The Bias: Toward Fashion

Fashion changes, but style remains.
—Chanel

 

Of course, when we think of fashion we think of style. However, I am not sure, in spite of the recent efforts of museums and a handful of critics, how many of us—no matter how educated, open-minded, or sophisticated we may believe ourselves to be—have fully accepted that fashion in its highest manifestation stands as art. Even fewer, I imagine, have integrated this acceptance into our thoughts and actions. What I am sure of now—and what a few recently published books on fashion clearly illustrate—is not only that fashion is akin to other creative processes such as painting, sculpture, and even writing, but that there is a lot for us to learn: the language, history, method, and form of a medium that can be visually stunning, and therefore woefully mute.

For example, in fashion and textiles, bias refers to the grain of a woven fabric. Imagine a loom with its vertical and horizontal threads. When designers cut woven fabrics diagonally along these threads, they are cutting along the bias, and in turn maximizing the fluidity and elasticity of the garment. The bias, as metaphor, is incredibly apt when considering fashion as an artistic medium. Cutting along the straight or cross grains yields garments that are stiff, inelegant. Just as prose can be used to create boxy sentences that are serviceable but merely utilitarian, garments can be constructed that will cover a body yet fail to consider the body, and the person, beneath. Cutting along the bias requires knowledge, skill, experience, and technique on the part of the designer; it can yield garments that drape, move, and flow with the wearer, highlighting simultaneously the beauty of the body and of the work. Fashion is work, and at its best will straddle—as does any artistic medium—the worlds of craft and creative brilliance. (And as with any art form, as the human eye recognizes exceptions rather than rules, the geniuses tend to rise to the top.)

I’ve seen an increase in the number of fashion books published recently—not just catalogues of retrospectives, but texts in the historical, biographical, and critical sense. My instinct at first was to say that there is more of a focus on fashion now than in the past, that museums and scholars and academics and the generally educated public have finally come round to giving fashion its due as an artistic medium capable of standing beside the rest. Culturally, I wanted to credit this shift to the Alexander McQueen retrospective at MOMA, “Savage Beauty”; I wanted to say McQueen fueled a cross-generational acceptance of fashion as being worthy of a museum setting, that he caused fashion finally to be taken seriously. 

But reading a handful of the books published in the past couple of years, I quickly realized I was wrong. I assumed the careful and nuanced attention we readily give to the developments in fiction and poetry was taking a (deserved) turn toward fashion. However, this assumption crumbled beneath the revelation that fashion has a much richer—and diverse—history of appreciation and recognition than I originally thought. After reading the news clips, interviews, and remembrances of those who lived—and thrived—during the crucial moment in the 1970s of America’s acceptance into the world of serious fashion design, I have an understanding of the place not only fashion but writing and thinking about fashion used to hold in our culture. When speculating about whether fashion will ever again hold the attention of a larger public the way it once did, I developed a nostalgia for a past that is not my own.

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Perhaps Robin Givhan’s The Battle of Versailles best highlights the history of fashion writing with the engaging tale, from 1973, of five respected French fashion houses pitted against five American designers who were wholly unsung on the international stage. Currently the fashion editor for the Washington Post, in 2006 Givhan became the first fashion writer to win a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, and throughout the book she highlights critical writings from the New York Times, Women’s Wear Daily, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and others. What is most astonishing is not that these periodicals were paying attention to what people were wearing—anyone can walk up to an airport newsstand and buy the latest issue of Vogue, jammed with advertising and scant on anything that resembles thoughtful critique. The lines Givhan plucks from the annals of these magazines and newspapers are reminders that, once upon a time, journalists wrote with a slightly florid yet piercing attention, and with a flexible intelligence that could seemingly focus on whatever it liked. The tone of her commentaries on fashion seems descended from the prose of Henry James and Edith Wharton, whose writings go beyond mere reporting and become intelligent analyses delivered in a stylized prose that make one pause—and think. In a 1968 piece in the Washington Post, Judith Martin remarks on the sudden inclusion of black models such as Naomi Sims:

High fashion is taking a silky little step toward equality. Turn the glossy pages of Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar and suddenly, looking marvelously at home, there is The Black Model. Magazine officials will say that she’s been there for years. But to the reader—and to the model herself—she is startlingly, conspicuously new. 

Or take this example from foreign correspondent Jonathan C. Randal, who, amid reporting on war zones, paused to comment on the goings-on of fashion in Paris. In his 1973 piece for the Washington Post, titled “Glad Rags Rite,” he claims

It was just as well that France’s pro-Arab oil policy so far has spared the country any fuel cutback or even much soul searching. Otherwise Minelli and Berenson doubtless would have come down with pneumonia because their décolletes were beyond beyond. 

Pushing the boundaries of genre in literature is both accepted and expected; however, pushing the boundaries of subject matter is a less explored gesture that few writers seem to make with any degree of popular success. Roland Barthes can write about plastic as a magical substance of infinite transformation, Wayne Koestenbaum can write about men’s underwear as a cypher that negates the body, and Gaston Bachelard can write about housework as a dignified, creative act, but these critic-philosophers are exceptions; their subject matter—the seemingly banal, the stuff of the everyday—is more often than not relegated to the realm of the personal essay. Consequently, the revelation that clothes have been given not only serious attention and criticism, but also a prominent place in public discussions for over a century, indicates one of two possibilities: either clothing styles were once considered a more or less universally important and integral aspect of our culture, and this criticism remains as an artifact of that time; or fashion of the highest caliber is given a “pass” as an art form and receives attention (and accolades) in the same manner any exceptional creation might receive from a newspaper or magazine.

Givhan takes us back in time, but not so far that we cannot recognize most of the major players. The Battle of Versailles was an elaborate PR stunt orchestrated by the prominent American fashion mogul Eleanor Lambert. The event’s foundational mission was to raise much-needed funds to restore the dilapidating palace, but in reality Lambert conceived the event as a way to get five American fashion designers in front of a French audience for the first time. The concept was a gamble: showcasing the ease and simplicity of American clothing versus the imposing tradition and authority of French fashion. For example, each season Dior came out with “The New Look,” a structure and dress shape that Americans would simply—and unapologetically—copy. French fashion was considered the standard; American fashion was merely a ruse of innovation—and what was different in America wasn’t considered to be fashion. Anne Klein’s separates, for instance, though practical and a much-needed addition to the modern woman’s wardrobe, looked so simple as sportswear pieces that they were either harshly demeaned or completely ignored, even by her fellow American designers. The common sentiment remained: “Invention didn’t happen in America; it happened in France.”

As had already happened—albeit gradually—with writing and with the more conventional visual arts, Americans were once again tasked with distinguishing themselves from their European roots. Givhan pegs the 1960s as the turning point for a recognizable American fashion: “For the first time, American designers were beginning to find their voices.” Most of us likely received some education on the voices of American literature in high school, but the voices of American fashion were (and are) all but ignored. If I’m asked to recall any lesson about the history of fashion in my schooling, the fabricated image of a buckled pilgrim’s hat and George Washington’s wig are tragically the only ones that come to mind. Fashion and style had no place alongside geography, mathematics, government, or foreign language, yet what all of the books under review here reveal is that fashion can simultaneously draw upon, converse with, and influence many seemingly disparate disciplines.

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Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the ’70s, a catalogue/critical anthology that accompanied an exhibition at The Museum at FIT, New York, very quickly highlights that, yes, these two designers have distinct voices, but notes that recognizing—and learning to distinguish between—them requires significantly more than cursory knowledge. The first essay in Fashioning the ’70s—more of a preface—asks the reader to compare the two designers side by side. “Defining a Decade” by Patricia Mears (Deputy Director at FIT) is the first of many essays to point out the aesthetic similarities of Saint Laurent and Halston, and Mears urges readers to test themselves with photographs that exhibit pairs of dresses—one from Saint Laurent and one from Halston.

In spite of my readings, I quickly realized that the voices of Saint Laurent and Halston were filled with nuance—a distinctive language—I had yet to learn. There is a knowledge of fashion contained within these pages that extends beyond the anecdotal to the technical: “the construction methodologies employed by Saint Laurent were dramatically different from those used by Halston, and the differences between the garments do become apparent upon careful inspection.” Acquiring knowledge, of course, is one of many reasons to read. But perhaps more universally, guiding a reader/viewer to an enhanced attention and broadened perspective is fundamental to the essence of any art form. Though not the argument Mears set out to make, she shows that, with a degree of education, one could tell the difference between a Saint Laurent off-white silk jacquard ensemble and a Halston off-white silk crepe de chine pajama set—which also proves that the medium of fashion, at its best, is full of all the care and nuance one expects (and learns to appreciate) from any great work. (As is true when one is considering any work of genius, learning to recognize and make these distinctions allows a greater understanding not only of the artistic medium but also of the social and cultural repercussions that tend to come in the wake of such genius.) For example, Halston’s technically innovative garments introduced a new ease, a casual polish, that allowed one to look sophisticated yet simple. His pajamas draped with grace from the body, accenting its form without the tight, constricting cuts that were typically used to do so. He loved the idea of looking sophisticated without the burden of ornate opulence—boning, corsets, stiff collars, padded shoulders, petticoats, straps, bows, ties, mountains of layered fabrics—and he paved the way with his trademark black cashmere turtlenecks. Halston was reinventing what it meant to dress up, to be fashionable.

Halston—the work, not the man—could be considered the Raymond Carver form of fashion: deceptively simple, yet ruthlessly edited work that enjoyed commercial as well as artistic success and contributed to revolutionizing a new generation of American voices. With Halston, the clothing looked effortlessly created, though the truth was that a great deal of technical manipulation was required to create that particular look of ease. Mears’s essay “Halston and Exoticism” gives the reader a glimpse into the making of such a garment: “the sarong-tie dress obtained its body-skimming silhouette from a single length of bias cut silk . . . the seam of the dress viewed diagrammatically, when wrapped and sewn together, resembles the red stripes of a candy cane.” Halston is also well-known for using inexpensive, synthetic fabrics, particularly a Japanese micro-fiber called Ultrasuede that is also used in interior design (including Halston’s own New York City apartment) and car upholstery. Halston’s work, like Raymond Carver’s, spoke in a voice that seemed to belong to the everyman rather than a rarefied artist. However, as Mears points out in a later essay, “Halston and Historicism,” “[t]his seemingly incongruous blend of couture workmanship and pedestrian fabric resulted in a beautifully simple and elegant evening garment.” The surface of this fashion was simple, but one can look beyond the hem to see a more complex story of their creation—and their creators.

This fashion-world New Critical approach of isolating the art from the artist may ultimately hinder our understanding and the context in which these garments were made. Fred Dennis argues in his essay “History of a Collection” that to separate the work from the men is not only a mistake but impossible: “Their work was inseparable from their social and personal lives.” Both Halston and Saint Laurent enjoyed celebrity status in the 1970s, though Halston more actively cultivated the spotlight. They were regulars at Studio 54 and had a host of high-profile client-friends, including Lauren Bacall, Bianca Jagger, Babe Paley, and Grace Kelly.

Yves Saint Laurent emerges from this collection of essays as a little more carefree than he is typically depicted. So often, Saint Laurent is reductively portrayed as a tortured, Proust-like character with flairs of temper and temperament like those of a child; the Saint Laurent we see here, through the voice of the clothes rather than merely his biography, is a more dynamic man interested in playful exploration and with a relaxed attitude toward couture that conserves his origins at Dior. Like Halston, Saint Laurent also stepped down from tradition’s lofty heights, focusing his passions on Rive Gauche, his ready-to-wear line. While Halston was making “pedestrian” fabric choices, Saint Laurent used Rive Gauche as a testing ground for future couture looks. These ready-to-wear garments were accessible to the modern woman in a way the price tags and the numerous fittings of haute couture could not be, though Saint Laurent, unlike Halston, never went so far as to sell his label or design a line for J. C. Penney.

Saint Laurent said, in regard to Rive Gauche, “With ready-to-wear you can play around with the many parts of clothes and change them.” Saint Laurent’s playful approach to creation for Rive Gauche echoes Phillip Lopate’s disposition as an essayist, as Lopate states it in his New York Times piece “The Essay, an Exercise in Doubt”; both men embrace the lowered expectations of these respective genres in order to experiment and explore more freely—ultimately facilitating greater creativity. Lopate claims: “If you really become friends with your doubt, you can go ahead and take risks, knowing you will be questioning yourself at every turn, no matter what.” Saint Laurent could take his risks with Rive Gauche, re-question/reexamine the garment, and then revise if need be for his couture line. Like an essay, the garments continue to revolve/evolve as Saint Laurent gives his ideas a little more time to ruminate.

As Mears points out, “Arguably, his dedication to ready-to-wear during this period [1971] was his most revolutionary action, one that left a profound legacy, for it has had the most lasting impact on how women of all classes view and consume fashion.” Rather than offering outfits that must be worn together in their entirety, Saint Laurent was delving into a world of separates; separates were more practical for a working woman or a woman on a budget while simultaneously giving each woman the creative freedom to mix and match. According to Emma McClendon’s biographical essay, Saint Laurent was put off by the economic exclusivity of couture. Acclaimed fashion critic Nina Hyde attributed more to this decision than a sense of personal ethics, writing “It was he who made mass-produced clothes acceptable in France, lending his couture prestige to boutique shopping.” As Halston was reintroducing “the ease and grace of the ‘American Look’, ” Saint Laurent was changing the long-standing landscape of French fashion decorum. In fact, McClendon argues, this social shift was necessary, not only to suit a time of civil unrest and anti-bourgeois attitudes that emerged in the late 1960s, but also to keep couture on “life-support” until these attitudes shifted and allowed haute couture to re-emerge proudly.

Saint Laurent’s voice and values of the time can be understood by examining the clothes themselves—and again, Yves Saint Laurent + Halston proves an instrumental guide. McClendon explains:

Couture was not aesthetically different from his ready-to-wear . . . Rather, the luxury of the couture pieces was in the details. It was something private in the finish of a hem, or the feel of a fabric. Couture had become for Saint Laurent primarily a haptic experience, rather than an optic one.

Again, Yves Saint Laurent + Halston gives the reader what can be considered a series of tests: photographs showing one piece from a Rive Gauche collection juxtaposed with a piece of Saint Laurent couture. The difficulty in distinguishing between the two highlights the importance and necessity of the accompanying texts to be able to give these garments the “close read” they deserve. The only outstanding problem is that one cannot feel the difference—a difference that seems paramount to the experience of actually wearing clothes.

In Givhan’s historical account of the Battle of Versailles, she attempts to convey the feelings of all the designers, models, publicists, and socialites involved, creating a sort of pastiche of fascinating quotes from the likes of Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Bergé, and Stephen Burrows. From the well-known to the forgotten, Givhan revives the mood, the words, the attitudes, and the panache of these characters in a way that reads both naturally and accessibly. We see the rest of the story play out mostly through their eyes (though Givhan’s own passion for the event is palpable through the scrim of journalistic objectivity).

While the French designers were going to great lengths to showcase their infamous, elaborate, haute couture evening wear, the Americans showed gowns that were, in comparison, nearly bare but beautiful: a ruffle or a surprising low back was meant to carry the full weight of the audience’s attention. Givhan reminds us that haute couture is not a flippant designation; it is a serious label with strict rules and regulations overseen by the French government—much in the same way “organic” is used to designate certain foods today. Conversely, the simplicity of the American clothing highlighted not only the form of the clothes themselves, but the forms of the women wearing them. The Americans could walk with ease—or twirl if they wanted to—and they did. They spun America toward a whole new level of achievement.

The French had elaborate sets put in place behind the catwalk, each designer taking about thirty minutes to showcase wares. Cardin’s models descended from a spaceship and Yves Saint Laurent’s paraded in front of a vintage car. The Americans literally lost their sets during transit and had a hastily sketched scene of Paris as the sole, shared backdrop. In quickly choreographed six-minute intervals during which the music never ceased, the American models walked out and had fun

What became starkly clear was that these clothes were made for the contemporary woman. Clothes that moved, clothes that one could go to work in, clothes that were simple to take on and take off, clothes that were of the fast-paced time. And the American designers were also more representative of the time. Anne Klein, who launched the career of Donna Karan (creater of DKNY), was the only woman to show at Versailles. And Stephen Burrows was the only African American designer. Half of the American models were also black. This show made explicitly clear that, yes, American fashion was indeed quite distinct from the French. At least in this instant, the Americans had clearly won the day, and thirty-some years later, Givhan seems thrilled to tell the tale in all its fabulous, meticulous detail.

Voices like Givhan’s are extremely important at a time when blogs and online publishing have in some ways falsely leveled the playing field in regard to what is exceptional in any field. Ultimately, this enlargement of the public circle engaged in making distinctions of quality in regard to voices, food, clothes, et cetera is positive for cultural refinement. However, when these distinctions are made with an elementary knowledge, a sort of false expertise emerges that is absolutely deadly because it is sloppy in regard to background, context, or serious study. When everyone has a public voice and assumes the air of expertise, the media becomes flooded and the truly discerning critical voices may go unnoticed.

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Pierre Bergé, partner of Saint Laurent in both business and life beyond, remarks in his preface to Jérômine Savignon’s Yves Saint Laurent’s Studio: Mirror and Secrets: “The mirror that covers the whole wall of the studio has always played an important role. It reflects and allows for reflection.” In a time of teen models who flood Instagram with selfie after selfie, a time when a generation is being constantly called out for its narcissism and vanity, the mirror seems an apt symbol. But Bergé is interested in something these current youths are never credited with—an interest in what lies beyond the surface. He says, “We all want to know what’s on the other side, to encounter the invisible, to pierce its mystery.” And whether you believe that this we is indeed all encompassing or not, Bergé assigns what seems a Melvillian wonder to the world of fashion. His words recall Ahab’s life-swallowing obsession with the white whale: to go beyond the pasteboard mask, to glimpse that impenetrable mystery.
This question of authenticity is at the forefront when one is reading Yves Saint Laurent’s Studio: Mirror and Secrets. Published by the Pierre Bergé–Yves Saint Laurent Foundation, the book presents, if not a conflict of interests, certainly a bias at work (or at play). To assume the account offers strict historical objectivity seems foolhardy. At the same time, I don’t put much stock in allegedly objective historical texts. My favorite biographies are the ones where the writer has had a personal relationship with the subject, because there is something more genuine in this emotional connection with the human being we hope we get to know. As Virginia Woolf highlights in “A Sketch of the Past,” facts and dates do not make a person, for personality is intricate in a way the annals of history cannot hope to capture. We may be able to catch a gleam of some sense of Saint Laurent from his designs, but that notion of the man would be just that—a gleam. A faint shimmer.

What is immediately engrossing about Mirror and Secrets is the web of diverse sources that suspends Yves Saint Laurent the man like a raindrop, a delicate man who manages to shine with the dynamism of a jewel. Within the first pages, we have the voices of Jean Cocteau and John Ruskin mingling with references to Francis Bacon and Victor Hugo. Savignon, the primary author of Mirror and Secrets, sets out to place Saint Laurent firmly into the realm of the serious artist. She tells us that the designer’s studio can deliver “the power to escape from the showcase of souvenirs and into the intimate truth of human beings and objects.” Again, we see the belief that whatever vanity might be inherent in this fashionable space also possesses an unfathomable depth, that objects are something a bit more than inanimate, and that when preserved, such objects can retain something of their creator’s soul. 

The book itself is surprising: a blend of a sketchbook, photographs, and biography. True to the title, we are given glimpses of Saint Laurent’s studio. The book is compact, and throughout are scribbles of colored pencil. At a very elemental level, the book reminds the reader of color and how elemental it is to designing clothes. In many of the photos, the designer is in the posture of consideration, evaluation, tweaking, and collaborating. Revision. We see the physicality of dressmaking, an aspect of artistry that writing or even painting does not usually entail. 

What Mirror and Secrets does well is make reference to more clearly established artists and critics in the public eye, among them Jean Cocteau and John Ruskin. The aim of the book is to demystify the fashion industry, to elevate fashion to art, to incorporate the medium into the matrix of what we consider to be artistic. There is something refreshing here, in an age when reality shows are about seamstresses from Texas or Indiana who can make clothes but are certainly not always artists. There is a difference for the educated public to recognize between the competitions on Project Runway and all that is involved in creating couture. 

Ultimately, these books are about creation. There are distinctions, of course, between other forms of visual art and the clothes designed by Halston or Yves Saint Laurent, but what matters most is that these clothes were created when these men were working at the very top of their game; what matters are the distinctions between people who are really great artists. Creative people who work at the pinnacle of their genre always transcend categorization; they have a single-mindedness in which the life often serves the work instead of the work serving the life.

Reading Savignon’s description of Saint Laurent’s maison is like reading the first page of Dorian Gray, and one can easily imagine Lord Henry puffing away on an opium cigarette: “The atmosphere is Viscontian (the violence and passion of Conversation Piece), but also moves between the salon of Princess Mathilde and the boudoir of the Duchesse de Guermantes— or perhaps an opera set for Maria Callas in La Traviata.” Savignon reads this opulent aesthetic as evidence of Saint Laurent’s roots at Dior. The studio, in contrast, is stripped bare. White and beige, curtains and windows, the mirrored wall and Saint Laurent’s desk. If Bergé is correct in his preface when saying the studio is the heart of a couture house, then Saint Laurent’s heart is, if not cold, barren so that it may conceive.

A photograph in the beginning of the book shows Saint Laurent sitting at his desk. White butcher paper rolled out, white curtains, white lab coat. His hands cup and cover his face, folded in thought or prayer or remorse. He is the artist in the midst of a squall, a struggle of man against the nature of the creative act. Savignon refers to this tension as “the tragedy of creation,” a phrase that implies narrative—and the inevitability of the Fall. One imagines Saint Laurent’s mind racing, the stillness of the photo an illusion. If he strove to dress each woman in “the wonderful silence of clothing”—a phrase he coined—then that silence must have been the occasional antidote to the tumultuous process that consumes such a creator. Below the photograph is a quote by Saint Laurent that illuminates the difficulty he found inherent in the act of making art: “I think that creators react to suffering in the same way as they would resist death, replacing immortality with art.” 

Immortality was not Saint Laurent’s aim; instead, he strove for the moments of peace that would display his vision. But this devotion, this beholden-ness to the process, is what initially endeared him to Bergé and ultimately earned him the sort of fame he was not necessarily seeking. Savignon’s account makes it clear that Saint Laurent was a prodigy: a child who dressed his puppets, a teenager who was pegged as “the poet” for his palpable sensitivity, and a sketch artist who was working for Christian Dior by the age of nineteen and took over the reins when Dior died just two years later. 

Whether in film or photography or writing, Saint Laurent is always depicted as delicate, an artist with a temperament as frail as a house of cards—and as precariously balanced as that of Proust, with whom Saint Laurent felt a profound and prolonged kinship. “Highly strung children are often fragile,” says Savignon, and Saint Laurent was swiftly undone when called upon to serve in the French military during the Algerian War of Independence. Bedridden by depression in the Val de Grace hospital, Saint Laurent could only be pulled away from the abyss by Bergé, who steered his black-framed glasses away from the edge and back toward the drafting table—where he would discover both a sense of relief and a fortified sense of self from which he would erect his signature style.

What Savignon reveals is just how essential Pierre Bergé was to the success of the Yves Saint Laurent label. “Yves the creator; Pierre the strategist.” (Though both men were geniuses in their own way, with Bergé’s mind breaking the ice of the public’s eye like an arctic ship moving steadfastly through the harsh glacial terrain.) Bergé cleared space for Saint Laurent to work in his studio without worrying about life’s daily tedium and the ever-looming catastrophes of the world at large. To create, Saint Laurent sat in his white-shrouded studio among what he termed his “aesthetic ghosts,” which seem akin to creative angels ready at the pulpit. Savignon peppers spiritual language throughout the pages, forcing/reinforcing reverence with words like rite, ritual, sanctuary, faithful, the holy of holies, and revelation. She writes in a purple prose that not only causes delight but gives the reader a stained-glass-window view into the studio—a window that we discover is concrete as well as metaphoric. Saint Laurent is rendered as both devil and savior—always a wrought figure—as Savignon writes that 

a few curious workers dared to indulge in the secret rite of the dormer window. In fact, few could resist the temptation. An oeil-de-boeuf window on the workshop floor afforded a view straight into the studio, revealing the figure of the couturier “bent over the table where he drew and wrote, half-child and half-monument, so distant and so present.”

Yves Saint Laurent, a paradox of a man. Perhaps to be tormented is to live always with such tension, pulled like putty between diverse demands. Such a personality involved in such a process requires a tremendous amount of energy to put pencil to page. According to Savignon, Saint Laurent would begin with a drawing of a woman’s head, not knowing what dress would flow out from beneath it. Marguerite Duras once said about Saint Laurent, “Like a writer, every day he writes as if the first time . . . I mean that he does what we did not know we were waiting for.” Here, the artist sees an artist; process echoes process. (The genius recognized, resounding, clear.)

Clear thought so often necessitates distance. Before each of Saint Laurent’s seasons, he would travel to Marrakech to find the air of inspiration, freed from the constraints of France. His collections emerged from the darkness of his mind, brought to light with a sudden moment of illuminated clarity. “He called this the unpredictable ‘miracle of the moment.’ ” As happens consistently throughout the book, Savignon inserts a phrase of Saint Laurent’s that seems as natural as if the designer were co-authoring the pages. We learn, through this clever collage of interview quotes, that Saint Laurent referred to this miracle moment as “the line.” The line seems to serve as a divine gift, a grace, which is ever-moving into the distance in the manner of Tennyson’s horizon of knowledge: Saint Laurent, our modern, restless Odysseus, seems only to have been happy in the quest. 

Savignon herself finds the metaphor of the ship irresistible: “The couture house, with Pierre Bergé at the helm, was like a vast conspiracy where everyone was determined to ‘spare’ him.”

What is surprising is the interpretation, the translation, involved in the making of a blouse, an evening dress, a fur coat, a suit. It requires an “intimate, inside knowledge of Saint Laurent rhetoric”; it necessitates practice and study on the part of the workshop. The sketches need to be made intelligible and then given three-dimensional form. They need to be transformed into a fashion that can be consumed and digested by the public. In some ways, the workshop is akin to a room full of Shakespeare enthusiasts communing to produce a play, interpreting the writer’s work to bring The Tempest to life on the stage. Saint Laurent referred to a sketch as “a story without words.” 

Enter the mirror: Saint Laurent deems a dress a success if, when staring into the glass, he can recognize his own drawings walking toward him from the other side of the room. Recognition or rejection are the only options.

As the writer prizes the precision of language, the couturier prizes proportion and line. “Here the millimetre is the unit of measurement and the couturier’s sketch is the absolute template.” And Savignon’s aim is clear: to elevate fashion in the eyes of the reader so that all can see Saint Laurent the way Pierre Bergé had. Finally, Savignon delivers her concisely wrapped argument: “We cannot deny artist status to someone who, day after day, at the cost of such intense suffering, sacrificed everything to the construction of his work, his cathedral, and who, with a kind of folly, persisted in his quest for his ‘fundamental tone,’ offering his whole life for this goal.” For anyone who has sought to find his or her voice, this endeavor, this enterprise, will strike a chord—and the tune will be unmistakable.

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These books are about that combination of ineffable qualities that go into creative work to make an individual truly exceptional. (And, I would argue, these books are about genius; they try to do justice to these designers and their work, to unveil the mystery behind them—at least to the degree that such mystery can be unveiled.) By looking at photographs of the studios, the dresses, we can see what remains and what is tangible. We use these objects and images as gateways to glimpse and recognize an art form that for many of us is foreign, that we can only hope to better understand. 

“At once the prison and the refuge of the self-chosen recluse,” Savignon imagines, “the studio was above all the magic lair from which might flare the mental alchemy and sorcery of Saint Laurent.” And as Pierre Bergé reminds us, to tame a mystery is all we can hope for. (For most of us are not geniuses.) If we can better recognize style when we see it, if we have further honed our critical perception toward fashion, we have reached a new horizon of knowledge—and a new bias. To believe a creator is a genius is to acknowledge that there is an element of the work that we do not understand, for as with any creative or spiritual endeavor, mystery must stand next to faith.

 

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*An essay-review of 

The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made History. By Robin Givhan. New York: Flatiron Books, 2015. 320 pp. $27.99.

Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the ’70s. By Patricia Mears and Emma McClendon. New Haven: Yale University Press, in association with the Fashion Institute of Technology, 2015. 184 pp. $50.00, cloth. 

Yves Saint Laurent’s Studio: Mirror and Secrets. By Jérômine Savignon. Paris: Actes Sud/Fondation Pierre Bergé–Yves Saint Laurent, 2015. 142 pp. $24.95.

 

Laurence Ross is a New Orleans–based writer, educator, and art critic. He recently served as the Director of P.3Writes, an educational program in conjunction with U.S. Art Triennial Prospect New Orleans. His essays on arts and culture are regularly featured in Pelican Bomb, a regional publication dedicated to the Louisiana arts community, and during the summer he teaches creative nonfiction for the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth.