FIT’s Latest Exhibition, ‘YSL + Halston’ Is a Fashionable Look at the 1970s

FIT's tightly curated exhibition is a beautiful and informative look at the two designers who helped shape the look of the modern woman in the 1970s.

Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, smoking evening suit made of black wool and satin. Photo: courtesy of the Museum at FIT

Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, smoking evening suit made of black wool and satin. (Photo: Courtesy of the Museum at FIT)

When Yves Saint Laurent told WWD “All around us the Establishment is crumbling” in 1970, his words not only defined the style and the business of fashion during the 70s, but is also apropos to today where style comes from the streets, not the design house. Both Halston and Saint Laurent understood that fashion was changing, and their contributions to developing the uniform of the modern woman is explored at FIT’s “Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the 70s.”

Curators Patricia Mears and Emma McClendon approached this exhibition with three specific thematic elements—menswear, exoticism, and historicism—in order to highlight the themes that defined both the decade and designers’ aesthetics, as well as their diametrically opposed interpretations of those themes. Says McClendon, “we really wanted to put the clothes front and center…to really show that these two men were great clothing creators”.

Saint Laurent is more explicit than Halston in his design interpretations, with the creation of his famous “le smoking” tuxedo jacket that embraced menswear tailoring to fit the female body. He also explored the depths of exotic dress with a “Spanish” flamenco style fuchsia evening gown and Russian peasant red, white, and blue dress made of cotton. HIstoricism with Saint Laurent was always overt, never subtle. Belle Epoque mutton sleeves on a purple taffeta gown are an over-dramatic overture to the past. An avid admirer of Chanel, his interpretations of the 20s and 30s, with a subtle A-line mid-length skirt and a fur-lined knit sweater, are a very embellished homage to the woman who helped develop the French taste for casual clothes.

Halston’s version of these three thematic elements is decidedly more low-key. An ultrasuede shirtwaist dress evokes the ideas behind a classic men’s skirt, while a gold lurex tunic and pants ensemble resemble a Kurti (an Indian tunic), and Halston took the idea of the 1930s and applied it the the way he cuts his dresses—on the bias to create fluidity—such as in an off-white silk pajama set.

(left) Halston, dress, printed knit cotton, c.1976, USA, The Museum at FIT, 91.41.1, Gift of Ms. Gayle Osman; (right) Yves Saint Laurent, dress, printed silk chiffon, 1971, France, The Museum at FIT, 86.126.14, Gift of Lauren Bacall. Photo: Courtesy of the Museum at FIT

From left: Halston, dress, printed knit cotton, c.1976, USA, The Museum at FIT, 91.41.1, Gift of Ms. Gayle Osman; Yves Saint Laurent, dress, printed silk chiffon, 1971, France, The Museum at FIT, 86.126.14, Gift of Lauren Bacall. (Photo: Courtesy of the Museum at FIT)

One of the biggest problems the FIT Museum has to contend with is the small size of their exhibition space. However, in this exhibition, the clothes were tightly curated and seamlessly integrated.

Upon walking into the room, you are immediately struck by how minimalist the space looks.  As McClendon explains: “because we’re only working with objects from our own collection, it really gave us a lot of time to interact with the objects and be very precise in what we were going to pick.” Gleaming white semicircular platforms lining the room support clusters of mannequins sporting clothes that embrace the similarities between the designers. The white floor’s sheen is almost mirror-like, adding to the hushed, high-end boutique atmosphere. Clear life-size boxes span the center of the room, each housing pieces representing either menswear, exoticism, or historicism. The spareness of the space made one thing clear: the clarity of the presentation. It was a breath of fresh air, especially when one considers the chaos that was last season’s “Dance & Fashion” exhibition.

By simulating the modernism of the clothes with the spareness of the decor, the curators have created a space to allow the viewer to really understand the clothing of Yves Saint Laurent and Halston; two men who helped forge the path toward the image of the fashionable woman of today. Says McClendon, “they really changed not only how fashion is worn by fashionable women but also how the fashion system is structured… this [was a] very exciting moment in fashion.”

FIT’s Latest Exhibition, ‘YSL + Halston’ Is a Fashionable Look at the 1970s