Yves St. Laurent, The Birth of Vintage, and Listening to Records and Kissing

I’ll admit that attending the Yves St. Laurent + Halston exhibit (at the Museum at FIT) threw me right into a disco pit of nostalgia, thinking about the early days of vintage fashion in the 70s. Unfortunately, this frisson led to ill-advised vices such as listening to Kenny Loggins on YouTube, remembering old boyfriends, and coming this close to buying UltraSuede yardage.

Here are some photos from the exhibit, which compares YSL’s romantic costumes, culled from cultural history, to Halston’s streamlined, expertly-cut modern fabric columns.

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(In both cases, Halston is on the left, and YSL is on the right.)

But here’s what cranked up the nostalgia machine: a timeline in the exhibit, which compared what was going on in the careers of YSL and Halston in the 60s, 70s and 80s.

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I hadn’t realized that while we 20-something girls in the U.S. were combing the thrift stores for what was just starting to be called “vintage,” Yves St. Laurent was being influence by retro looks from fresh faces like Paloma Picasso. Here she is with Andy Warhol, dressed in 40s chic.

Paloma Picasso and Warhol

YSL’s collections from that era were inspired by 1930s Chanel designs, La Belle Epoche, Russian peasant gear, the Ballets Russes and Chinoiserie, among other things.

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It was a thrill to see his iconic Safari jacket and Le Smoking:

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His “Forties” collection, in 1971,  was a critical flop, but it captured the vintage zeitgeist.

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And here are the kinds of things we were wearing during that time in the U.S.:

Wearing vintage in '75

That’s me on the right with my roommate in our “co-ed dorm” (still a bad idea) at SUNY Purchase in 1975. We’re wearing original 40s dresses that I’d bought at one of the first true “vintage” stores. I think she’s wearing Kork-Ease platform sandals, too, which looked retro and were great for spinning around on the dance floor.

SUNY Purchase bustier '75

And that’s me the same year, wearing a “long-line” bra that I’d dyed orange, with a man’s white dinner jacket, black tie and elbow-length gloves, all thrifted. I can’t believe how modern everyone looks, 40 years later.

All I can say about our nostalgia for 30s and 40s styles was that it sprang from an intense desire to forget the decade before. The late 60s and early 70s in the U.S. were such a roller coaster. Vietnam combat on TV! Man on the Moon! Peace and Love! My Country, Love It or Leave It!

My husband, more than a decade older than I am, went from a Kennedy idealist to a drafted army lawyer, heading to Southeast Asia in an ill-fated war marriage. He was tasked with explaining the Geneva convention to a bunch of nice guys from small towns who, like him, really didn’t want to be there.

Howell on tank

Even as a teen I could sense how quickly the country had devolved from an “ask what you can do for your country” mentality to “what the hell happened here?” By the time the troops withdrew and Watergate was over, we were exhausted.

When things started to calm down in the mid-70s, we just wanted to get on our feet again, and now the baby boomers were inheriting the place. And boy, were we tired of dressing like hippies.

So we went back in time. Bette Midler put on 40s rags and sang the Andrews Sisters.

Bette Midler

Manhattan Transfer put on 30s drag and revived a cappella.

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After years of seeing scruffy, angry comedians in jeans and army jackets, Steve Martin put on a tailored suit and joked about “happy feet.”

When an older grad student boyfriend and I were watching that bit on Saturday Night Live, he turned to me and said, “you think that’s funny?” I knew immediately the relationship was over.

My late-70s peers and I really were the first group of women who weren’t expected to find a husband and get married right out of college. So we put on wrap dresses and went dancing.

We were so glad when the guys cut their frizzy hair.

The book “Cheap Chic” became my bible, because it explained how to put together thrifted outfits, raid the men’s department for a menswear look, and use the army/navy store as a resource for retro/chic pieces like button-front navy pants.

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What great news that Cheap Chic has been rereleased! I just saw it on Amazon.com.

It even included an interview with Yves St. Laurent, talking about how his designs were being shaped by late 60s anxiety in France, which he was feeling in his visits to New York:

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We were sewing, too. During that time, you could buy really hot current patterns by DVF, John Kloss, Willi Smith, Halston, Clovis Ruffin, Kenzo and Betsey Johnson. Here I’m wearing one of her looks that I sewed at 18, and my roommate’s wearing a maxi-skirt I made:

SUNY Purchase '75_0001image

Back then, Betsey Johnson was a star of the kicky-youthful-vintage inspired look, and though her clothing wasn’t available in my northern Michigan hometown, her patterns were. So basically, we were creating a new generation of style out of thrifted clothes and Qiana fabric.

Here are some of those early vintage/boho Yves St. Laurent patterns released in the 70s, cut from his retail designs.

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(Why yes, that is Yves St. Laurent himself holding those patterns, with the help of a beautiful 70s fashion model, who is also a “Halstonette.” Did I mention that the Jet Set Sewing Graphics Team, AKA the chipmunks that live in my kitchen, are back? I know they were fired via the fire escape, but my son let them in the window accidentally, and they said they could book YSL so I said what the hell.)

So how does Kenny Loggins fit into this whole thing? Somehow I got his hit “Heart To Heart” stuck in my head, which is from the early 80s, but is still part of this era. I must have heard it blasting in the grocery store, which completely galls me because I don’t want to listen to music I used to make out to while I’m buying yogurt.

Even though it’s embarrassing to admit that I like this song, it is a great example of “blue-eyed soul” record producing in my view, so when it got to that crescendo, right when he’s singing in his head voice: “this is our final chance to touch each other’s–” I did not appreciate having the store public address system suddenly break in with “SEAFOOD! YOU HAVE A CALL HOLDING! SEAFOOD!”

But it got me thinking about how important both going out dancing and “listening to records” were to us while the country was recuperating. This was before the internet and cell phones, so listening to records was how we hung out.

I tended to date record nerds, so a summer afternoon with one of them would usually start with a couple of hours of browsing through dusty bins of vinyl in a college town record store, housed in some damp basement. Most likely, I was dressed like Annie Hall, after Diane Keaton, one of the original thrifters.

Annie-Hall

Then we’d probably stop for a bagel, and the day would end with me hugging my knees on his apartment floor, next to the stereo that was perched on an orange crate. He’d light the candle that was stuck in one of those orb-like Mateus wine bottles (which we’d probably drunk), and then he’d put on a song like this:

“Heart To Heart”

(Just click it, and you’ll go right back to the days before manscaping, when there was plenty of man hair to run your fingers through. Though it is missing the nervous running commentary from the guy you’re with, explaining about who wrote it, who’s playing on it, who’s singing backup, who wrote the liner notes…and the whole time you’re thinking, “aw, shut up and kiss me.”)

Seriously, this is what we did back then. You 20-somethings outta put down your phones and try it. You’d probably have more sex.

So the country got back on its feet, and in the late 80s, I married a guy with a true appreciation for vintage style and a great big record collection.

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As for the UltraSuede yardage, I’ll be back with more about the Halston section of the exhibit, which is the better part I think, and photos of some classic Halston designs turned inside out, found digging around in my sister’s closet.

Hope your sewing’s going well.

51 thoughts on “Yves St. Laurent, The Birth of Vintage, and Listening to Records and Kissing

  1. I read this entire post. Boy oh boy it brings back memories. I was in public school thru most of the 70’s but I remember everything, some ok and not okay. It was the time when I started sewing in 1977. I so so remember Halston from the early 70’s and Studio 54. I remember the Annie Hall look and all these trends. Looking back on it, some or most was down right “ugly”. The only thing I think I liked was the DVF wrap dress, which continues to live on today. Some Halston outfits from the 70’s were classic – simple american sportswear. Even the Ralph Lauren stuff from the 70’s was ugly. It wasn’t until the late 70’s that everyone start wearing Calvin jeans and other designer jeans. As far as sewing goes I have a couple patterns that were saved: DVF Wrap Dress from Vogue (which today would need updating in style) and Calvin Klein’s jean pattern, denim skirt and shirt dress, which will be classic and forever. I made these all for my mom in the late 70’s. Wow … the memories.

    btw, i enjoyed seeing the Halston/YSL clothing in this post.

      • Wrap dress and Disco Inferno, John Travolta .. Saturday Nite lives … and yes you are right .. men like the wrap dress … easy ..to make love to the woman he loves!!! Annie Hall .. menswear … say no more

  2. Well that was a fun ride! Up here in Canada our fashion had similar cinema and designer influences . And while our political climates were quite different then the U.S. the teenagers, vinyl and kissing transcended all time and borders! I love where your posts take us. XO for that.

  3. “blue eyed soul”. Love it and love you for writing this me. It felt like me exclusively. You are something!! I laughed and cried and remembered and stared off into space for awhile. Thank you

  4. What a fun post. I am of the same era, still living in Michigan. I loved YSL in the 70’s, first noticing him for the Russian peasant look. I remember making a skirt in a dark flowered corduroy, and a pale grey peasant blouse that had a big tie at the neck. For some of us our memories are strongly tied to what we were wearing. You made some great connections to the music, political times and status of women, all tied to what we sewed and what we wore. My kind of history.

    • Someday I’ll have to write about Michigan in that era. We grew up very “crafty” didn’t we? And the state was so rich from the car industry up through the 70s. Both my husband’s and my families have quite a history because of it.

  5. Tears in my eyes, I just love the Bee Gees and that film clip for ‘More Than a Woman is so soft’, in every way, gentle. What the hell happened to me who can dance – where are they hiding? The clip is such a contrast to that crappy war – the vietnamese refer to it as the American War BTW. My era was the 80s, bloody emaciated and flat chested Kate Moss had a lot to answer for, then the anger returned manufactured by Malcolm McLaren – guess he felt we needed anger to fight the easy complacency of the excessive 80s. No memory of that Loggins song, he wasn’t big in Australia, but the Bee Gees were local boys so they’re close to our hearts. Thank you, wonderful post, so much nostalgia, sniff, sniff,

    • Thanks for those insights from your part of the world. I’d forgotten that the Bee Gees were Aussies, which was a world away from us in that era. That album was huge in the U.S., as you can imagine. As for guys who can dance, fortunately my husband’s mother forced him to take social dancing lessons in the 50s, so I’ve got that covered!

  6. Such a great post! My parents were baby boomers and I’m a Gen X, so being a kid throughout the 70s I saw this stuff but wasn’t living it in the same way. This contextualizes so much for me. My dad had a huge record collection and my greatest pleasure as a kid was to sit in his huge white leather “Buddha” chair, with his giant head phones and listen to his collection. I was also a vintage shopping teen and university student, although my decade was the 80s (and I shopped for garments from the 40s). So interesting and I love the photos of you in your great clothes. Great music, too! PS Totally agree about putting down the phones. 🙂

    • Thanks, Stephanie. Love the part about listening to music on your Dad’s headphones. While we were obsessing about vintage fashion, the guys were all about their record collections.

  7. What a great post! I was born in 1980, so your memories are definitely from ‘before my time’. Despite that, I can tell the difference between the Netherlands and the US (I was going to write “Europe and the US” but deleted that. You can’t really speak of Europe as a unity between 1945 and 1990. All countries are really different at the best of times and in that period, they were divided between major power blocks. For example, I’m pretty sure the 1960’s were very different in East and West Germany). The 1960’s and 1970’s were a period of social turmoil and change here as well but ‘our boys’ didn’t go to Vietnam (although our hippies protested against it) and the decades before that didn’t hold the same appeal. Those were years of austerity, war and the struggle to rebuild after that. Everybody who was in her/his twenties in the 1970’s had grown up on the stories and the aftermath.
    I think that’s why YSL’s 40’s inspired collection proved so unpopular in France. That and the fact that by 1970, people were taking a more critical look at the roles of their own countries during those dark years. That didn’t look too great for France (Vichy republic).

    • Lauriana, I’m so glad you brought that up about the YSL 40s collection bringing back bad memories in France. The feeling in the U.S. about the 40s is very warm, because the war wasn’t on our shores, and we felt we were the heroes of the world. Part of that 40s nostalgia in the U.S. may have been about remembering a war that we won.

  8. You brought tears to my eyes. You helped me remember it all, the music, the clothes, boyfriend, the boys that didn’t come home. Thank you.

  9. Apparently, I lived in a wet paper bag during my high school years in the mid-seventies. I was only vaguely aware of these fashions and I recall thinking at the time, “How weird!” and moved on to sew my now-hideous-but-then-favorite tie-back smock tops with eyelet ruffled cap sleeves. Forty years later, I bemoan my limited world view at the time and fully appreciate what these two designers contributed to our modern fashion vocabulary. I suppose coming to the party late is better than not showing up at all, right? Thanks for the trip down Memory Lane!

    • Well, I was at an artsy school outside of New York City, so I think we may have been a little ahead of the curve. Plus we were dancers and huge hams.
      One thing I’ve learned from this blog is that a new party is just starting for we women of a certain age, and we’re all going to “get down tonight,” or at the very least, “get down this late afternoon, around cocktail hour, before we get too sleepy…”

  10. I laughed very out loud at “put down your phones…. you’d probably have more sex.” Great post, thank you! Just how I remember the 70’s too and I’m very ready for a new party though I may have a short nap first 😆

  11. What an enjoyable post! It brought back many fond memories. I believe my candle may have been the multi colored wax drip candle. I even have my mom’s ultra suede stash- I’m waiting for its big comeback.

    • Well, you know that the artfully-dripped wax was part of the appeal with that look, which was certainly better than the wine in the bottle. As for the UltraSuede, 70s suede skirts are big this year, so I’d go for it! In my next post I’ll show 70s Halston patterns you can use to make the real deal.

  12. Well, I don’t have nostalgia for the seventies. I wore a lot of vintage fashion because that’s what I could afford. In particular, I remember those many buttoned navy surplus pants and Pendelton 49er jackets. How interesting that I wore wool then (I was living in Northern California) but never wear it now. I distinctly remember the Cheap Chic book, but when I recently checked it out of the library again I felt no yearning for the era.

    • Thanks Kate! I swear I’m heading up-island this summer to check out the fabulous vintage closet of Kate Taylor! In the meantime, readers, Kate’s just joined InstaGram as @KateTaylorOfficial, so you can check her out there.

  13. Wonderful trip back in time. I also sewed many of the same styles and remember mom’s YSL Vogue pattern collection. What a time we lived through! Our kids have no understanding of what college in the early 70’s was like. Thanks for sharing your photos.

    • Hi Mary, yes, I think college has changed and they’re actually studying now! It was so much fun to sew those patterns in the days of no fear. Now I’d be overly worried about the topstitching.

  14. What a wonderful and genuinely interesting post! I can still remember delving into the 1970’s in a college history course on 20th century America and realizing what a strange and complex time it was, and then being confused and angry as to why in the hell I knew so little about it until then. My parents never talk much about that era, but I will have to ask them sometime; they were both adults then, so I’m sure they could really enlighten me. (And oh, if only my mother had saved some of her clothing–talk about a goldmine!!)

    I’ve only recently been able to appreciate the work of designers like Halston, and I owe that new-found fondness to sewing, of all things! Better late than never, I suppose…

    Thank you for writing and sharing this post!

    • Oh, I hate to think of that period as being part of a history course, but I guess we’re that far down the road. People tend to think of it as a dippy “rollerdisco” era, but in fact there was a lot going on. I think the movie American Hustle is the most realistic portrayal of that era and the fashions I’ve seen.

      • Well, to be fair, it was my Current History course, but I can see how that would be unsettling! And to your point as to the perception of what did (or did not!) go on at that time, I was always struck by the title of one of the books we read on that era: “It Seemed Like Nothing Happened.” I will have to check out American Hustle sometime. =)

  15. I don’t normally nag folks, but for you I’ll make an exception: you really need to read “The Battle of Versailles” by Robin Givhan for a good long soak in early 70’s Halston, early disco and such. It is so beautifully written! Meanwhile, I will go sign up for a preorder of Cheap Chic and thank you most sincerely for the info on the reprint.
    And to be fair, I was sitting on the floor listening to “Boheme” with college record nerd, but before then it was 1975 and Glenn Miller trombone boyfriend and the beginning of my love of rayon shirtwaist dresses. And that dress Midler is wearing bears a strange resemblance to Cake Pattern’s Tiramisu dress, particularly the cover drawing…

    • You’re right, I’ve been meaning to check out that book, as I was a fan of hers when I lived in D.C. and the Post Style Section was worth reading. And I hadn’t made the connection with the Cake pattern, but it’s definitely there.

  16. That was a great trip into the past. I especially liked your own photos, which really brought the reality of it all back for me. I still have a few of those old 40’s dresses thrifted back then too, when I was small enough to fit into them!

    • It was a lot of fun wearing those vintage clothes! Nowadays it’s better to make them…then you get the right fit for now. That’s one of the reasons I started sewing again.

  17. Pingback: Sewing a retro mermaid skirt (McCalls 7386), a 20s-vibe sweater coat (Vogue 8930), and a 50s McCardell bolero; but still it was all downhill until I made a pink hat… | Jet Set Sewing

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