Tales of Two Cities (and Styles): YSL and Halston at FIT

In 1973, the Château de Versailles hosted one of the events rightly remembered as one of the milestones of recent history of fashion. Known as the ‘Battle of Versailles’, it was a fashion show which saw opposed five well-established French fashion houses and five new recruits who were dictating style directions on the other side of the Atlantic. The French maisons were Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent, opposed by Oscar de la Renta, Stephen Burrows, Bill Blass, Anne Klein and Halston. The show took the shape of a competition, whose main merit was to underline, once for all, the distinctive ideas at the basis of design in Paris and in the US, respectively.

The exhibition now on stage at FIT seems to be a reprise of one of the five direct confrontations which took place during 1973, the one which saw Halston and Yves Saint Laurent directly opposed one to the other. Curated by Patricia Mears and Emma McClendon, Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the 70s runs through the iconic creations of both designers, focusing on differences and similarities in vision, path and outputs and trying to extend the discourse around the 70s, a period for so long set aside and which is coming again to the fore in the latest collections seen on the runways.

The exhibition holds about 80 ensembles and 20 accessories, all of them selected from the FIT’s archive, and is thematically subdivided into three areas: menswear, exoticism and historicism. The isolation of these three themes is useful to analyse the different approaches to common inspirations and shared imaginaries, which led to the delineation of two precise aesthetics. While the clothes shown can be confused or wrongly-attributed at a first glance, a thorough observation of them in comparison highlights the diverse sensibilities for forms, constructions and above all details, which carry the mark of the environment in which the two designers lived and worked. This juxtaposition of messages colonises the set – and the atmosphere – of the exhibition, which becomes in this way a territory somehow hybrid: between the stroboscopic lights of Studio 54 and the gipsy-esque attitude of bohemian Rive Gauche.

It is an occasion to reflect not only upon the work of the two designers, who still dominate the idea of the 70s we have nowadays, but also on the territorial characterisation of fashion itself; Halston’s tan ultrasuede shirt dress and YSL’s Safari Jacket are blatant examples of two dissimilar ways to read and interpret history and sources in general: the first epitomises a predilection for clean lines and basic, extremely easy design, while the second is synonymous with a more solid relationship with inspirations, which always win over commerciality. Two strong and overt directions, which can still be found in the collections showing in the two fashion strongholds: Paris with its eccentric chic and rampant and pragmatic New York. Nevertheless, the title of the exhibition, with that little plus between the two big names, proposes an addition more than an opposition; maybe suggesting that, while discussing the fashion of today, we should stop thinking about the place itself and restart from the basis – in other words, from design itself.

Marta Franceschini – Images courtesy of FIT