What Was So Scandalous About YSL’s Scandal Show?

A look from YSL’s spring 1971 couture collection. Photo: Courtesy Fondation Pierre Berge - Yves Saint Laurent

Throughout his four decades in fashion, Yves Saint Laurent’s Libération collection, unveiled on January 29, 1971, is widely seen as one of the designer’s most pivotal — and controversial — moments. Now, it’s the focus of an exhibition at the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent in Paris, running through July 19.

From our seen-it-all point of view today, the designer’s spring 1971 show seems startlingly innocuous. But at the time, it was regarded as tactless, impudent, and uncouth. Of course, the barometer has shifted as to what shocks in fashion — looking at the collection’s knee-length skirts, cropped fur jackets, and boxy suits with wide pleated pants today, it’s easy to think, Where’s the fire? Yet, at the time, the show’s aesthetic broke away from the pristine elegance of couture and charged headlong into the streets — into the dawning world of prêt-à-porter. It set the tone for a new kind of dress code, one characterized by comfort and modernity — not to mention a soupçon of shock value. 

Through the collection, Saint Laurent shifted from his past: He sought to distance himself from the androgynous style he’d been credited with in the previous decade. He said he was inspired by the 1940s, with retro references like oversize pointy lapels and polka-dotted dresses — which critics felt was in particularly poor taste. The war was still a fresh trauma — many people present at the show had lived through it, though not Saint Laurent himself, who grew up in Algeria — and here was a foreign-born designer unnervingly turning wartime into a fashion statement.

With garish colors, sequined swirls, and dresses adorned with clownish fake flowers, the collection was a sharp departure from traditional French style. “It was the first time the word kitsch was published in relation to fashion,” says Olivier Saillard, the curator of the exhibition and director of Paris’s Palais Galliera fashion museum. The looks in the collection were extremely incongruous: There were turbans, rhinestone combs, high-waisted trousers, and crêpe de soie fabrics with Greco-Roman scenes, like Heracles surrounded by warriors or a banquet attributed to the painter Brygos. Overall, Saillard says, it was an “alternative to good taste that jostled the visual values of the time.” In fact, Saillard compares the designer to the filmmaker Luis Buñuel for mocking the politically correct values of the bourgeoisie.

Paloma Picasso, then 22, was another source of inspiration for the collection. Saint Laurent sewed sequined lips onto dresses, which were a nod to her: “She told me she used to put Fanta on her lips,” said Saillard, “and would scrounge around the flea markets for old lipsticks, which were hard to come by in wartime.” The red lips and red nails sported throughout may seem typical now, but at the time, they were unequivocally associated with the prostitutes clustered in the raunchier neighborhoods of Paris. (People in the posh salons of Paris were, naturally, quite horrified.)

The collection was immediately and universally — panned. “People were violently against it, and thought it was hideous,” Saillard says. Some of the harshest critiques are printed on the walls of the exhibition right at the entrance: “Saint-Laurent Receives Boos for Collection”; “Yves Collection Called ‘Bitchy’”; “Saint-Laurent: Truly Hideous.” (Moreover, the collection generated the then-equivalent of bottomless think pieces: “There was press coverage about the extremity of the press’s reactions,” Saillard noted.) Only Vogue Italia embraced it, with a spread by Bob Richardson featuring a sultry Anjelica Huston in the clothes.

Saint Laurent dismissed critics by gearing the collection toward a younger clientele, free of the burdens of the past. In March 1971, he told French Vogue: “Young people, they don’t have any memories.” He elaborated in Elle that month: “Haute couture secretes nothing but nostalgia and restrictions. Like an old woman.” He also aligned himself with artists — he compared his collection to Manet’s Olympia, for knowingly soliciting such controversy. Despite the press’s reactions, the collection represented a turning point for the designer: “He was embraced in the streets,” Saillard says. “La rue lui a donné raison.” That is to say: The streets vindicated him.

Despite the press drubbing the collection received, women adopted its most provocative pieces; bad taste was valorized as good taste. Haute couture wasn’t the irrefutable gauge of notable fashion anymore; it had trickled down, and had become something much bolder.

In many ways, Saint Laurent’s current designer, Hedi Slimane, has followed in the footsteps of the namesake founder. Slimane’s first few collections received reviews like the following, from Cathy Horyn, then the fashion critic at the New York Times: “The collection was a nice but frozen vision of a bohemian chick at the Chateau Marmont.”  But Slimane’s pulling from the past, and privileging the youthful zeitgeist, is precisely what Saint Laurent did. And the public has responded: Stores have sold out of  Slimane’s collections.

Scandal in fashion, however, is pretty much over — at least in Saillard’s mind. He says that now, “it’s all three-minute buzz — but then we forget about it.” He cites Rick Owens’s fall 2015 menswear collection, in which we see the models’ “zizis” (penises), but points out that that reverberates little beyond sensationalism. Saillard sees today’s fashion world as all about theatricality, but the clothes themselves are never very scandalous. He notes that when the 1971 collection walked, it was in a simple salon with no décor, with six alternating models. The clothes were what created the scandal, not any form of external showmanship.

The exhibition includes a video clip aired in February 1971, on the French program Journal télévisé de 20h. In it, girls wearing Saint Laurent’s collection play pool and go to the arcade, loafing about in their swingy garb and red lips. The voice-over states: “Il faut changée d’état d’esprit avant de changer de vêtements.” (You have to change your mind-set before changing your clothes.) That sentiment might as well have been uttered by YSL himself.

What Was So Scandalous About YSL’s Scandal Show?