YSL + Halston: Exoticism


Yves Saint Laurent Dress (Image via  FIT )

Yves Saint Laurent Dress (Image via FIT)

Yves Saint Laurent’s use of the “exotic” was deeply rooted in the French and literary tradition of orientalism. Within this tradition, clothing—punctuated by distinctive accessories, prints, and vibrant colors—plays a crucial role in creating an exotic fantasy that is immediately recognizable to a western audience. Saint Laurent turned to “exoticism” during the 1960s in order to challenge the traditional evening gown. By the mid-1970s, he was using the exotic to inform some of his most opulent and fantastical creations, such as his “Ballets Russes” and “Opium” couture collections. While these collections have become emblems of Saint Laurent’s couture genius, he in fact first showed Russian- and Chinese-inspired looks in his ready-to-wear. During this period, Rive Gauche was Saint Laurent’s laboratory, a place where he could experiment freely with new themes and ideas. The sumptuous looks that comprised these collections were an exercise in fashion fantasy that demonstrated Saint Laurent's interest in the decorative power of the exotic.

As an advocate of minimalism throughout the 1970's, Halston rejected the ornamental and decorative elements of non-Western dress favored by most of his contemporaries. He sought more subtle and substantive ways to incorporate non-Western costume that would push the boundaries of his construction. Halston developed garments that relied on highly sophisticated and unique construction methods, akin to those employed by classic couturiers such as Madame Grès. Caftans were folded like envelopes and sewn on the bias, while sarong-tied dresses made from one piece of fabric were meticulously sewn along a single, spiraled seam. Halston’s couture-constructed iterations of ethnic dress were devoid of all internal structure, so that his garments flowed and caressed the body. Ironically, he is rarely recognized for his innovative contributions to the craft of dressmaking.

Despite these opposing approaches, both designers often arrived at similar incarnations of the exotic in the form of caftans and vibrantly colored pajama sets.

-The Museum at FIT

  1. Halston Red evening caftan, beaded nylon, circa 1977, New York
  2. Halston Gold evening dress, hammered silk satin, circa 1977, New York
  3. Halston Gold "sarong" dress and stole, hammered silk satin, 1976, New York
  4. Halston Red "sarong" dress, silk crepe, circa 1976, New York
  1. Saint Laurent Rive Gauche Black and gold evening caftan, velvet and lamé, 1976, France
  2. Yves Saint Laurent Brown "African" evening dress, embellished organza, 1967, Paris
  3. Halston Gold evening ensemble, lurex, 1975, New York
  1. Yves Saint Laurent Patchwork evening ensemble, silk organza, satin, and taffeta, 1969, Paris
  2. Saint Laurent Rive Gauche Red, white, and blue "peasant" ensemble, cotton, 1977, Franc
  3. Saint Laurent Rive Gauche Fuchsia "Spanish" ensemble, printed chiffon, 1978, France
  1. Saint Laurent Rive Gauche Green "Chinese" shirt dress, silk/rayon blend jacquard, 1978, France
  2. Yves Saint Laurent Multicolor "Chinese" ensemble, printed silk, 1977, Paris, Black "coolie" style hat, velvet, 1977, Paris
  3. Yves Saint Laurent Multicolor and turquoise "Chinese" evening ensemble, printed silk crepe, 1977, Paris
  4. Yves Saint Laurent Fuchsia "Chinese" ensemble, printed silk satin and wool, 1976, France