgyny throughout his career, especially towards the late ’60s, when he famously took to creating tuxedo-style looks for women.