YSL: Fetishism is Eternal

Following the first UK exhibition of the work of Yves Saint Laurent, Rosa Walling-Wefelmeyer examines the language used to describe the fashion designer and his work, and wonders whether this is all about making sales

, 12 January 2016

YSLDid you go to the highly publicised and much praised YSL: Style is Eternal exhibition at the Bowes Museum, County Durham? What, you haven’t even heard of it? What sort of person are you?

A pretty sensible one, it turns out. But if, like me, you did go and thought it was totally naff and yet oddly unnerving, then I hope you can find some comfort in what follows.

Firstly, can we provincial folk please just express our gratitude that little County Durham got to host the UK’s first ever exhibition of the life and work of Yves Saint Laurent? All those video snippets, photographs and mannequins wearing his designs have really given our dispirited communities something to reflect on.

It should be noted that I won’t be talking much here about Yves Saint Laurent, the French fashion designer who died in 2008. However, if you’re interested in yet another genius white man biopic, by all means look him up, watch and prepare to learn nothing.

In fact, I’m more interested in Saint Laurent’s promoted image and brand, along with YSL, or Saint Laurent Paris (SLP) as it is now known, the fashion empire established by Yves and his partner Pierre Bergé. Although it was Bergé’s foundation and the Bowes that collaborated for the exhibition, no doubt everyone benefits quite considerably from the museum’s giant interactive 3-D advert.

This idea of an elusive eternal ‘style’ is what the nonsense is all about: these are not just clothes, these are YSL clothes

Inevitably, there seems to have been no question of the exhibition attempting a more in-depth, even critical look at the designer and his legacy. And it is indeed hard to imagine the SLP business world’s current $1.21 billion revenue when you’re gawping at images of Yves’ smiling face amongst the bright fabrics of his Marrakesh home or listening to his enthused praise of Proust.

But, to me, everything about the exhibition screams business and bourgeois.

Let’s start with the staff: all super smart and sporting little branded YSL badges like shop assistants. And, what about the £12.50 entry fee, the special queue set aside for YSL visitors and the hourly viewing slots? Nothing says exciting, exclusive and well-worth-it like the message practically shouted at you when you step through the door; there’s high demand, so it must be good!

And this idea of an elusive eternal ‘style’ is what the nonsense is all about: these are not just clothes; these are YSL clothes. They represent the romantic life of Yves, Parisian style, the class, the je ne sais quoi, the unattainable, now attainable, though at a high price. Who cares if nothing in the actual design or production process suggests these associations? The brand YSL now manages it on name alone. So, seriously, if Bergé’s foundation is all about supporting “educational projects”, why not use the fashion collection to teach Commodity Fetishism Level 1?

Now, if all this talk of Yves, Bergé, YSL and SLP is confusing, don’t worry. I’m still not 100% sure either, because the nitty-gritty stuff like money and business relationships is not properly discussed anywhere in the exhibition. No wonder Vogue has sycophantically described it as perfect for “those wistful for a time when fashion was seriously, fabulously free”.

Are we really meant to believe that the intimacy suggested by the exhibition’s black and white movies of Yves designing and then dressing his first models corresponds to the reality of that fashion world?

So what actually makes a good museum exhibition?

How about contextualisation or placing the exhibits within their context of emergence (which, incidentally, is not “seriously, fabulously free”)? For example, here’s how I might introduce the Masculin/Féminin design section:

In a world of fashion where men still seemed to design and dictate the creative wear of women, Yves was considered by some to be a breath of fresh air when he first gained fame in the 1950s. Indeed, his blending of societal codes of ‘masculine’ clothing with ‘feminine’ dress offered upper/middle-class women the socially-approved space to begin exploring clothing typically associated with men.

This would tentatively place the work of Yves within the gendered relations of the era and industry. It doesn’t patronise the reader, but assumes and encourages an attitude of critical thinking instead. For goodness sake, there’s hardly a whiff of Feminist or Marxist theory in the suggestion.

Do we get anything like that in fact? Nope. Instead, we get marketing drivel like “…he gave women confidence, audacity and power while still preserving their femininity” and, worse still, “If Chanel gave women their freedom, it was Saint Laurent who empowered them.” It definitely lends weight to the argument that feminist discourse is often appropriated to sell stuff.

And, speaking of empowerment, are we really meant to believe that the intimacy suggested by the exhibition’s black and white movies of Yves designing and then dressing his first models corresponds to the reality of that fashion world? Also, why is Yves’ insistence on working with an actual model rather than a mannequin hailed as demonstrative of a respectful interactive alliance? As if you could honestly imagine a scenario where a model wearing one of the famous Yves’ artistic designs suggests that the bow on her left shoulder should be removed, with his conceding, ‘What a great idea, Marie; thanks for that. I’ll just scrap my amateur design, shall I?’

Who knows, maybe he did, but I’m dammed if I’ll accept that on black and white nostalgia alone.

But, wait for it… YSL were the first fashion house to employ women of colour as models. The badly placed screen, which dominates the entrance and is blocked every time someone tries to enter or – in my case – escape the exhibition, shows us a series of catwalk clips as testament to that statement. (And, as a sidepoint, when were these filmed? Can we, for the love of shoes, please have more obvious dates or something?)

What I see is not the free and varied expression of many, but the ‘style’ of individual men acted out on the bodies of slim cisgendered non-disabled white women

Anyway, it’s interesting to note just how models of colour were and are still employed by the world of fashion – sorry, if that’s a dirty word. I mean, ‘style’. Certainly, the clips show a few models of colour, but wearing a collection of ‘ethnic’ and ‘exotic’ designs – all feathers and animal prints.

Also, without proper detailed contextualisation of the design and production process, the Van Gogh-inspired jackets and Pop Art dresses on display seem like the work of just one man’s imagination. Everyone keeps banging on about Yves’ ability to make the art of dress accessible to all. If that’s actually true, then the exhibition has hardly followed in his foot-steps; indeed, it seems to be appropriating the inaccessibility of ‘high art’ rather than opening doors or blurring distinctions.

So you’ll have to excuse me if it just doesn’t strike me as empowering to create and maintain rather boring boundaries of dress which seem to have more to do with affirming the status quo than any innovation or challenge. Certainly, what I see at both the exhibition and continue to see in the fashion world today is not the free and varied expression of many, but the ‘style’ of individual men acted out on the bodies of slim cisgendered non-disabled white women.

And I’m not sure that’s something to celebrate.

Finally, what about this ‘style’ the exhibition blurb keeps twittering on about? All fetishism and associations aside, if, as the dictionary suggests, the word ‘style’ refers to the way in which an action is carried out, then I can say that the exhibition YSL: Style is Eternal certainly has that. It is uniquely naff, but predictably problematic.

[Image is a photograph of a collection of faceless white mannequins modelling Yves Saint Laurent dresses. The dresses are very colourful and the eye is drawn to the centre dress, which looks very much like Mondrian’s Tableau paintings. The photo was taken from their pages about the exhibition, is titled “Art & its influences on Yves Saint Laurent’s designs” and is copyright of Claire Collinson.]

Rosa Walling-Wefelmeyer lives and studies in Durham. She tweets Rosa_WallWefel

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