Yves Saint Laurent in Marrakech, 1960s


“On each street corner in Marrakech, you encounter groups that are impressive in their intensity, their relief. Men and women, where pink, blue, green, and violet caftans mingle. These groups look as if they have been drawn and painted, that are reminiscent of sketched by Delacroix, and it is surprising to say that they are, in fact, merely an improvisation of life”.  (Yves Saint Laurent, Bergé 2008, 9)

His personal background strongly inspired this tendency, being originally a “pied noir” from Algeria and later in his life a part-time resident of Morocco. Elements of traditional North African costumes were thus a part of his most celebrated collections, mixed with classical forms: “[…] among the tiered shantung tunic ensembles and gently fitted suits, there were harbingers of the firework to come. Maharajah tunics, whimsical turbans, and babushka headscarf hats suggested the magical voyage that the designer would transport his clients on – to Morocco, Spain, Russia, China, Africa – through the subsequent decade […]” (Bergé 2008, 17). Such international references allowed Saint Laurent to step away from elegant conservatism and deliver groundbreaking designs to his clients, pushing further the boundaries of Haute Couture and bringing modernity to the forefront. He translated his visual experiences in North Africa onto garments with startlingly unexpected combinations of colour, turning outfits into canvases. This made him “the master colorist of his generation” (Bergé 2008, 18): “His discovery of Morocco, where he acquired his first house, in Marrakech- El Hanch (the Serpent)- in 1968, introduced a whole new color palette into his work”. (Bergé 2008, 18)

By introducing typical North African ways of dressing in his 1960s, 70s and 80s collections inspired by his travel experiences, clothes became sites of narratives.

Selected items are contrasted and compared with traditional costumes from the early modern period to draw similarities between Yves Saint Laurent’s designs and the foreign cultures he encountered, physically or fantasized.

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Yves Saint Laurent, African dress, Spring Summer 1967
Yves Saint Laurent, African dress, Spring Summer 1967
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Yves Saint Laurent, African dress, Spring Summer 1967
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Yves Saint Laurent, African dress, Spring Summer 1967
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Yves Saint Laurent, African dress, Spring Summer 1967
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Yves Saint Laurent, planche de colletion, Spring Summer 1967


Yves Saint Laurent, sketch, Spring Summer 1967

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Yves Saint Laurent Spring Summer 1991


Yves Saint Laurent, sketch, 1991

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Yves Saint Laurent, Spring Summer 1989, silk, MET


Yves Saint Laurent, Evening ensemble, Fall Winter 1969

Traditional Moroccan Costume – Kaftan
morocco 20th

Coat, Morocco, early 20th century, silk, metal, MET


But one encounters a paradox when retracing Saint Laurent’s influence in his ethnic collections, as he clearly stated his position of armchair tourist: “In the end, the most wonderful voyage is the one that one takes around one’s room” “I exercise my imagination on the lands that I do not know. I hate traveling, For example, if I read a book about India, with photographs, or about Egypt, where I have never been, my imagination runs wild. This is how I take my most wonderful trips. Putting my imagination to work is valuable to be” (Saint Laurent, 1995). One could also argue that YSL’s appropriation of foreign costumes (North Africa, China, Russia and Spain) through imaginary travels was a means to simplify, stereotype and ultimately objectify Otherness. Colonialism was itself vey intrinsic to his background and to the social and historical framework he was working within. He was enacting and creating from a fundamentally White Eurocentric male perspective and perpetuating a vision of the foreign based on a Western conception of culture. By reproducing cultural codes and attempting to be accurate without actively visiting and comprehending that culture lead to the reinforcement of stereotypes. Just like in tourism, individual’s “perception of particular places [and cultures] are indebted to […] place-myths”, i.e. “stereotypes and clichés associated with particular location” (Crouch & Lubben, 2004, 5). By using cuts, textiles and patterns from exotic influences, YSL’s garments become a synecdoche of a travel experience, a fragment of a full understanding of ethnic identities.


Yves Saint Laurent, Evening ensemble, Fall-Winter 1976-77, silk, glass and metallic thread

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Yves Saint Laurent, Evening dresses, Fall-Winter 1976-77

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Yves Saint Laurent, Russian dresses, Fall-Winter 1976-77

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Yves Saint Laurent, Evening ensemble, Fall-Winter 1976-77

Traditional Russian Costumes

Green wool coat worn by Emperor Peter II, 1727-1730, The Moscow Kremlin Museums.


Coachman’s jacket and boots from the Imperial Court, 1881-1917, The Moscow Kremlin Museums.

russia 1840-80

Russian dress, 1840-80, silk, metal, linen, MET


Russian ensemble, third quarter 17th–19th century, linen, cotton, wool, pigment, metal, silk, glass, mother-of-pearl, MET


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Yves Saint Laurent, Chinese ensemble, Fall-Winter 1977-78

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Yves Saint Laurent, Chinese ensembles, Fall-Winter 1977-78


Yves Saint Laurent, Chinese ensemble sketch, Fall-Winter 1977-78

Traditional Chinese Costumes
Woman's Robe with %22Longevity%22 Medallions china 19th

Woman’s Chinese Robe with “Longevity” Medallions, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), 19th century, Silk and metallic thread tapestry (kesi), MET

china coat 20th

Chinese Coat, first half 20th century, silk


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Yves Saint Laurent, Toreador ensemble of gold lamé and black velvet, Fall Winter 1979-80


Yves Saint Laurent, Toreador ensemble, Fall Winter 1979-80


Yves Saint Laurent, sketch, Fall Winter 1979-80

Traditional Spanish Costumes
toreador suit 19th

Spanish toreador suit by J. Uriarte, fourth quarter 19th century, silk, metal, metallic, glass, linen, MET

toreador suit spain 19th

Spanish toreador suit, 19th century, silk, metal thread, wool, MET

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Spanish toreador suit, 19th century, silk, metal thread, wool, MET

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