Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: “Fashioning the 70s”
FIT Museum, 7th Ave at 27 Street, New York City
February 6 – April 18, 2015

With the insurgence of 70s styles being reinvented for the runway recently, the current exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Museum seems fitting. It celebrates the two designers who defined the sexy and glamorous fashions of the 1970s; Yves Saint Laurent and Halston. The exhibit features original pieces by both designers, and examines specifically the way they dealt with similar themes and aesthetics during the height of their careers. Both designers are equally represented by the approximately 80 ensembles and 20 accessories that are arranged thematically in an environment designed to evoke the style of this singular, dynamic era in history.

The museum’s collections hold the Halston archives—the most comprehensive records of his work in the world—as well as a vast array of significant Yves Saint Laurent pieces donated by important clients, fashion editors, friends, and colleagues of Saint Laurent. These include Lauren Bacall, Marina Schiano, Aimée de Heeren, Mary Russell, and Tina Chow.

The seventies was a defining decade in fashion. Sandwiched between the counterculture 1960s and the opulent 1980s, it was a period of change in fashion, with haute couture giving way to designer-led conglomerates and a mix of the eclectic with the somber, reflecting the mood of individual expression along with a souring economic environment.

The first section in the exhibition demonstrates how Saint Laurent and Halston drew on menswear when creating clothing for women. After the debut of his Le Smoking woman’s tuxedo in 1966, Saint Laurent’s experimentation with menswear reached a zenith in the 1970s. He played on different archetypes including the pinstripe “gangster” suit, safari jacket, and utilitarian jumpsuit throughout the decade to create looks that have become synonymous with a Saint Laurent style. Likewise, menswear informed many of Halston’s best-known designs, including his most famous garment, the Ultrasuede shirtwaist dress. These classic pieces included cashmere turtlenecks, matching cardigans, Ultrasuede jackets, and trim trousers, which reflected Halston’s own subtly unisex style.

The second section explores each designer’s use of exoticism during this period. Yves Saint Laurent’s Russian- and Chinese-inspired collections of the late 1970s, both of which are represented in the exhibition, were some of his most ornate and theatrical creations. 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. Halston, on the other hand, sought more subtle and substantive ways to incorporate non-Western costume that would push the boundaries of his construction. This resulted in garments such as his famous “sarong” dress made from a single piece of fabric spiraled around the body. Despite these opposing approaches, the two often arrived at similar incarnations of the exotic in the form of caftans and vibrantly colored pajama sets.
The final section of the exhibition displays how Saint Laurent and Halston engaged with past periods of fashion history. Historical pastiche was a significant part of Saint Laurent’s design strategy throughout his career. During the 1970s, he drew on the trend for vintage dressing that was emerging on the streets of Paris to create politically charged homages to 1940s fashions. He also pulled heavily from the fashions of the Belle Époque in some of his most voluminous and feminine creations, complete with petticoats and gigot sleeves. Halston took a different path, arrogating a limited number of historical elements from a relatively narrow period in time, specifically the 1930s and 1940s. A key source of inspiration for Halston came from the work of Madeleine Vionnet and the cadre of women couturiers who dominated high fashion design during the interwar years. Among Halston’s hallmark 1970s designs were his reinterpretations of streamlined and sinuous bias-cut gowns and separates.

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