A new exhibition presented by musée Yves Saint Laurent in Paris under the direction of Anne Dressen

Throughout the ages, mankind has always pondered the symbolic and visual values of transparency, a concept that encompasses more than mere visibility. This enduring fascination manifests across several disciplines, notably in architecture, as shown by the Niccolò Paganini Auditorium by Renzo Piano: an authentic monument to transparency, where the central music hall is delimited with two ample glass façades, creating a visual "telescope" in which interior and exterior blend seamlessly. Likewise, the allure of transparency finds expressive resonance in the Surrealist Portrait of Mae West by Salvador Dalí, where the face of the famous American actress dematerializes, allowing the architectural backdrop to emerge, and encouraging viewers to perceive the world anew. This pursuit for immateriality also extends, intriguingly, to sculpture, as in the eighteenth-century Veiled Christ of the Sansevero Chapel in Naples, in which the sculptor Giuseppe Sanmartino challenges the granitic opacity of marble, enshrouding the reclining figure of Jesus with an ethereal, intangible veil that delicately covers his anatomy without concealing it.

Yet, when we turn to the world of fashion, the concept of transparency seems antithetical. The paradox arises: how can a domain centered on concealment reconcile with transparency? After all, clothing primarily serves to cover the body, providing warmth and privacy. Yet, the brilliance of certain designers lies in their capacity to defy norms, whether social or sartorial: among these luminaries stands Yves Saint Laurent.


All images ©Filippo Esposito

The significance of transparency as a privileged artistic expression for the great French couturier is highlighted in a new exhibition presented by musée Yves Saint Laurent in Paris under the direction of Anne Dressen. From now until August 25, 2024, forty works by the French designer will be on view in the museum's refined Second Empire premises on avenue Marceau, once the very atelier where Yves Saint Laurent crafted his masterpieces.

Saint Laurent himself greets visitors at the exhibition's entrance, which opens with the famous shot taken by Jeanloup Sieff in which the French designer poses nude to advertise his first eau de toilette for men, Pour Homme. Stepping into the first room, visitors are enveloped in Saint Laurent's evocative exploration of materials, rendered with the hoarse delicacy of Cigaline®, the luminous stiffness of organza, or the whisper-soft allure of lace and tulle. Adorning the space are five dresses: notably the youthful smoking from the 1968 spring-summer collection commands attention, its transparent blouse crafted from Cigaline® juxtaposed with Bermuda shorts, challenging prevailing social norms of femininity. Equally notable is the "Je suis Belle" evening ensemble from the fall-winter 1988 collection, with a transparent silk chiffon blouse paired with a wool crepe skirt emblazoned with the embroidered phrase "Je suis belle" (I am pretty), encapsulating Saint Laurent's celebration of feminine allure and empowerment.


The exhibition also aims to higlight the intricate interplay between Yves Saint Laurent and the world of art, wherein influences from great masters such as Piet Mondrian, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, and Pierre Bonnard are seamlessly woven into the fabric of his creations. Francisco Goya, the 18th-century Spanish painter, was in particular an essential point of reference for Saint Laurent in his exploration of transparency in fashion. Drawing inspiration from Goya's enigmatic portraits of veiled mayas, Saint Laurent crafted several sketchbooks, showcased in the exhibition's second room, offering profound insights into his artistic process. These drawings serve as eloquent testaments to the techniques he would later employ in manipulating lace and tulle to unveil the feminine body in a subtle, gradual manner through intricate openwork transparencies. This Goyesque influence is indeed palpable in the provocative backless dress from the spring-summer 1996 collection, or in the tuxedo-inspired smoking of the spring-summer 1978 fashion show, featuring a transparent cigaline blouse paired with a modest chantilly lace bra, both displayed in the room.


In contrast, the third room on the upper floor offers a departure from the disciplined and austere elegance of the ground-floor displays. Drawing inspiration from the mesmerizing serpentine dance conceived by Loïe Fuller and immortalized by the Lumière brothers, the garnments exhibited in this space are a vibrant celebration of color. Here, suspended solid-colored haute couture and ready-to-wear models, such as the silk chiffon from the 1980 collection are reflected in a mirrored floor and pay homage, with their jubilant array of hues, to the ethereal theme of "flou," evoking a dreamlike flucutation that captivates the senses.


Saint Laurent's profound connection to the vast cultural heritage that preceded him is patently made evident throughout the exhibition, which is in fact adorned with several artistic works, ranging from the aforementioned film by Lumière brothers to the avant-garde rayographs of Man Ray and finally a composition by Francis Picabia, always exploring the theme of transparency. This, however, should not suggest a designer who is ""borne back ceaselessly into the past," to quote the famous line by Francis Scott Fitzgerald. On the contrary, Saint Laurent's vision of fashion went beyond mere aesthetics; it was a statement of liberation, rebellion, and self-assurance, in alignment with the zeitgeist of the sexual revolution in the 1960s. His clothes, such as the fully transparent evening gown in black silk from the autumn-winter 1968 collection (displayed in the exhibition), offered women a new archetype to aspire to – one that exuded emancipation, assertiveness, and unapologetical boldness. Symbolically concluding the exhibition is in fact a bridal ensemble featuring a delicate tulle veil, suspended in a diaphanous balance between presence and absence, inviting visitors to reflect on the notion of individuality and freedom.


In conclusion, as visitors journey through the exhibition, they are invited to contemplate not only the sheer beauty of the transparent garments, but also the deeper significance on the power of fashion to challenge social conventions, derive vital inspiration from visual arts, and inspire individuality and freedom. As Saint Laurent himself had stated: "I’ve worked for quite some time now with diaphanous fabrics. The important thing is to maintain their mysterious nature…. I think I’ve done the best I could for the liberation of women. I created clothes that were perfectly in sync with the twenty-first century”.