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Now at FIT: YSL, Halston, and Fashion's '70s Obsession

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Despite fashion's sudden, fervent obsession with all things '70s (just take a look at literally any spring campaign) the timing of the Museum at FIT's new exhibit—dedicated to exploring the works of the decade's most iconic designers, Yves Saint Laurent and Halston—was entirely coincidental. "It was really fortuitous," explains assistant curator Emma McClendon. "It was incredibly freaky to us when we started opening magazine after magazine and everything was like, 'Trend: The 70's Are Back!' And so we were like, 'We'll take it!'"

Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the 70s, which opens today, compares two designers at the heights of the careers, working on opposite ends of the Atlantic, and wielding equal influence over 1970's fashion. It's the first time an exhibit has sought to juxtapose their work, and the show puts the clothes—not the Studio 54 parties or YSL and Halston's sometimes-congruent social circles—at the forefront.

Everything in the exhibit comes straight from the Museum at FIT's own archives, and many of the Yves Saint Laurent pieces were donated over the years by the designer's former friends and clients, including Lauren Bacall and Marina Schiano. "We had all of these amazing Halston pieces, and we knew we wanted to do a Halston project," McClendon explains, "But what we ultimately decided was, 'Why not juxtapose him with the other defining, iconic designer of the 1970's, Yves Saint Laurent?' Because it had never been done before, and we started finding all these themes and examples in their work that were so similar."

The room, located in the museum's basement, is organized into four outer platforms for pieces that highlight the designer's similarities, then three inner glass-encased platforms, each dedicated to a certain theme that both YSL and Halston drew on but in different ways.

The first thing viewers will see upon entering is one of the most iconic '70s trends, menswear, with a 1982 iteration of YSL's Le Smoking tuxedo paired with Halston's famous ultrasuede shirtdress. "If people know nothing about these two designers, they know these. They're working within the same menswear theme, but doing it very differently. Also, they're the pieces that made them both famous."

The next section focuses on each designer's tendency to borrow from other cultures, with YSL's ornate embellishments—plucked from traditional Russian and Chinese dress—that ultimately led him to popularize the '70s folkloric, peasant look, as well as Halston's appropriation of non-Western construction techniques like the sarong, the caftan, and the sari.

The third and last glass platform explores Yves Saint Laurent and Halston's fascination with other eras, including YSL's 1940's-inspired couture in 1971, a collection so critically panned that it drove some to speculate that he was a Nazi sympathizer for showing war-era fashions in Paris. Once he introduced the styles to his Rive Gauche ready-to-wear collection, however, younger women "went wild for it," and editor Eugenia Sheppard had to travel to Paris to apologize to Saint Laurent in person. Also included in this section are Halston's 1930's-inspired self-tie evening dresses, YSL's voluminous Dior-esque gowns as the 70's bled into the 80's, and a YSL marabou chubby that wouldn't look out of place on Hedi Slimane's Saint Laurent runway today.

"That's something that we really wanted people to take away from this," McClendon explains, "A lot of people, when they think of the '70s, they go 'ugh!' They immediately think of bellbottoms, crazy platforms, polyester, and wing-tipped collars, but what we want to show is that the 1970's was a period that really defined how we dress today, and it also defined how the fashion hierarchy is organized within the modern fashion conglomerate. When you come in, you're not looking at things that are jokey and funny, but you're looking at elegant clothing that is incredibly contemporary, and that continues to be revisited on the runways—particularly at the moment."

Museum at FIT

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