Yves Saint Laurent and Halston: Fashioning the 70's
Yves St Laurent courtesy of The Museum at FIT
Last night, I got the chance to attend the opening of Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the 70s at The Museum at FIT through the Couture Council. I dragged my friend Maggie along, although don't think dragged is really the right word here. Since going out for us usually involves like, jeans and tees and leather jackets in divey Brooklyn bars, or maybe jeans and tees and a blazer in cocktail bars, it was fun to get a little more dressed up and wear something that like, if not especially formal, wasn't something I've spilled four am nachos on. Maybe I'm speaking for myself on that one.
The obvious choice here was a jumpsuit, which is a train I jumped on way too late in my life - although I will now take literally any excuse to wear one. Actually, full disclosure, I only own one, but I'm a fan of pairing two things together so it looks like a jumpsuit? Whatever. There's something so tomboy-easy-sexy about them, at least in my opinion.
Formalwear - or whatever, more formal than day to day wear - is a really interesting peek into personal style. Because, you know, at my age, it's really so far removed from the day to day and from your identity. There aren't a ton of chances to be even a little fancier than normal, so it's something we have fewer concrete boundaries and distinct personal preferences for. There are a lot of rules about formality level and social acceptance placed on it, so I think a lot of times you end up putting on "whatever works" and wearing a costume for the evening. But there's also a certain element of aspiration to it - it's at once a chance to be "the best version of yourself" while also some other, more glamorous self. And so in a lot of ways, I think it's at least somewhat telling who we choose to be when we want to be a better version of ourselves.
The twist is that rules of formality are still very much intertwined with rules of femininity, and so a lot of our dressed up looks end up playing up a more traditional femininity: dresses cut to create soft curves and flatter shapes. Of course, this is something designs have been playing off of and rejecting or cleverly reinterpreting for years. Because it's so one-off, formal wear is a chance to really play with design and maybe create something that's very exaggerated or speaks very loudly in one direction. And so I think in a lot of ways you're seeing an interesting intersection between the idealized self and personal brands of femininity.
Speaking personally, I'm not into menswear because I like to look or feel masculine. Quite the contrary. Actually, there's something I find so sensual about it.The outfit I feel sexiest in is a silk popover and a tuxedo blazer, but it's not because I feel like a dude. In fact I feel very feminine, and maybe that lies in the social contrast. Is it the undercurrent of literal sexuality (wearing a dude's shirt post-coitus), or something about the balance of power that's shifted when a woman adopts a masculine costume? Or maybe it's just the casual ease of the girl who "doesn't care."
I want to imagine that it's neither of these things, that there's something that's actually just aesthetically very beautiful and sexy about the drape of silk and the cut of a man's shirt against a woman's body. It's a feminine look, but not quite young or girly. It's not intended to conceal female features, but rather, present them differently. It's a brand of femininity that's very familiar to me. I wasn't raised to see, say, large breasts as symbolic of femininity. Not that they aren't, but it's not something I feel the need to emphasize in order to feel feminine. And so it makes sense to me to play to an aesthetic that's rather lithe, androgynous, boyish. A mans shirt, mostly unbuttoned, emphasizes that I am a card carrying member of the Itty Bitty Titty Commitee. And that's my version of being female, so that's my version of femininity. And that's what I feel sexiest in.
So, naturally, my favorite part of the exhibit was the Yves Saint Laurent "Le Smoking," a groundbreaking women's tuxedo. Although I can't speak to Saint Laurent's motivations, one of the things the exhibit highlighted was his explorations of costume - historical, exotic, and otherwise - and it makes you wonder if "le smoking" is in some ways a costume, a woman playing as man, and if that's where some of the cheeky fun comes from. Certainly other pieces - I'm thinking of a pin-striped gangster's suit - exude a sort of costume-y playfulness.
But "le smoking" strikes me differently. YSL is famous for taking a garment traditionally cut to emphasize an image of masculinity - broad, square shoulders, straight lines - and making it unabashedly, beautifully, feminine. "Le Smoking" is no longer a man's garment, but completely a woman's. It creates this very beautiful, sleek, gamine femininity that I find super cool. I don't know, I could talk about this for hours. There's this certain relaxed elegance balanced with just a touch of irreverence. Again, there's something just really very aesthetically appealing about those lines re-interpreted on a woman's body. What creates a rigid box on a man creates something that's very streamlined, but not rigid, on a woman. And the effect is stunning.
At the same time, I'm tempted to reject the notion of femininity as a concept all together. It's not that I subscribe to the notion that women should necessarily dress to ~flatter~ their hips and breasts and ass in a traditional way. Nor do I believe that there's some sort of formulaic system that makes certain garments universally aesthetically "better" than others. Does "femininity" as we define it require playing to those attributes? I think we might agree that it doesn't require a specific parameter, but it leaves open the door of what it does mean, and leaves behind a troubling suggestion that there might be a certain essential, innate "femaleness" that we're all calling forth in our own special way. Nah. I think we're finally coming to a time when notions of sex and gender and sexuality are very much open for interpretation, and so I'm hesitant to lean heavily on it here. Is it your personal version of being female, intersected with society's notion of what a female presenting person should be? It's a working definition, but I'm not sure if it ultimately tells us anything.
Anyways. Go to the exhibit, though, it's really absolutely fantastic. The 70's were such a really fun, playful time for clothing. I knew Halston and YSL were incredibly influential, but it was striking to see in person how many of the motifs and ideas they innovated are so powerful and present to this day.
28th and 7th, Tuesdays - Saturdays, free admission, no excuses.
PS I wrote this all on my fucking iPad, do I get a sticker?
PPS More pics from the evening, if you're interested: