Why YSL Was a Secret Feminist, Probably

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.



The shocking tuxedo suit, called “Le Smoking,” became the centre of controversy in 1966 France; smoking was still considered a fairly masculine act, and the tuxedo suit was previously only designed for and worn by men. YSL used masculine suits as an item of empowerment for women, dressing them in clothing traditionally worn by men of influence.

It was after hearing all this that I found myself repeating the aforementioned question to myself:

Was YSL a feminist?

After all, he did create clothing that was comfortable and easy to wear, and he wanted women to be happy and confident in their clothing, which to me hinted at the exciting possibility of a classic feminist-identified fashion designer.

But then I got a tad over-zealous with my thoughts. YSL created a tuxedo suit for women, therefore he must have believed that women were just as powerful as men! Furthurmore, the tuxedo was called le Smoking, and, since smoking was such a masculine thing to do, YSL probably did this to show society that, despite society’s gendered expectations, women could smoke, too!

I was overjoyed by my logical and coherent arguments, and felt pleased with my conclusion. Yves Saint Laurent had to be a feminist, and I was the smartest person ever for figuring out his secret agenda of seeking gender equality through clothing design. I gave myself a mental pat on the back before raising my hand to address Cotta.

To my dismay, his response put a dense storm over my feminist fashion parade. He curtly informed me that while YSL certainly liked the liberation movement and enjoyed the idea of a free and independent woman, calling him a feminist might be jumping to conclusions.

I was crushed. As someone who is—to put it simply—down with the women’s lib, I’m always searching for designers and the like who have encouraged women to have a more important role in their oppressive societies. Sadly, I’m beginning to acknowledge that there’s a chance that not every person in history was a secret feminist, and I’m starting to admit that my gender-equality conspiracy theories don’t always fit.

So, in all honesty, if Laurent Cotta says YSL never identified with feminism, you should probably believe him. After all, we are still talking about the designer that said, “The most beautiful makeup of a woman is passion. But cosmetics are easier to buy.” Laurent has studied the subject extensively and I am just a small-time blogger who can convince herself that every plane flying by her window at night is a UFO. That being said, I’m sure even the aliens inside would be able to rock a “le Smoking” tux, regardless of gender.

text by Sofie Mikhaylova
first photo by Alice Springs, from Pierre Thoretton’s
L’Amour Fou
following photos by Helmut Newton

9 thoughts on “Why YSL Was a Secret Feminist, Probably

  1. Do you think we could turn this into a weekly discovery channel series titled ‘Sofie’s Secret Feminists’?
    She could be like the Nancy Drew of the Secret Feminist Society.
    Now that that’s out of the way, I was a little disappointed at the conclusion of YSL NOT being a ‘secret feminist’.
    If you define a feminist in the very basic terms as someone who works towards women achieving equality, or subverting ‘traditional’ gender roles presented to women, then I think (despite what Laurent Cotta thinks) your reading of YSL’s work as feminist is still valid. Just because the man himself didn’t identify as feminist, as you’ve pointed out, his designs can certainly be read that way.

  2. Nice piece, Sofie–and Casie, you’re a genius.
    I’m looking forward to the next installment of Sofie’s Secret Feminists…
    x.g.

  3. a solid article indeed! i’m liking this secret feminist shindig too.
    ps: as a little kid, when i saw planes passing in the night, i thought it was santa doing flight training.

  4. I really do wish Saint Laurent was indeed a secret feminist, oh well.
    Just one thing– calling the tuxedo for women “Le Smoking” has little to do with smoking itself (probably unless you look back to the histoy of the tuxedo), “un smoking” is just what you call a tuxedo in French!

  5. @camille yes, we know! Sofie was just making a joke about far-reaching justifications. (However you may be really excited for issue 14 where we have a piece that explains this a little bit!)

  6. Man, I feel a bit bad for acting as some kind of a miss-knows-it-all haha! And now I’m really (well, even more) excited for issue 14!

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