YSL's Liberation of the Female Wardrobe

Throughout the 1960s and forward, fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent revolutionized the fashion world by challenging its conventions and limitations. In all of his work, Saint Laurent aspired to design the wardrobe of the modern woman. In doing so, the designer created stylized variations of traditional work clothes, “propelling them into the sphere of hate couture and ready-to-wear.” This idea and goal of creating the wardrobe of the modern woman had always been at the heart of Saint Laurent’s work.

This driving motivation began when the designer noticed that a traditional men’s wardrobe consisted of basic shapes and pieces that could be worn to “project his own personality and his own dignity.” Seeing that this was the case for men, he noted: “I’ve always wanted to give women the protection of that sort of basic wardrobe – protection from ridicule, freedom to be themselves. It pains me physically to see a woman victimized, rendered pathetic, by fashion.”

 Over the course of his career, Yves Saint Laurent innovated the luxury fashion system with the goal of making luxurious, glamorous clothing increasingly accessible to women of all walks of life. In addition, by designing women’s garments typically associated with the male wardrobe such as the tuxedo, suit, and safari jacket, the designer liberated the modern woman’s wardrobe. 

Ready to Wear Revolution

          In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent revolutionized the luxury fashion system by creating a business model in which “high fashion” became increasing accessible. Yves Saint Laurent founded his eponymous label in 1961 in Paris, France. At this point in time, women could only purchase luxury garments from various couture houses. These garments were made-to-measure and only accessible to a certain socioeconomic class, as they were extremely expensive. This was until 1966 when Saint Laurent introduced his “Saint Laurent Rive Gauche” line. This line was the first instance of luxury prêt-à-porter or ready-to-wear clothing. In explaining his reasoning behind the creation of the label, Saint Laurent stated: “In the sixties, when it was clear that a great world of interesting women could not afford couture, I began doing my Rive Gauche pret-a-porter.” The designer responded to a gap in the market by making more affordable, high fashion garments. In doing so, he revolutionized the luxury fashion system and created a new category of luxury garments.

          Accompanying the introduction of the line, Saint Laurent also opened his Rive Gauche store in 1966 in the student-dominated area of the Left Bank of the Seine in Paris. At its debut, customers would wait in line for up to three hours to shop the store. Within weeks of its opening, “it was clear Rive Gauche was the new sanctum of Paris youth culture.” The creation of the Rive Gauche line “forged the social dimensions” of Saint Laurent’s work and established the beginnings of a more democratic, accessible high fashion system. Challenging the established, exclusive fashion system, Saint Laurent made luxury, high fashion goods more accessible to countless modern women.

Yves Saint Laurent’s Rive Gauche Storefront, 1966.

Le Smoking

          Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking, a feminized take on a tuxedo, challenged the norms of women’s dress and further liberated the female wardrobe. In the early to mid-20th century, at a traditional evening event, it was typical for women to wear a long dress and for men to wear a tail coat or a tuxedo. This tuxedo, called a smoking in French, was a style of jacket invented in England in the 19th century. Inspired by this garment, Saint Laurent sought to create a feminized take to create a new staple of the modern women’s wardrobe. Yves Saint Laurent debuted the first smoking ensemble in his Autumn/Winter 1966 collection. The original version featured “straight pants, a white organdy shirt with a jabot, a floppy necktie, a satin belt, and a long jacket with a feminine close-fitting cut.” The first Le Smoking ensemble was created as a haute couture piece; however, in the same year, a ready-to-wear version debuted at the newly opened Rive Gauche store. The pieces were extremely sought after, and accounts document customers fighting over the garments.

Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking, 1966.

          From 1966 to his retirement in 2002, Saint Laurent would riff on his original design and explore the wide array of design possibilities for his tuxedo-inspired concept. For example, in this exploration, he would retain only a feature or two of the original concept such as the “satin trim on the outer seam of the pants, the bow tie, the jacket’s satin lining, or the satin belt, and gave free reign to his imagination in the other elements.” In addition, Saint Laurent playfully explored a plethora of variations on the tuxedo’s components creating variations with shorts, knickerbockers, skirts, dresses, jumpsuits, pea jackets, safari jackets, and kimonos. Thus Saint Laurent was able to take a staple of the male wardrobe and transform it into a women’s garment that was “infinitely renewable.”

          Since its debut, the Le Smoking outfit has become an icon of modern women’s fashion. For example, the ensemble has been seen on countless fashion icons since its release in 1966. Such icons include French musician Françoise Hardy, who took the outfit to the United States and “created a sensation” at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in 1966. Moreover, icons such as the Nicaraguan actress and human rights advocate Bianca Jagger and French actress Catherine Deneuve are known for sporting Le Smoking. In fact, for her 1971 wedding to Mick Jagger of Rolling Stones fame, Bianca Jagger famously wore a white Yves Saint Laurent Le Smoking jacket with nothing underneath. More recently, stars such as the American actress Angelina Jolie, British actress Emma Watson, and American actress Jennifer Connelly have sported Le Smoking ensembles to various red carpet events.

Bianca Jagger wearing a Le Smoking jacket for her wedding, 1971.

The Pantsuit

          Yves Saint Laurent also liberated the modern woman’s dress code in his popularization of the women’s pantsuit. In his Summer 1967 collection, Saint Laurent debuted his take on the pantsuit or tailleur pantalon. In the 1960s and prior, women were commonly forbidden to wear pants “both in schools and in many firms – and not only in France but even in the United States.”  

Yves Saint Laurent pantsuit, 1967.

          Historically, pants had already made appearances in women’s fashion as early as the 1910s. During this time, French couture designer Paul Poiret introduced his Harem Pants. These garments were heavily inspired by Oriental styles and had a loose, free flowing fit. It is important to note that Poiret’s Harem Pants were largely inaccessible due to their steep price. This inaccessibility and obscurity kept the design away from the eyes and closets of the public. In the 1930s, pants that bear a greater resemblance to men’s versions were introduced. Marcel Rochas, a French fashion designer, is given credit for the first pairing of a women’s suit jacket with pants in 1932 when he created a matching set of wool trousers and jacket with padded shoulders. In addition, Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli created a two-piece wool pantsuit reminiscent of men’s styles in 1939. 

Poiret Harem Pants, 1911.

Schiaparelli wool pantsuit, 1939.

          The aforementioned designers were certainly outliers in the fashion industry. As noted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the 1930s, “Only the most unconventional designer would offer a straightforward pantsuit, and only a fearless woman would wear it.” Some of these “fearless women” included the German actress and singer Marlene Dietrich and the American actress Katharine Hepburn. In particular, in the 1930 film Morocco, Marlene Dietrich appears in a scene where she dresses as a man (wearing a tuxedo) and kisses a woman on the mouth. At the time, the scene, which featured a same sex kiss and a notion of cross-dressing, was seen as quite scandalous. In this particular case, the tuxedo only served as a costume in which the actress assumed the identity of a man. In other word, the tuxedo was not reformatted for women’s wear.

Marlene Dietrich wearing a suit jacket with trousers in Morocco, 1930.

Katharine Hepburn wearing a suit jacket with trousers, 1939.

Despite the fact that notable women were wearing pantsuits, they were continually deemed unacceptable for everyday wear. This was the case until Saint Laurent debuted his version of the pantsuit and “made its use acceptable at any time of day.” With the introduction of Saint Laurent’s pantsuit, it was no longer the case of a women in a man’s suit, but rather a woman in a woman’s suit.

When designing his first take on the pantsuit, the designer stated: “I want to find a uniform for women that’s equivalent to the men’s jacket.” The design made its debut in 1967 and “was cut in a striped wool gabardine and worn with a shirt and black tie, accentuating its masculine origin. Saint Laurent explored many variations on the design by sampling elements from masculine and feminine codes of dress. For example, from men’s clothing, “he kept the tweed fabrics, gabardines, and woolens, sharply notched collars, structured shoulders.” On the other hand, from women’s clothing, “he used chiffons and silk satin for the blouse, jewelry, scarves worn around the neck or as sashes around the waist, and bright feminine colors.”

Riffing on traditional menswear suits, Yves Saint Laurent challenged the norms of gendered dress. Prior to his introduction of the pantsuit, it was unacceptable for women to wear pants, and in the years following his design, it became a norm. In short, by introducing his take on the women’s pantsuit, Yves Saint Laurent revolutionized the fashion world and liberated to modern woman’s wardrobe.

Upon its release, Saint Laurent’s pantsuit received a great deal of critical acclaim and became of wardrobe staple for many fashion icons. For instance, Women’s Wear Daily announced: “Saint Laurent’s new Vestsuits in men’s wear fabrics are the sensation of the Paris season.” In addition, according to the Petit Palais, “American journalists and department stores showed unbridled enthusiasm for the men’s-style suit when it came out.” 

Moreover, Yves Saint Laurent’s pantsuit became immortalized in a number of iconic photographs. The most notable of these was shot by Helmut Newton for Vogue Paris in 1975. The image captures Dutch model Vibeke Bergeron posing in the middle of rue Aubriot in Paris wearing a pinstripe pantsuit with a tie-neck blouse in a scene reminiscent of film noir. When reminiscing about the shoot in a later interview, Bergeron noted, “I never wanted any of the clothes I wore until I put on that Saint Laurent suit. It felt good and I felt that I looked fantastic. I felt edgy, but I also felt beautiful.” In addition, Bergeron’s androgynous look in the photograph further challenges codes and conventions surrounding gendered dress that Saint Laurent sought to break with his designs. The model’s form, hairstyle, and masculine suit do not overtly declare her gender and do not subscribe to traditional ideas of femininity. In having such an image associated with the brand, Saint Laurent’s furthered his goal of pushing traditional gendered boundaries.

Vibeke Bergeron in a Yves Saint Laurent pantsuit shot by Helmut Newton for Vogue Paris, 1975.

Furthermore, Yves Saint Laurent’s pantsuit rose to prominence as the result of its association with many fashion icons. Such icons include French musician Françoise Hardy, Jane Birkin, the French musician, actress, model, and muse known for her effortless, chic style, and Bianca Jagger. In addition, the pantsuit became synonymous as a symbol of power for women, as it has been worn by countless business women and politicians that challenge the male-centric attitude of the past. Yves Saint Laurent’s pantsuit acted as a symbolic equalizer of the sexes – no longer could a garment signify whether its wearer was a male or female.

Françoise Hardy sporting a Yves Saint Laurent pantsuit. 

Jane Birkin sporting a Yves Saint Laurent pantsuit.

Bianca Jagger sporting a Yves Saint Laurent pantsuit.

The Safari Jacket

          In 1966, 1967, and 1968, Yves Saint Laurent debuted variations on a men’s safari jacket adapted for women; in doing so, he further liberated women’s dress codes. In the Summer 1966 collection, Yves Saint Laurent debuted his first safari inspired look. The ensemble consisted of an ocelot fur jacket, a shirt decorated with patch pockets and shoulder tabs, a colonial style helmet, and leggings. In the Summer 1967 collection, he further explored this safari theme when he created a fusion of African art and traditional explorer’s garb. In this collection was a safari jacket made of beige cotton fabric. The jacket was also accented with shoulder tabs and four flapped patch pockets. In addition, Saint Laurent designed a trench coat in the same vein as the safari jacket that featured large plated pockets and presented with lace-up African-style sandals. In 1968, the designer released his now iconic safari jacket. The design was heavily inspired by safari jackets commonly worn by westerners in Africa. These jackets were beige in color to mitigate the dirty-ing effects of sand and dust. In addition, the light fabric and color of the garment kept the wearer comfortable in the extreme desert heat. Jackets such as this were also worn by British Army personnel stationed in Africa and by the German Africa Korps.

Yves Saint Laurent women’s safari jacket, 1968. 

          The jacket had already seen success in the male wardrobe throughout the 1930s. During this period, Ernest Hemingway became a notable wearer of the garment.

Ernest Hemingway donning a safari jacket. 

          In addition, the safari jacket saw pop culture exposure in numerous films throughout the 1940s and 1950s in which the jacket “was the costume of explores in exotic and mysterious lands.” For example, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Madeleine Carroll wore safari jackets in the 1940 film Safari. In addition, Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward donned safari jackets in a film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjario in 1952. Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, and Grace Kelly also sported the jackets in the 1953 film Mogambo. Despite that fact that women in this film wore safari jackets, the garment was still very much a costume and no different from a men’s jacket. Saint Laurent, likely inspired by these points of reference, worked to adapt the traditionally masculine jacket into a feminine garment. In riffing on an African safari jacket, Yves Saint Laurent adapted yet another garment from the traditional men’s wardrobe. The safari jacket blurred the lines between a “masculine” and “feminine” garment, and in its creation, the designer further pushed boundaries of gendered dress.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Madeleine Carroll in Safari, 1940. 

Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, 1952.

Grace Kelly and Clark Gable in Mogambo, 1953.

          Preserved in numerous iconic photos, the Yves Saint Laurent safari jacket has become synonymous with modern fashion. For example, the jacket was immortalized in a 1968 Vogue spread starring German model Veruschka. Shot by Franco Rubartelli in the Central African Republic, the spread pictured the model posing as a “sensual huntress” in the African brush. Another iconic photo depicts Yves Saint Laurent, himself, surrounded by icon, model, and muse Betty Catroux and muse and fashion designer Loulou de la Falaise at the opening of the brand’s Rive Gauche store in London in 1969.

Veruschka in Vogue, 1968. 

Betty Catroux, Yves Saint Laurent, and Loulou de la Falaise, 1969.

Ultimately, Yves Saint Laurent made it his mission to innovate the luxury fashion system with the intention of making luxurious, glamorous clothing increasingly accessible to women of all walks of life. In addition, designing garments typically associated with the male wardrobe such as the tuxedo, suit, and safari jacket for women, the designer liberated the modern woman’s wardrobe. Saint Laurent said it best when he was asked about the style of the modern woman. He stated: “I invented its pasts, I gave it a future and it will endure well after my death.” In his long career, Saint Laurent, did indeed, create the wardrobe of the modern women and revolutionized the history of fashion by doing so.

Damian M.


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