The History of Leather Part 25 – Yves Saint Laurent

Posted on 03/08/14

From the streets, to the catwalk, and back to the streets again (1960)

Once the uniform of the working man, the military man, the rebellious man, in 1960 the leather jacket finally jumped the gap between the sexes thanks to the vision of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.

Inspired by the art students slinking around Parisian jazz clubs, Saint Laurent created the Beat collection, his sixth collection as Dior’s head designer following Christian Dior’s death in 1957. The faithful unveiling of the collection was the first time mainstream audiences had seen women wearing cuts of leather jacket inspired by the same iconic jackets worn so successfully by Marlon Brando and James Dean.

The ‘mainstream’wording is crucial here, as female greasers were undoubtedly clad in leather only a decade earlier –so it’s not to say that leather was completely new to women before Saint Laurent’s collection was revealed. It’s not even to say that women didn’t wear leather before the 20th century, which they most certainly did in various forms, as previous entries in this feature will attest to. If women wearing leather wasn’t that much of a revelation, it would be reasonable to assume that the first appearance of leather-wearing women on the runway would be relatively uncontroversial.

Think again.

Saint Laurent’s collection, as recalled by Vogue magazine “provoked both outrage and adoration” in equal measure. Adored by some for representing but the first of many steps away from the view of fashion as a realm of the privileged elite, to the idea of fashion as the “inalienable right of the masses”. Outraging some, perhaps due to the appropriation of traditionally male clothing fostering complex feelings of sexual confusion in Saint Laurent’s most audible critics. Who can say, really?

In a feverish and panicked state after the collection was not as well received as Dior’s business bods would have liked, the favours that they were calling in to prevent Saint Laurent from being conscripted… suddenly stopped being called in. A tiny bit of an overreaction, it’s fair to say, especially given the unpleasantness and turmoil that Saint Laurent faced during his time in the military.

Needless to say, upon Saint Laurent’s return, not long after he was conscripted in the first place, he sought to sever his ties with Dior, setting up his own fashion house under his own name. It was during this time that he drew upon his collection’s leather jackets, turtlenecks and thigh-high boots, and used them as fuel to further his work moving towards the combination of traditional couture with street fashion. This eventually resulted in the emergence of a whole new breed of collection, the prêt-á-porter (ready-to-wear) collection comprising garments that people could actually hope to lift off a shelf not long after the collection’s premiere.

To paraphrase an anonymous Saint Laurent commenter, he may not have liberated women in quite the way that some of his devotees might claim, but he certainly liberated fashion.

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