De Young: Yves Saint Laurent, plus a little newsflash

So I had this grand time-table in my head for the museumist, where I posted a review or article at least once a week and quickly became famous in the blogosphere and then I got a multi-million dollar book deal and built the world’s grandest tree house (in the shape of a geodesic dome, of course), and adopted loads of puppies and ate tacos for dinner every day.  Clearly, this has not come to fruition, and I apologize for the posting delay.  (Not for the geodesic dome tree house, though – one day it will be mine!)  Here, though, without further ado, is my review of the De Young’s special retrospective on legendary fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.

Okay, one ado: this review is remarkably apt, given that I’m moving to Chicago tomorrow to start an internship at the Chicago History Museum working in their costume collection.  The collection is the nation’s second largest of it’s kind and has over 50,000 objects.  So if you’re find yourself in the Windy City, look me up – maybe I can sneak you into the back to take a peak at a 100 year old Worth gown.  I’ll also be continuing with The Museumist, but the focus will be on Chicago museums, not SF.  I’ll miss your fair coastline and foggy days, San Francisco Bay Area, but have no fear – I’ll be back to visit.  After all, the Academy of Sciences just reopened, and I can’t stay away from that crocodile pit!  But enough about me – on to the review!

For my first real exhibit review on The Museumist I decided to combine my newer love, museum exhibits, with a time-tested favorite: pretty clothes that I can’t afford.  Hence the review of the de Young’s current special exhibit: Yves Saint Laurent.

The Yves Saint Laurent show opened on November 1 at the de Young in San Francisco.  Mounted in collaboration with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and with help from the Fondation Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent , it is intended to serve as a retrospective of the famed designer’s legendary work and influence.

So I’m probably in the minority here, but I love text boxes in museums.  You know, the mounted boards with the exhibit copy on them that tell you what you’re looking at and why it’s important.   I like the big ones that sit at the beginning of each section of any exhibit, explaining what pulls all the pieces together.  Sure, text boxes run the risk of over-explaining and thus limiting the breadth of learning that a person can experience.  I maintain, though, that a well-written text box can provide a sense of the theme, idea, or even abstract concept that the curator was drawing from when they assembled a specific section without destroying a visitor’s ability to draw their own ideas from the display.   I guess I just enjoy being informed.  I’m usually not expert enough on any subject being exhibited that I don’t mind being talked down to a bit in exchange for really great information.   And that, I think is my main frustration with the otherwise stellar YSL exhibit at the de Young – it just wasn’t informative enough.

Yes, fashion is exciting.  And I love looking at sumptuous fabrics and intriguing designs.  But wasn’t there more to YSL than just superior draping?  Why devote an entire special installation to his work if there isn’t something that raises it above even the most superior couturiers?

The YSL exhibit touches on the way the designer related to the changing social atmosphere of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.  It explores, to a limited degree, how he designed for a “modern” sort of woman, using a funny anecdote about Nan Kemper’s visit to a restaurant in Paris.  She was wearing a new pantsuit designed by Yves Saint Laurent, and when the maitre d’ saw she was wearing pants to a formal meal he reacted poorly.  But really, who can blame him? Pants at dinner? So low class.  So Kemper, in the way of the daring YSL woman (so sayeth the text box) simply took off her pants and turned the tunic into severe miniskirt.

The anecdote, coupled with examples of pantsuits and items that the daring Ms. Kemper actually wore, is a fun way to show what the “YSL Woman” was thinking and doing, but what about what YSL meant for fashion in general?  Or how his work informed later designers, what sort of changes he wrought?  The exhibit discussed YSL’s beginnings at Dior and how he worked within the New Look and later worked to defy it, but isn’t there more?

Yves Saint Laurent was French and was born and raised in Algeria.  As a white designer he drew a great deal from influences in his childhood, incorporating “ethnic” designs and creating pieces inspired both by his childhood in Africa and his travels abroad as an adult.  In the section titled “Imaginary Voyages,” the exhibit shows runway lines inspired by the ethnic and national garbs of a variety of different regions in the world.   Beautiful stuff, all of it, and fascinating to look at, but the accompanying text box reads that rather than traveling the world, Yves Saint Laurent liked to look at pictures of foreign locations to stimulate his imagination, so that they would “grant him freedom to evoke visions according to his own whim.”  Hm.  This is interesting.  A designer uses pictures of foreign places in order to incorporate what HE perceives as their cultural heritage into his extraordinarily expensive clothes that will primarily be sold to affluent white women.  There is a world of interesting and complex ideas to explore here, but the exhibit refuses to approach them.

Yes, this is a retrospective, but that doesn’t mean it has to be fawning.  The “Imaginary Voyages” section provided a perfect opportunity to engage with some of the more complicated aspects of Yves Saint Laurent career and legacy.   I would have loved to see the exhibit explore issues surrounding cultural exploitation and appropriation, the role that primitivism played in YSL’s work, the question of exoticizing “the other” in fashion, an industry that is already so laden with questions regarding objectification and the role of women and minorities.  That the exhibit chose to gloss over that by simply discussing YSL’s grand imagination and vision for his collections is a shame.

Also, a related criticism: all the mannequins in the exhibit where white, except the ones in the section of “Imaginary Voyages” devoted to Africa.  They were blue.  Obviously the question of race is a complicated and important one in fashion, from the discussion of the models themselves to issues surrounding cultural exploitation. Did the exhibit designers really think that making the mannequins in the African garb section a different color wouldn’t stand out?  And if they didn’t want to make racial commentary (as their avoidance of YSL’s complicated relationship to race and nationality might lead one to believe), than why make such a clear and sharp differentiation between the white mannequins in the rest of the exhibit and the blue ones in that one section of “Imaginary Voyages?”  It was a confusing and unnecessary distraction.

A museum is not just a collection of text boxes, so we must discuss the layout and design of the exhibit.    The layout was clean and easy to navigate, with distinct sections.  The lighting wasn’t great – if I’m looking at clothes, I want to really be able to see them, and the dim lighting made that difficult.  So much of the beauty of a well-made piece comes from its seamless design and execution, and how can a visitor take that in if they can’t see the details of the object?  This is all the more true for YSL’s more luxurious pieces, some of which are practically weighted down with piles of sequins, crystals, and rhinestones.   Why display a veritable treasure trove of shiny things if you don’t get to see them sparkle in the light?

The different sections are organized according to certain themes, and they generally work well.  One illustrates the relationship between the designer’s sketches and his final products, pointing out that with YSL the idea and the actual garment are almost identical.  The clothes were lined up, with the sketches mounted on the wall at the end of the section.  The idea is a fun one, but I think it might have been even more effective if the sketches were displayed next to each piece as opposed to each grouped separately.

I guess that sort of criticism is really what bothered me about the YSL exhibit: it’s a solid show that could have been an exciting, critical, and intellectual retrospective if the curators had made just a few small but important changes.  A more critical approach to the subject himself, a deeper interest in the role of fashion in society and history, and some small design changes would have taken the YSL show from solidly good to absolutely fantastic.

2 responses to “De Young: Yves Saint Laurent, plus a little newsflash

  1. One of my favorite museum experiences was the Matisse exhibit at the NC Museum of Art. The exhibit had “adult” text boxes as well as “kid” text boxes, which were interactive and way more fun and interesting than the adult ones. Eg., “What creature in the painting looks most like you? Which one does your friend look like?”

  2. I would love that. “Which couture gown looks like you? Which one does your friend look like?”

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