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Chronicles

The Mondrian Revolution

The Mondrian Revolution

In 1965, Yves Saint Laurent paid tribute to Mondrian by designing cocktail dresses that evoked the painter’s abstract canvases. Their simple cuts, geometrical lines, and bold colors gave the designer’s collection a modern feel and proved to be incredibly successful.

Chapter 1

The House of Yves Saint Laurent in 1965

The haute couture house at 30 bis rue Spontini, Paris., © Droits réservés
The haute couture house at 30 bis rue Spontini, Paris.
© Droits réservés

In 1965, the fledgling Yves Saint Laurent haute couture house was still located at 30 bis rue Spontini in the XVIe arrondissement of Paris. Having been established there three years earlier, it remained grounded in the haute couture tradition.

Other designers were emerging in Paris during that time. Among them was André Courrèges, nicknamed the “Courrèges bombshell” by the press because his designs radically reshaped the female silhouette and disregarded the past.

In a similar vein, Pierre Cardin was incredibly successful with his “cosmonaut” dresses evoking the new age of space exploration, which had begun four years earlier.

Yves Saint Laurent in the salons of the haute couture house at 30 bis rue Spontini, Paris, 1971, © Droits réservés
Yves Saint Laurent in the salons of the haute couture house at 30 bis rue Spontini, Paris, 1971
© Droits réservés

Yves Saint Laurent also wanted to break away from the confines of the past and adopt a modern approach. It was the era of youth culture, one that heralded the events of May ’68 and a more liberal way of life. Saint Laurent, who was 29 years old at the time, was open to modernity. With “hair like Ringo, John’s sense of mischief, George’s allure, and success like Paul’s,” he was “the Beatle of the rue Spontini” (Candide, August 15, 1965).

I was stuck in a traditional form of elegance, and Courrèges took me out of it. His collection energized me. I told myself, ‘I can find better.’
Yves Saint Laurent

Chapter 2

Modernity: The Shift in Fashion

Up until the 1960s, skirts and dresses fell below the knee. After the miniskirt was introduced by Mary Quant in England in 1962 and Courrèges in France in 1965, dresses and skirts were shortened by at least five centimeters. This period coincided with the women’s liberation movement, when women liked wearing loose-fitting dresses that placed less constraints on the body.

Audio
The historian Christine Bard looks back on how pants came to be more widely worn in the 1960s

Audio
The historian Christine Bard looks back on how pants came to be more widely worn in the 1960s

Chapter 3

Piet Mondrian and Neoplasticism

Piet Mondrian in his studio, 26 rue du Départ, © Photographie de Rogi André, Centre Pompidou
Piet Mondrian in his studio, 26 rue du Départ
© Photographie de Rogi André, Centre Pompidou

Born in Amersfoort, Netherlands, in 1872, Piet Mondrian studied fine arts in Amsterdam from 1892 to 1895. He initially adopted a realistic approach to painting before exploring fauvism, divisionism, and, after coming to Paris in 1912, cubism.

Through these various approaches, Mondrian was essentially studying color, which he liked to be pure rather than natural: “I had come to understand that the color of nature cannot be depicted on canvas.” Based on this observation, Mondrian gradually began using only primary colors, such as red, blue, and yellow in addition to black and grays—“non-colors” that he treated as solid colors inside square or rectangular surfaces delineated by a thick black outline.

Mondrian called this reduction of the graphic language neoplasticism. He devised this movement with Theo Van Doesburg (1883-1931) in 1917. The approach was not only aesthetic. The search for visual stability and harmony in imbalance along with the absence of symmetry conveyed a theosophical approach whereby the divine principle was displayed through the duality between the horizontal and the vertical, transcending that of the feminine/masculine and the material/spiritual.

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Yellow, Red, Black, Blue, and Gray, © Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
Piet Mondrian, Composition with Yellow, Red, Black, Blue, and Gray
© Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

The first neoplasticist work was Composition with Yellow, Red, Black, Blue, and Gray, painted by Mondrian in 1920 and held at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

Chapter 4

The Autumn-Winter 1965 Collection

The Autumn-Winter 1965 collection was presented on August 6. Despite having partially completed it one month earlier, Yves Saint Laurent decided to redesign part of it.

Most of the 106 designs in the collection respected the classic haute couture tradition. There were daysuits, casual ensembles, formal ensembles, cocktail dresses, evening gowns, and furs. The silhouette was clear and simple; the colors were safe.

The most surprising element of the collection was the wedding gown, which was completely hand crocheted. The shape was reminiscent of Russian matryochka dolls. Although the design was never sold, it quickly gained iconic status in the fashion world due to its unique place in the couturier’s work as well as the boldness of its shape and the knitting done by Madame Closset.

However, the cocktail dresses were what really caused a stir in the 1965 collection.

Wedding gown worn by Audrey Marnay. Autumn-winter 1965 haute couture collection. The last fashion show, Centre Pompidou, Paris, January 22, 2002. Photograph by Guy Marineau, © Yves Saint Laurent / Guy Marineau
Wedding gown worn by Audrey Marnay. Autumn-winter 1965 haute couture collection. The last fashion show, Centre Pompidou, Paris, January 22, 2002. Photograph by Guy Marineau
© Yves Saint Laurent / Guy Marineau

Chapter 5

The Mondrian Dresses: A Manifesto

Through them Yves Saint Laurent imbued his collection with modernity. He drew inspiration from a book his mother had given him for Christmas: Piet Mondrian Sa vie, son œuvre by Michel Seuphor (1956). Twenty-six of the 106 designs in the show would end up echoing the painter’s works.

Saint Laurent was laying the foundations for a refined aesthetic focused on simple cuts and geometric lines. This decision was explained by his desire to create dresses composed of colors and not simply lines. For him, fashion had to stop being stiff and move.

These dresses would subsequently alter the connection between fashion and art by transforming a painting into an animate work of art in a kind of “manifesto.” Saint Laurent appropriated the painter’s work by transforming a two-dimensional painting into a three-dimensional dress that was as powerful as the original work.

Not only does fashion accurately reflect an era, it is also one of the more direct forms of visual expression in human culture
Piet Mondrian

Chapter 6

The Test of Simplicity

There was considerable technical intricacy behind the simple lines of these collarless and sleeveless dresses. In order to recreate the solid colors bordered by black lines, the squares were inlaid and combined from inside the dress, rendering the seams invisible to the naked eye. The restrained silhouette dictated the technique.

Video The Mondrian dress - La chaîne de Loic Prigent © Deralf 2019

The simplicity of the outfit was enhanced by a pair of shoes designed by Saint Laurent and made by the designer Roger Vivier. They were black pumps decorated with a large square buckle in gold or silver metal. The heroine of Belle de Jour, played by Catherine Deneuve, chose to wear them in the film. The design proved so successful that it ended up being named after the movie.

Pumps made by Roger Vivier, based on a design by Yves Saint Laurent. Autumn-winter 1965 haute couture collection. Photograph by Sophie Carre, © Sophie Carre
Pumps made by Roger Vivier, based on a design by Yves Saint Laurent. Autumn-winter 1965 haute couture collection. Photograph by Sophie Carre
© Sophie Carre

To complete the simple and elegant silhouette, Saint Laurent also designed a pair of two-toned earrings with geometric shapes recalling abstract art. He also added small ball-shaped hats to some designs, echoing the colors of the Mondrian dresses.

Dress inspired by Mondrian worn by Léo, autumn-winter 1965 haute couture collection, 30 bis rue Spontini, Paris, 1965. Photograph by Gérard Pataa, © Gérard Pataa - DR
Dress inspired by Mondrian worn by Léo, autumn-winter 1965 haute couture collection, 30 bis rue Spontini, Paris, 1965. Photograph by Gérard Pataa
© Gérard Pataa - DR

Chapter 7

“A Resounding Success”

As soon as it was presented, the collection was incredibly successful. The press was laudatory and spoke of a “resounding success” (Combat, August 7, 1965). They praised the dynamic combination of black lines and bright colors as well as the modernity of these short, mobile dresses. The word “revolution” (Candide, August 15, 1965) was used to describe the work of the couturier, who looked not to the fashion of the future but that of his own day and age. “That very fashion will undoubtedly be in the street tomorrow because it suits all ages, styles, and situations” (Candide, August 15, 1965).

The Mondrian dress was so successful that it was soon heavily copied, especially in the United States. It contributed to the painter’s fame. Mondrian, who died in 1944 and was not heavily featured in art French collections, was given his first retrospective in Paris in 1969.

The 1969 Mondrian retrospective at the Musée de l'Orangerie © INA

Chapter 8

The Ballet Notre-Dame de Paris

Alongside preparations for the Autumn-Winter 1965 collection, Yves Saint Laurent was working on his fourth collaboration with the choreographer Roland Petit, who asked him to design costumes for his ballet Notre-Dame de Paris. The premiere at the Palais Garnier was planned for December 11, 1965.

I wanted the costumes to have the same colors as the cathedral’s stained glass windows, and I drew on Mondrian for Phoebus’s costume.
Yves Saint Laurent
Sketch of a costume for Phoebus in the ballet Notre-Dame de Paris, choreographed by Roland Petit at the Palais Garnier, Opéra de Paris, 1965, © Fondation Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent
Sketch of a costume for Phoebus in the ballet Notre-Dame de Paris, choreographed by Roland Petit at the Palais Garnier, Opéra de Paris, 1965
© Fondation Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent

Saint Laurent drew inspiration from Piet Mondrian’s paintings when designing the costumes of Phoebus and the soldiers. The same construction technique for the flat colors surrounded by rectangles on the dresses in the Autumn-Winter 1965 collection was adapted for leotards.

For the stage costumes, however, the white wool jersey was replaced by sheer tulle and the black by vinyl, which was much more suitable for dancing. 

Chapter 9

Mondrian in Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé’s Art Collection

Following the Autumn-Winter 1965 collection, Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé acquired some of Piet Mondrian’s paintings. In 1978, they made their first acquisition—Composition I (1920) —through the art dealer Alain Tarica, from whom they would end up purchasing a number of objets d’art. Saint Laurent and Bergé would go on to own three abstract works by the painter.

Mondrian is purity, and you can’t go any further in painting. The masterpiece of the twentieth century is a Mondrian.
Yves Saint Laurent
Yves Saint Laurent and Composition with Blue, Red, Yellow and Black (1922) by Piet Mondrian, 55 rue de Babylone, Paris, années 1980, © Droits réservés
Yves Saint Laurent and Composition with Blue, Red, Yellow and Black (1922) by Piet Mondrian, 55 rue de Babylone, Paris, années 1980
© Droits réservés

Saint Laurent hung his Mondrians in his library overlooking the garden. The couple also owned a figurative painting by the Dutch painter, Ferme sur le Gein, dissimulée par de grands arbres, au coucher de soleil, along with the preliminary charcoal drawing.

Ferme sur le Gein, dissimulée par de grands arbres, au coucher de soleil, preliminary charcoal drawing, © Christie's Images
Ferme sur le Gein, dissimulée par de grands arbres, au coucher de soleil, preliminary charcoal drawing
© Christie's Images
Ferme sur le Gein, dissimulée par de grands arbres, au coucher de soleil, oil on canvas, © Christie's Images
Ferme sur le Gein, dissimulée par de grands arbres, au coucher de soleil, oil on canvas
© Christie's Images

Chapter 10

The Legacy of the Mondrian Dress

The Mondrian dresses extended beyond the privileged world of haute couture and quickly reached a wider audience. Their democratization earned them iconic status as part of the trademark Saint Laurent style and the period of the 1960s.

After Saint Laurent, the architectural motif composed of solid colors and black lines became a classic, confirming the relationship between artist and designer. Other fashion designers used the colorful geometrical theme in their shows. Peter Rozemeijer, who was also Dutch, was influenced by Piet Mondrian’s work in the early 1980s. Francesco Maria Bandini devoted an entire fashion show to neoplasticism in 1991. More recently, in 2007, Christian Louboutin created the “Mondriana” shoe. 

Dress inspired by Mondrian, Spring-Summer 1991 Francesco Maria Bandini collection
Dress inspired by Mondrian, Spring-Summer 1991 Francesco Maria Bandini collection
« MONDRIANA » shoe, Autumn-Winter 2007 Christian Louboutin collection, © Archives Maison Christian Louboutin
« MONDRIANA » shoe, Autumn-Winter 2007 Christian Louboutin collection
© Archives Maison Christian Louboutin

As for Saint Laurent, he reinterpreted the theme for his Spring-Summer 1980 haute couture collection and a Spring-Summer 1997 SAINT LAURENT rive gauche dress.

Skirt suit Mondrian, Spring-summer haute couture 1980 collection. Hôtel Inter-Continental, January 30, 1980, © Yves Saint Laurent / Droits réservés
Skirt suit Mondrian, Spring-summer haute couture 1980 collection. Hôtel Inter-Continental, January 30, 1980
© Yves Saint Laurent / Droits réservés
Dress inspired by Mondrian, Spring-summer SAINT LAURENT rive gauche 1997 collection, © Yves Saint Laurent / Guy Marineau
Dress inspired by Mondrian, Spring-summer SAINT LAURENT rive gauche 1997 collection
© Yves Saint Laurent / Guy Marineau