The World of Yves Saint Laurent: Androgyny, Exoticism, and ScandalS

A major retrospective of Yves Saint Laurent's work opened this week in Denver. It covers everything from the designer's early years at Christian Dior, to his appropriation of elements of men's wear and fascination with androgyny, to his long-standing relationships with muses like Betty Catroux, Catherine Deneuve, and Iman. But if you, like me, can't make it to the Denver Art Museum — which is the only U.S. museum to host the exhibit, which originated at the Petit Palais in Paris — well, the photos are nearly as good.

The World of Yves Saint Laurent: Androgyny, Exoticism, and ScandalS

As well as a section devoted to Saint Laurent's famous "Le Smoking" tuxedo for women. The incorporation of men's tailoring into garments for women was a trope the designer would return to again and again in his career.

The World of Yves Saint Laurent: Androgyny, Exoticism, and ScandalS

From left: bordeaux wool jersey jumpsuit, Yves Saint Laurent haute couture collection Fall-Winter 1969; tuxedo with pants, Yves Saint Laurent haute couture collection Fall-Winter 1966; tuxedo with short skirt, Yves Saint Laurent haute couture collection Spring-Summer 1982.

All images © Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, Paris / Photo A. Guirkinger.

The World of Yves Saint Laurent: Androgyny, Exoticism, and ScandalS

Yves Saint Laurent's relationship to the "exotic" — Russia, Spain, Morocco, India, China, Japan, and the other cultures he (not always entirely un-problematically) mined for inspiration — is also a theme explored in the show.

The World of Yves Saint Laurent: Androgyny, Exoticism, and ScandalS

So is the designer's relationship with artists and writers (like Guillaume Apollinaire, whose poetry he once embroidered on a collection, and the famous dresses that were inspired by Piet Mondrian).

From left: long, draped gold lamé evening dress, Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche collection Fall-Winter 1991; short cocktail dress in ecru wool jersey encrusted with black, red, yellow and blue in tribute to Piet Mondrian, Yves Saint Laurent haute couture collection Fall-Winter 1965.

All images © Foundation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, Paris / Photo A. Guirkinger.

The World of Yves Saint Laurent: Androgyny, Exoticism, and ScandalS

To say nothing of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Tom Wesselmann and Henri Matisse.

From left: short cocktail dress in purple-and- black wool jersey with encrusted "face" motif in tribute to Tom Wesselmann, Yves Saint Laurent haute couture collection Fall-Winter 1966; long evening dress in black velvet and moiré faille with multicolored satin appliqué leaves inspired by Henri Matisse, Yves Saint Laurent haute couture collection Fall-Winter 1980; evening dress in navy blue wool jersey with encrusted "silhouette" motif in tribute to Tom Wesselmann, Yves Saint Laurent haute couture collection Fall-Winter 1966.

All images © Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, Paris / Photo A. Guirkinger.

The World of Yves Saint Laurent: Androgyny, Exoticism, and ScandalS

Also included are numerous garments from his famous — and very controversial — spring-summer collection of 1971. Saint Laurent was one of the first designers to hearken back to the styles of the 1940s — hardly an innocent reference in the French context. Critics savaged him for making the period of privation that was World War II look kinda fun, with day-glo colored fur chubbies and slinky dresses; part of the censure came because the French women who were able to dress well during the war were mostly either prostitutes or collaborators horizontales (like Saint Laurent's fashion industry colleague Coco Chanel). One incensed French journalist wrote that it was "arrogant" for Saint Laurent "to think that, like sheep penned in a concentration camp, we would applaud when we saw good taste sent to the slaughter, elegance consigned to a mass grave, glamour dispatched to the ovens." Because if an oblique reference to the war years is tasteless in a fashion collection, a series of incredibly overt ones to the Holocaust itself in a fashion column is just peachy.

Nonetheless, in this collection Saint Laurent — who, born in 1936, didn't have his own strong memories of the 40s — anticipated the retro trend of the '70s.

The World of Yves Saint Laurent: Androgyny, Exoticism, and ScandalS

From left: short green fox fur evening coat, Yves Saint Laurent haute couture collection Spring-Summer 1971; long evening ensemble with domino coat in yellow faille de chine and velvet sheath dress with black lace, Yves Saint Laurent haute couture collection Fall-Winter 1983; Torero ensemble with pink lamé bolero and knickerbockers in bright pink satin and taffeta blouse, Yves Saint Laurent haute couture collection Fall-Winter 1979.

All images © Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, Paris / Photo A. Guirkinger.

The World of Yves Saint Laurent: Androgyny, Exoticism, and ScandalS

There are even examples of Saint Laurent's work from the early Dior years. Saint Laurent was just 21 years old in 1958 when he found himself the head of the house of Christian Dior following his former boss's death of a heart attack. He was the youngest couturier in the world. His time at the house was not happy, however: in 1960 Saint Laurent was conscripted into the French army to serve in the Algerian war. Dior could have opposed the conscription, but chose instead to use it as a means to rid itself of its young designer. Saint Laurent, who was described as a gentle and somewhat fragile young man — not to mention gay — was brutally hazed during by other soldiers basic training and ended up at a military psychiatric hospital where he was fed a diet of psychoactive drugs and subjected to electroshock therapy. It was there that he received the news that he'd been officially fired by Dior.

From left: short evening ensemble with black ribbed jersey tunic and black embossed leather skirt, Yves Saint Laurent haute couture collection Fall-Winter 1990; Short evening dress in white silver-sequined tulle, Yves Saint Laurent "Trapeze" haute couture collection Spring-Summer 1958; Belle de Jour dress with black-and-white silk satin collar and cuffs, Yves Saint Laurent Spring-Summer 1967.

All images © Fondation Pierre Bergé- Yves Saint Laurent, Paris / Photo A. Guirkinger.

The World of Yves Saint Laurent: Androgyny, Exoticism, and ScandalS

From left: long evening dress in black sequined lace with pink satin ribbon bows,Yves Saint Laurent haute couture collection Fall-Winter 1990; long black velvet sheath dress with "Paris rose" satin bow, Yves Saint Laurent "Paris" haute couture collection Fall-Winter 1983.

All images © Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, Paris / Photo A. Guirkinger.

The World of Yves Saint Laurent: Androgyny, Exoticism, and ScandalS

And there are garments from Saint Laurent's last-ever haute couture collection, which was presented in 2002. Saint Laurent died in 2008. His longtime partner, Pierre Bergé, liquidated the formidable collection of art and antiques the two had amassed during their lives. He netted nearly half a billion dollars, which went to an AIDS charity.

From left: long evening ensemble with emerald and sable velvet bolero, peacock blue-and-gold chiffon and Prussian blue Ottoman skirt, Yves Saint Laurent haute couture collection Fall- Winter 1976; Long evening dress in yellow draped chiffon with blue gazer cape lined with green silk, Yves Saint Laurent haute couture collection Spring-Summer 2002; short evening dress in black velvet and orange moiré with multicolored appliqué patchwork in tribute to Pablo Picasso, Yves Saint Laurent haute couture collection Fall-Winter 1979.

All images © Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, Paris / Photo A. Guirkinger.

The World of Yves Saint Laurent: Androgyny, Exoticism, and ScandalS