In a world where people dress so norm-coreingly that a wardrobe malfunction is about as close as one gets to a true sartorial scandal, and where avant garde designers have become so consistent that even their designs now seem quite obvious (to the point that the designer Rick Owens has to show private parts dangling on the Paris catwalk to create a stir), the question is what might constitute a true fashion scandal in terms of the aesthetics alone?
Once upon a time, there was such a thing as a collection causing an uproar because of the designs, and not because they revealed the body beautiful.
Yves Saint Laurent’s 1971 collection, also known as the Forties Collection, set out to explore styles inspired by wartime and the Nazi occupation of Paris.
Deemed the ugliest show in town and leading to outraged headlines, it is now the subject of a new exhibition, “Yves Saint Laurent 1971 The Scandal Collection,” at the Fondation Pierre Bergé—Yves SaintLaurent in Paris.
Curated by Olivier Saillard, the director of the Galliera Museum, the city’s leading fashion institute, it shows how this collection of 80 pieces caused such a “scandale” that it got the kind of press that would be almost unimaginable today.
The show referenced heavy makeup worn in Occupied Paris and the practical styles that came about when money and material was scarce and people had much bigger things to worry about, such as platform shoes, short draped dresses and square shoulders.
It was, as such, retro and paved the way for what we call retro today, but the Parisians who were by that time busy wearing flower power and flairs did not want to be reminded of this era in dress.
Quite unlike today, where any controversy around fashion is usually about how little a model is wearing, the controversy and outrage around “Liberation” was sourced in its politics, and what memories it evoked of wartime, the Occupation of Paris, and the privations and suffering—and post-war trauma—endured by its citizens living under the Nazis.
What apparently caused the most upset was that the designs—most famously perhaps, a black dress, peppered with red lips—did not represent typical wartime garb but more gaudy and luxe styles worn by women that collaborated with the occupiers in what one magazine described as a “horizontal way.” Think women whose heads were shaved for sleeping with the Germans.
“Saint-Laurent Truly Hideous” and “Sad reminder of the Nazi days—French press attacks Yves” read some of the press.
“What do I want? To shock people, to force them to think. What I make is very much connected to contemporary American art. Young people, they don’t have any memories,” Saint-Laurent was quoted as saying.
But he may not have been expecting quite such a strong response.
When he was asked by Elle magazine in its March edition that year what he thought of the reaction, Saint Laurent replied: “I think that even the word ‘scandal’ would not be too strong… I’m sad and flattered. Manet’s ‘Olympia’ provoked the same kind of reaction. ‘We’re being mocked’…‘It’s shameful’…People weren’t shocked so much visually as they were morally.”
Shocking the public and buyers’ sensibilities, “Liberation” also shook the fashion world out its reverence for elegance and haute couture, and sent it in a new direction.
“The ‘Liberation’ collection caused fashion to come crashing into contemporary history,” said Saillard. “It brought down the walls separating haute couture from ready to wear and relegated the terms of elegance to the terms of past consideration. The 1971 collection also marked a shift in Yves Saint Laurent’s trajectory. It was the manifesto of a designer that now wanted to be the arbiter of ambiguity.
“It was a rough draft of the maturity to come. Retrospective in its inspiration, it placed the historical exercise at the heart of the creative process…providing the carbon copy for the retro fashions that were to sweep across the second half of the 20th century.”
But Saint Laurent paid a price for his bravado, and was forced to take a break before he could present his next collection.
“I don’t care if my pleated or draped dresses evoke the 1940s for cultivated fashion people. What is important is that young girls who have never known this fashion want to wear them,” the designer said.
Leading Japanese fashion historian Akiko Fukai, the director and chief curator of the Kyoto Costume Institute, writes in her book Fashion: A History from the 18th to the 20th Century about some of the most scandalous turning points in fashion history.
Think the introduction of the miniskirt by designers like Mary Quant or mini dresses from André Courrèges, in the 1960s, to women wearing pants outside of the house. Courrèges presented an evening suit featuring trousers in his 1964 collection in Paris (although in iconography terms it was superseded by YSL’s “Le Smoking” women’s tuxedo in 1966).
In 1964 Pierre Cardin caused a stir with dresses made of geometric shapes and inorganic materials that were considered un-haute couture, and the designer took things one step further by pioneering ready-to-wear for couture houses with a collection presented in 1959, and then menswear—which had strictly been the preserve of tailors until his 1960 foray.
And one should not forget the topless bathing suit introduced by the American designer Rudi Gernreich in 1964, which caused not only major controversy in the United States after it was featured on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily, but also ushered in the era of topless nightclubs.
In the 1970s, Vivienne Westwood, fashion godmother of Punk, originated the kind of shock tactics that came to customize picture-led, tabloid-friendly fashion scandals up to the present day, including Rick Owens’s penises.
Westwood herself designed buttons to look like penises. Nostalgia of Mud, one of Westwood and former partner Malcolm McLaren’s notorious shops, introduced a shock factor in the form of scaffolding that was used to bring guests down to the floor level of their shop where there was a mud pond.
Their most famous boutique, SEX, meanwhile, was decorated with pornography and graffiti and stocked sex and fetish wear, encouraging people to wear rubber on the streets, which was rather shocking in 1974 when SEX opened. The assistant Jordan looked such a spectacle in some of this attire that she traveled in her own first-class train carriage to work, under police protection.
Into the 1980s and ’90s, Gianni Versace’s dresses sexily encased bodies (most famously Liz Hurley’s “safety-pin” dress). Alexander McQueen could also be relied upon to cause outrage and surprise, as the comprehensive Savage Beauty exhibition of his work, presently at London’s V&A museum, shows.
The kind of notoriety designers like McQueen became known for reached an ugly apotheosis in John Galliano’s firing from Dior after a rant in a bar that involved allegations of anti-Semitism.
Today, on the catwalk and red carpet, the tabloids are always primed for dresses which reveal too much, or look terrible. The blog that calls itself fashionscandal.com feasts on so-called “wardrobe malfunctions.”
Celebrities like Lady Gaga and her famous meat dress, Jennifer Lopez, and Nicki Minaj know how to tread the knife-edge of memorable and too-much.
The challenge for fashion, and celebrities eager for the front page, is that in such a seen-it-all culture how can designers and their eager high-profile models surprise or shock anyone. In a world of outrage, deliberate outrageousness can seem banal, yet on they go: more slashing, more display, more flashbulbs. But, as “Liberation” itself showed, a fashion scandal doesn’t need skin. In 1971, culture and memory proved a far more devastating cocktail.