The idea of fashion as artistic expression isn’t exactly new. But museums have latched on to it in a big way, ever since the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York surprised itself in 2011 with a record-shattering show on the work of the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen.
Fashion exhibits — as distinguished from fashion shows — are now all the rage in museumland. The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) mounted its first major fashion exhibit in 2013 with Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion. Bellevue Arts Museum closed a successful three-month run of Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair in August. EMP Museum has the eye-popping World of Wearable Art running through January 2, 2017.
And now SAM is back with Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style. Colorful and stylish without being over the top — just like an Yves Saint Laurent design — the YSL exhibition provides via 110 outfits a thorough examination of the French designer’s 40-year career as high priest of haute couture.
The reason for such thoroughness is that Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Bergé, saved everything. From sketches and swatches to actual garments and accessories from each year Saint Laurent was designing — 1962 to 2002 — the SAM exhibit is a fashionista field trip.
Yes, the Mondrian cocktail dress from 1965 is here. Ditto the women’s tuxedo (1966) and the women’s pantsuit (1967), which helped move from outré to de rigueur the notion of women wearing slacks for dress-up occasions. Exhibit guest curator Florence Müller of the Denver Art Museum succesfully conveys Saint Laurent’s belief that garments should reflect attitude.
And whether the garments — even Saint Laurent’s exquisite pieces — move fashion from craft to art in the esthetical conversation is ultimately immaterial. As the fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi told CBS News when the Jewish Museum in New York City showed Mizrahi’s own work earlier this year, “Good work meets a level. … Good work deserves to be looked at.”
Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style
Through January 8, 2017. Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave.; 206.654.3100; seattleartmuseum.org.