New York

Yves Saint Laurent

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Like so many who have come to be identified with arch-sophistication, Yves Saint Laurent is not only French but a true provincial, born and raised in what was still the colony of Algeria. It may not seem surprising that one who left a sunny tropic full of shopkeepers for the city of lights and shopkeepers should wish to shield himself from the pecuniary side of things. The decades of publicity preceding this exhibition, however, and the literature accompanying it, including “A Collage of Inspiration,” written and graphically orchestrated for the catalogue by Saint Laurent’s business partner Pierre Bergé, would have us accept the eponymous YSL as the spiritual leader of an empire of merchandise.

The man who may accurately claim to have been the first to reconcile the pantsuit with the maitre d’ is also quite stuck on ruffles. See-through blouses and peek-a-boo bottoms were soon followed by a collection of evening clothes in the style of the Empress Eugènie. Mood swings also seem to pervade the personal decor of this notoriously frail-nerved creator, undone “for life” by school. When Saint Laurent’s principal rival, Karl Lagerfeld, redid his Paris residence from Art Deco to dix-huitième, one simply knew it had to be because Deco had hit a high just as it was becoming overdone. When we read that Lagerfeld’s Monte Carlo apartment was put together entirely by Memphis, the clunk-lectic Milan design group, or that his Rome pied-à-terre features highlights of modern furniture by the slightly overlooked, we can assume that the proprietor is involved in the fundamentally editorial activity of teasing and beating trends. With Saint Laurent, it’s altogether another matter. He disdains the Total Look. We have seen him at home in pictures, awash in orientalisms, and in his Francopop study surrounded by Claude Lalanne’s sheep seats. Now we see him lounging on a Deco lounge, and now again in his Directoire-style office at a desk that, we are informed, “once belonged to his ancestor, a French notary who wrote the marriage contract for Napoleon and Josephine.” The ancestor’s portrait, we are further told, “is visible in the mirror behind Saint Laurent.”

Saint Laurent assembles his couture collections in quick seasonal frenzies and his achievement reflects these episodes of bingeing. The Duchesse de Guermantes is accounted for, as is the Shakespearean courtier. Lines from Jean Cocteau become embroidery. “Mondrian,” “Pop Art,” and “Picasso” are all titles of various collections since 1965, but isolated incarnations from the history of portraiture—a “Matisse” evening dress of blue-and-white ruffled taffeta (Fall/Winter, 1981–82), “Velázquez” costumes for a bridal party (Fall/Winter, 1976–77)—crop up promiscuously. A show-stopping “African” series made its debut in the Spring/Summer collection of 1967, with full-length, mini, and midriff-baring dresses in seamstress-stopping materials like wooden beads and raffia; their colonial counterpart, the enduring “Safari” jacket, was introduced the following summer. The late ’70s brought Russian, Spanish, and Chinese motifs. The look of these clothes is by and large self-explanatory. One might add that they look best in reproduction or at a distance, that they appeal to the eye and quite emphatically not to the touch, that they are stagy.

This invisible barrier or fourth wall is elemental to Saint Laurent’s more “wearable” and more vernacular designs: those from collections presented between 1958 and 1961 under the Christian Dior label, for day wear in general, and, quintessentially, in the “mannish” styles. It is in this last category—the many evening outfits modeled after men’s formal uniforms that Saint Laurent has produced since 1966, and the countless sharply tailored suits—that he is most distinctive. These are the most urbane, the chic-est clothes he has made, and somehow, because of the severity of their cut, the boulevardishness of their presence, they seem patterned in his own image. They are his Orlandos.

Chic, or more specifically Parisian chic, is the highest criterion that is here applicable. Saint Laurent is too splashy or else too influenced by the street to be as elegant as his mentor Dior, or as his great predecessor Balenciaga. He is too uxorious of culture to pull off witticisms with Schiaparelli’s zest and inherent disrespectfulness. And while sometimes risqué, his clothes, like the cancan, are something other than sexy. They tell the wearer not who she is, but what situation she may command; they are not engaged or particularly conversational. They are brilliant social armature. In a show that included outfits for predeposed royals, the most regal clothes to be seen were designed for the writer Marguerite Yourcenar to wear for her induction into the Académie Française. The most spectacular clothes, champagne-bubbly visions in fur, feathers, and sequins, were designed to be worn onstage by Zizi Jeanmaire, the Frenchest dancer alive today. We have in these two women the spectrum of Saint Laurent’s affinities, we have French culture dressed very well for the occasion.

Saint Laurent was among the first couturiers to spin off into ready-to-wear and cosmetics and therein his fortune, if not his fame. Yet only two items on view, a vinyl raincoat and a silk jersey evening dress, were from Rive Gauche, his diffusion line. This seems odd—a little as though Andy Warhol were suddenly to hush-hush his multiples. No mention of shopkeepers in the catalogue either, though there are plenty of testimonials, admiring notes from Paloma Picasso-Lopez, Marella Agnelli, and Catherine Deneuve, and a long color “photo essay” by Duane Michels. Paintings were used to decorate the walls of the museum’s rather decrepit costume rooms, and they were on the whole very well dressed too.

Lisa Liebmann