YVES SAINT LAURENT – MOROCCAN MEMORIES & IMAGINARY TRAVELS

YSL copie

The rise of globalized and widely diffused sartorial trends coincides in the middle of the 20th century with the development of prêt-à-porter. Prêt-à-porter, as opposed to Haute Couture, involves distinct market behaviours, being priced more accessibly and adapted to casual dressing. One designer especially involved in the popularization of prêt-à-porter is Yves Saint-Laurent, “one of the most influential and celebrated designers in modern fashion history” (Knox, 2011, 62) who “revolutionized the haute couture tradition” (Bergé, 2008, 12). Saint Laurent was influenced by the zeitgeist of his time: the coming together of hippies, the sexual revolution, and feminist movements. His designs were known for their inextricable modern style and embracement of femininity. If it’s often said that if “Chanel liberated women”, then “Saint-Laurent [gave] them power” (Bergé 2008, 11). He achieved such statements by incorporating masculine dress in his designs and revealing the naked female body, propelling women into modernity: “he extended the realm of aesthetics to embrace social issues, using in a certain way the approach of a moralist”.

Such involvement in women’s social blooming and empowerment could be extended to his attempt to incorporate Otherness and foreign codes in his collections, “pushing the boundaries of sartorial design” (Bergé 2008, 12). 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 and 70s collections, inspired by his travel experiences, clothes became sites of narratives. These ethnic references were concurrent with his first sojourn in Marrakech in 1966: the use of the veil and kaftan, turban and capes evoked typical Moroccan ways of dressing he observed while traveling. A retrospective on his design stemming from his close relationship with Morocco, Yves Saint Laurent et le Maroc, was organized in 2010 at Jardin Majorelle in Marrakesh. It clearly established a parallel between his travel experiences and design influences: “Yves Saint Laurent had always claimed that Morocco influenced his creations and it is clear that the Moroccans’ rich way of dressing did not elude him. He knew how to appropriate the djellaba, the jabador, the burnous, the tarbouch… to create his very own unique silhouettes. »[1]

This notion of appropriation is central and speaks directly to the transformation that concomitantly occurred in the fashion sphere of the 1960s and 70.

“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)

Still, one encounters a paradox when retracing Sanit 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’s cultural appropriation of Russian, Moroccan, Chinese and Spanish traditional costumes for the Western clientele is embedded in a process of acculturation, defined as “a process in which members of one cultural group adopt the beliefs and behaviours of another group”. This social phenomenon can be reciprocal and “the dominant group also adopts patterns typical of the minority group” [2]. But without any appreciation of the complexity of the foreign culture, this process turns into assimilation and utilizes these differences to extend the scope of Western cultural domination. The imaginary travels of Yves Saint Laurent and his simplistic depictions of traditional foreign costumes are intrinsically othering and objectifying. He is positioning the Other’s culture in opposition to Western Parisian fashion and thus reproduces colonialist patterns.

Indirectly, these collections fuel a certain desire for the exotic, empowering the Western wearer/viewer because “the culture [is] objectified in the gaze by virtue of distancing, detaching and objectifying character” (Urry, 1990). Constructing this desire deploys the myth, the stereotypes “that resonat[e] with deep cultural meanings of landscapes, [people] and national identity” (Selwyn 1996 & Crouch and Lubben, 9). Learning about the Other allows one to build one’s own sense of identity, and wearing clothing referring to an ethnicity that is not our own is strongly performative, a performance that allows one to become.

But on the other hand, this aesthetic glorification of Otherness profoundly challenged traditional Haute Couture and created a breach that allowed later designers to push further this attempt of iconoclasm. The early steps taken by Yves Saint Laurent permitted the permeability of the high fashion membrane, echoing the social transformations that would further explode in the 1980s. Without Yves Saint Laurent, French designer Jean Paul Gaultier could never have achieved the Haute Couture revolution he led.

Selected items:

  • Morocco: Fall Winter 1969 & Spring Summer 1991
  • Africa, Spring Summer 1967
  • Russia, Fall Winter 1976-77
  • China, Fall Winter 1977-78
  • Spain, Fall Winter 1979-80

[1] Fondation YSL, Yves Saint Laurent and Morocco, curated by Pierre Bergé, http://www.fondation-pb-ysl.net/en/YSL-and-Morocco-504.html)

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