Culture | Pushing the limits

Yves Saint Laurent inverts the rules of women’s vogue

It seems that the recently deceased always get the most attention – not that native Algerian Yves Saint Laurent doesn’t deserve it. Shortly after his “Love” exhibition opened on May 29 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the acclaimed designer passed away at the age of 71. The exhibition showcases Saint Laurent’s notable 40-year career of designing women’s wear.

The beginning of Yves’ career was zealous: he began to work for Christian Dior at 17, and became head of the House of Dior at 21. Saint Laurent borrowed concepts from men’s fashion and transformed them into innovative women’s clothing, pioneering many women’s androgynous clothing essentials – calling them trends or fashions would be a travesty – such as the blazer, the pantsuit, the safari look and, most well-known, le smoking, or tuxedo suit. Innovative not only stylistically, but socially and racially, the French fashion designer was also the first to have black models in haute couture runway shows. His influence can even be seen in this year’s July issue of Italian Vogue, which exclusively featured black models.

The display of the collection is credited to Florence Müller, guest curator for the exhibition and a fashion historian from Saint Laurent’s home country of France. The exhibition focuses intensely on Saint Laurent’s wide-ranging influences – musical, literary, and artistic. He makes tributes to Van Gogh, Matisse, Braque, Wilde, Lady Macbeth, and Marilyn Monroe, among others. “Love” also showcases various media, from vintage photographs of Saint Laurent and his thick-framed eyeglasses to video clips of runway shows and taped interviews. The use of outside media sources reflects Saint Laurent’s diversity of inspirations and allows the museum-goer to understand Saint Laurent’s vision and direction outside of fabrics and dresses alone.

It’s clear that Saint Laurent distinguished himself by incorporating familiar stylistic elements into previously unfamiliar places, creating unprecedented vogues. Common throughout the exhibition is the array of contrasting, almost clashing colours in Saint Laurent’s designs. He creates astonishing embellishments with sequins, as well as alluring fabrics such as suede, wool, and tweed. A few pieces take on shocking volume, using poufs, ruffles, and capes, and many of his male-inspired designs are embellished with ruffles and bows to accentuate femininity.

Though much of the clothing in the exhibit pushes the limits of the imagination, some of his pantsuits, tunics, and ruffled shirts still possess tremendous wearability in everyday life. It may be surprising that pieces made 30 or 40 years ago could continue to be relevant to today’s fashion culture, but Saint Laurent’s designs remain timeless. The collection includes Lycra and Lurex lamé pantyhose reminiscent of American Apparel leggings, as well as the prim-and-proper high-waisted skirts that are currently ubiquitous.

Yves Saint Laurent retired in 2002, but the “Love” exhibition delicately brings to life his diverse collection of work. He was a designer directly involved not only with the transformation of women’s wear, but also with the liberation of women in modern society. Newly departed artists may get all the press, but Yves Saint Laurent certainly deserves it.

Yves Saint Laurent’s “Love” Exhibition is open until September 28 at the Montreal Museum for Fine Arts. For more information visit

Images by Sasha Plotnikova