My family has a conflicted view of wealth -- beyond ambiguous and verging on oxymoronic. I mean, most people think of wealth as both a function of status (important people get wealthy) and of merit (smart, hard-working people get wealthy) and as a means of getting status (wealth makes you important) and getting merit (wealth buys you a decent education and good contacts). But somehow my family on both sides (Oregon trail on one side and Dakota homestead on the other) has the idea that wealth comes from wickedness (both sinful pursuits and cheating) and that wealth makes you fat and stupid, which are signs of low status. This puts us in a double bind.
Art is one way out of the bind: if you succeed, it’s pure chance and the money will soon be exhausted. And oddly, at least in my case, luxury has been an escape, not necessarily direct luxury from wealth but the luxury of senses focused on pleasure. Not a great deal of money is necessary so long as one can find a library, pick fresh raspberries, sit in the sun, take a bath with good soap, stretch out for a nap or afford Netflix. Which explains why I so enjoy my latest disc, ordered on the advice of my California cousin and containing two movies about Yves St. Laurent, who notes that he began life in the great environmental luxury of Algiers and then moved to the cultural luxury of Paris. The two movies are “His Life and Times,” and “5th Avenue Marceau 75116 Paris.”
I suppose everyone knows that Yves is gay, but most people are not careful enough about distinguishing different kinds and styles of gayness. This man is androgynous, almost pre-pubescent, the deviser of “le smoking” and pantsuits for women. His ideal is the luxurious ease of fine fabrics, beautifully cut and constructed, for bodies that are tall and slender. He insists that he pushed men’s suits over into femininity. Looking at the results is entirely persuasive. His model was Chanel, a rather tough dame who managed to look sexy rather than butch by wearing simple suits with attitude. (Hilary’s pantsuits and short hair “read” more as efficient and business-like. Color is as key to her look as black was for Chanel.)
Aside from the suits, which he likes to send out accessorized with shoulder bags that invite women to sway as they walk, much of his success has come from his other role model, Balenciaga. The fabulous ball gown, often rather simple in concept, but crafted with incredible detail and precision, and sometimes inspired -- like the knockout Russian collection -- by peasant costumes, is something few of us will ever buy or even try on, but it is a glorious thing to contemplate when Yves creates it.
The gowns begin as drawings, mere sketches, and continue their development on models, often -- as illustrated here -- women who are genetically Watusi or Somali: extremely dark, tall and thin with breasts that point up at the tip and hip movement that suggests they are carrying a jug of water on their heads. Their hair is cropped, nearly shaved, but their eyes are enormous with makeup. They wear nothing but black pantyhose and VERY high heels. In the workshop, which is mostly a huge table that almost fills a room, each sketch is assigned to a specific woman or occasionally a man who translates the lines into actual pattern pieces and assembles them with basting and pins. (“You might be pricked!” they warn the models and indeed they are.) I wish I knew what material they were using to cut from: it is white, looking almost like paper, but it drapes and holds a crease.
Probably in the early days Yves did this himself, but in the film he sits endlessly smoking with Lulu de la Falaise and other faithful attendants, reviewing the clothing while the model walks, turns, walks, turns, seemingly tireless and stoic. Hems, of course, are of concern: “up a centimeter or maybe a centimeter and a half?” Then in the afternoon the same hem -- like that infamous comma put in and taken out by a meticulous writer -- is returned to where it was. “Try a Mao collar,” suggests Yves and a man with fabric clipped to his side takes a sheet and cuts a perfect collar which is laid against the model’s neck. “No. That’s not it. Try a ...” The team has names for collars that the rest of us don’t know, references to earlier creations that have become classics. Much of the work is attempting to recreate the in-house classics with a bit of difference.
“So light!” “Ravishing!” “Very pretty!” Most of the time this is Yves’ constant commentary. They are creating summer clothes of organza, organdy, chiffon, very fine wool -- fabrics that float and bell out over the slender long legs of the models. When the garment seems to be perfected, the realizer of it steps to this man grown thick and exhausted, kisses him on both cheeks and thanks him for creating something so wonderful. In turn, he thanks the fabricator. There are no temper tantrums. Lulu quietly accessorizes: broad-brimmed hats, dripping diamond earrings, a quick ruffled-up flower of net.
In my time and neighborhood, mothers sewed one’s clothes and one took 4-H sewing classes from Mrs. McPherson, whose clever hands had thumbs nearly bent back into a C which seemed to be an advantage. Among my theatre courses was costuming and I spent a summer as a costumer for a summer repertory company, though it was more assembling than designing. The point is that when I see Yves and his crew basting and stitching and pressing, it’s as much a vicarious pleasure, as much a sense memory, as the finished clothing. To be able to turn a clever seam, to coax a drape, to make a lining that is imperceptible but vital to the surface -- these are as much artistic skills as managing a brush loaded with oil paint or creating a beautiful curved line in clay or developing a fine patina on bronze.
The community around St. Laurent is rather like a company of theatre people, which includes the backstage people as much as the actors. I was fascinated by Loulou, and by Pierre Berge, and the synergy they are able to provide. There was an older woman, unidentified to me, who sat watching everything, murmuring, remembering, guiding, soothing, rebuking. For long periods she hardly moved except for her eyes, but she provided a kind of spine and motivation for an essentially wearisome task. (One of the few reliefs was a tubby French bulldog which demolished every stuffed animal it was given.) Catharine Deneuve, an exemplar so important to a couturier, is here quite different from her image, very human. After those charcoal stroke models, she seems pale, slightly stout, and grimacing. Trying on a safari jacket variation, she tells a friend how a fox killed all her chickens, even her “turkey Americaine” but she managed to save her rooster. One has a sudden vision of her aiming a shotgun, trying to see around the hank of hair hanging over her eyes. Yet all the glamour and sexiness is still there.
Yves St. Laurent had much pain and sickness in his life. He was, Berge explains, “very conventional” and wanted predictability and normality in spite of his sometimes louche pursuits. Berge himself, he says, is “unconventional” and willing to take risks but provided lifelong the stability that Yves needed. Maybe the reason it’s such a temptation to call this fabulous couturier “Yves” is that he somehow remains a child. And perhaps that is the secret to both art and luxury -- not growing old -- jaded -- cynical. Child-like-ness has little to do with wealth, though wealth can both result from it and destroy it. Status is totally irrelevant.
Christmas, 1965. I'm hemming the dresses I made to give Michelle and Charmaine, Bob's granddaughters. The pink Chanel suit I'm wearing I made to wear to New York City when Bob was on "To Tell the Truth." I'm at Bob's mother's house.