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Yves Saint Laurent’s India – How the Designer Was Inspired by a Country He Never Visited

Yves Saint Laurent’s India – How the Designer Was Inspired by a Country He Never Visited

Yves Saint Laurents India How a Country the Designer Never Visited Served as a Source of Inspiration

Did you know that Yves Saint Laurent was inspired by India even though he actually never travelled there? Let’s have a look how and why this country was so fascinating for Yves Saint Laurent.

You can also watch my video here:

Sources of Inspiration – How Did Saint Laurent get Inspired If He Never Travelled to India?

Yves Saint Laurent’s version of India was created by his own imagination, we could even say it was a “fantastical version”. You may have read my article or watched my video about Karl Lagerfeld’s “Orientalism” and also Lagerfeld never travelled to many of the countries which inspired him. He actually said he found the version of other countries in his mind which was influenced by books, photographs or artworks more interesting than the reality he would see on a trip.

Similarly, Yves Saint Laurent’s version of India was also based on books and other publications. He is said to have read “Historic India” by Lucille Schulberg which is an illustrated history book published in the late 1960s. Another book which he read according to experts is Roshen Alkazi’s “Ancient Indian Costumes” from the 1980s.  Additionally, he also used publications by the Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad in Gujarat for his research. Furthermore, he and his partner Pierre Bergé had a vast private collection of artifacts including some from India which also served to create his vision of India.[1]

And similar to Karl Lagerfeld, he was not a big fan of travelling:

“I use my imagination to conjure up countries I don’t know. I hate to travel. For example, if I read a book about the Indies with photos or about Egypt, where I’ve never been, my imagination takes me there. That’s where I take the best trips.”[2]

Yves Saint Laurent

His thorough research led Saint Laurent to appreciate the various textiles and techniques from India. Throughout his career, Saint Laurent revisited his imagination of India. Similar to Gabrielle Chanel, he was inspired by gold-brocade silks but also a special type of metallic embroidery – zardozi, which originally came from Persia and looks very opulent. When you look at the intricate embroidery, you can immediately tell why Saint Laurent was drawn to it. He designed a robe for the Baroness Marie-Hélène Rothschild with exactly that type of embroidery.[3]

Saint Laurent’s First Collection Incorporated Indian Elements

Yves Saint Laurent, Indian-inspired tunic ensemble, 1962.

Indian elements can already be found in his first collections for his own label in 1962. Apart from the obvious turban, the cut in the silk tunic-ensemble above which is similar to the Indian kurta. Furthermore, the accessories also reference the opulent Indian jewellery.

Saint Laurent also referenced the opulent Indian jewellery in his first collection in 1962.

He paired the intricately knotted turbans with contemporary overcoats. At the time, it was said that there were “many references to the Orient” – Indian turbans and sari-inspired dresses and also Chinese hats. Similar to what I said about Lagerfeld, this shows, yet again, for how long “Asia” or the “Orient” were used as a very broad and often inaccurate label.

Saint Laurent mixed Indian elements with contemporary garments in 1962.

Very early on, the Mughal Empire served a major source of inspiration for the designer which can be seen in the Fall/Winter collection 1962 was inspired by metalwork by the German Baroque goldsmith Johann Melchior Dinglinger called “The Throne of Grand Mogul Aurengzeb”.[4]

Yves Saint Laurents India Johann Melchior Dinglinger Mughal Throne Aurangzeb
Johann Melchior Dinglinger, The Throne of Grand Mogul Aurengzeb, early 18th century; Source: Google Arts & Culture.

Yves Saint Laurent came across this work from the early 18th century in a book. Saint Laurent took this artwork up in, for example, a gold-embroidered green coat made from Abraham silk which he accessorized with a turban.[5]

The boteh-pattern was appropriated in Europe and then called “paisley” after the Scottish town of Paisley.

Another Mughal-influence was floral motifs relating to the precise planning and layout of Mughal gardens. Furthermore, the boteh, was a recurring design element Saint Laurent used. Today the boteh mostly known as “paisley” after it was appropriated in the Scottish town of Paisely for their cashmere production. Saint Laurent used it quite visibly like in a rhinestone brooch for his Haute Couture collection.[6]

Yves Saint Laurents India Boteh Brooch
Yves Saint Laurent, haute couture, boteh-shaped brooch with rhinestones; Source: Sotheby’s, Collection Didier Ludot.

Furthermore, if you look closely at his famous heart pendant which he made in collaboration with the House of Scemama in 1962, you can see that it is made of three boteh shapes.[7]

Saint Laurent’s signature heart pendant is made of three boteh shapes.

This Mughal influence also is very clear in the movie “The Pink Panther” in 1963, where Claudia Cardinale wears a tunic designed by Saint Laurent which is undoubtedly influenced by India.[8]

Claudia Cardinale wearing an Indian-inspired outfit by Yves Saint Laurent in “The Pink Panther” in 1963.

Bal Oriental in Paris 1969

Sketch by Yves Saint Laurent for a costume for the Bal Oriental in 1969.

In 1969, the Baron de Redé – an art lover and collector, held the “Oriental Ball” in Paris. This was one of “the” social events with guests such as Salvador Dalí and Brigitte Bardot. The inspiration for this ball came from a small embroidered silk handkerchief which he had acquired from India. For this event, Yves Saint Laurent created the outfits for several guests. For example, he created gold and silver lame pajamas for Patricia Lopez-Willshaw. A juicy fact: her husband Arturo was also the lover of the Baron de Redé and they had some kind of trifecta-relationship going on[9]

The Baroness de Rothschild in an outfit by Yves Saint Laurent which was inspired by Siamese dancers.

Saint Laurent also created the outfit for the Baroness de Rothschild and we see the label “Oriental” and its wide sense: this is a Siamese dancer’s outfit, nothing Indian. This “Oriental” Ball was a true mix of all different cultures and countries in Asia.[10]

Yves Saint Laurent, tunic-skirt ensemble, 1969/70.

Similarly, in his Fall/Winter 1969-70 collection, Yves Saint Laurent referenced the kurta again – traditionally this Indian top is paired with so-called payjama pants. Saint Laurent’s ensembles also paired tunics with pants, in his case they were bell-shaped. The ensembles reflect the opulent Indian fabrics and were designed as eveningwear.

Yves Saint Laurent Fall/Winter 1969-70.

Already in 1968, Saint Laurent paired tunic tops – some without sleeves – and pyjama pants.

Also in 1968, Yves Saint Laurent incorporated kurta-inspired tops and wide trousers.

Also for his Spring/Summer 1970 collection, Saint Laurent kept using the kurta-pyjama-combination: either as loose and flowy outfits with long tops over wide pants and jackets which still have the pyjama-flair even though they are clearly eveningwear.

Yves Saint Laurent Spring/Summer 1970 collection.

Or, he used floor-length tunic-style dresses which opened in the front and showed wide-cut pyjama-style pants.

An interpretation of the tunic as a floor-length dress worn over wide-shaped trousers, Spring/Summer 1970.

Wedding of Loulou de la Falaise, 1977

Probably one of his most iconic Indian-inspired designs was the wedding outfit for his friend Loulou de la Falaise in 1977. He took elements from Indian menswear – the ensemble in white and red features a jacket with a stand-up collar, just like the famous Nehru jacket named after the Indian politician. The balloon-shaped skirt references the dhoti pants. And something I do not explain here is the turban I guess.

Saint Laurent’s friend Loulou de la Falaise in an Indian-inspired wedding outfit in 1977.

1982 – The India Collection

The India Collection of 1982 involved 20 Indian-inspired outfits.

Probably one of the most famous collections which was clearly Indian-inspired was the Haute Couture Spring/Summer 1982 collection. It involved 20 evening ensembles which are a true explosion of colour and very opulent. Again, many designs were inspired by the Mughal Empire. There are ensembles with short jackets which are heavily embroidered with contrasting colours – for example red artificial stones on a blue jacket which was worn over a red silk top and an orange skirt with a purple belt.

Saint Laurent used the typical Indian “colour-blocking” and intricate embroideries for his opulent collection.

Another famous ensemble was a richly embroidered light purple jacket with a bright blue skirt. The Indian-inspired embroideries were done by the Maison Lesage. 

While the embroidery references the Mughal Empire, the turbans rather look like those of Sikh or Hindu men. Turbans in India have a lot of meaning and until today, how a turban is tied or worn reflects certain areas, religions, cultures or even social status. The fact that Saint Laurent mixed and matched elements coming from different backgrounds shows that his vision of India was an imaginary one, an aesthetic one rather than a true depiction of Indian reality. Some of Saint Laurent’s turbans have an ornament in the front middle section. These ornaments reference the sarpech, which was worn by Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. 

Saint Laurent’s skirts reference the ones of the Indian lehenga. The lehenga skirts are very big and often very heavy skirts which leave the midriff and the back bare. The skirt is usually worn with a crop top and a dupatta, a shawl. While Saint Laurent’s skirts are plain, the lehenga skirts are often very colourful and heavily embroidered.

Yves Saint Laurent, Orange coat with zardozi-inspired embroidery, 1982.

Yves Saint Laurent may have been inspired by miniatures from India or portraits of Mughal Emperors or Maharajas. But one person was very crucial for his vision of Inida: Kirat Young was a model working for him and she was of Indian descent. She frequently brought him textiles, objects or artworks from India and she also introduced him to India’s colours and how to achieve the signature Indian “colour-blocking”, the cuts, shapes and proportions of the garments and how to create the perfect silhouette. Saint Laurent was one of the first European or Western designers to include models from India in his shows. In general, he was one of the pioneers of diversity on the runway.[11]

The model Kirat Young helped to educate Yves Saint Laurent about India.

1989 – “Year of France and India”

In 1989, France and India celebrate their relationship with a festival in multiple Indian cities hosted by the French embassy. These events involved art, culture, music and, of course, fashion. Needless to say, Saint Laurent was represented with several runway shows, one was in front of the gate of Purana Qila, the old fort of Delhi.

Yves Saint Laurents India Gateway to India Mumbai Runway Show 1989
The Times of India, article about the Yves Saint Laurent runway show in front of the Gateway to India monument in Mumbai in 1989; Source: Instagram marielou_phillips.

Another one took place at the Gateway of India in Mumbia with 40 local models and the music composed by Philip Glass was performed by Ravi Shankar to accompany the show.[12]

The Sari – A Recurring Theme

Yves Saint Laurent re-interpreted the sari or elements of it throughout his career. He was fascinated about the different ways how this garment can be worn and he also liked the idea of very fine and transparent muslin, as it can suggest a nude body without really exposing the wearer.[11] This may have been a source of inspiration for his sheer tops at the end of the 1960s, which I mentioned in my article about the Inspiration Behind the Spring Summer 2024 Ready-to-Wear Collection. In the 1970s, Saint Laurent created a sheer red dress with such a sari-drape, for example. 

Yves Saint Laurent, Sari-inspired dress, 1970s.

For his Fall/Winter 1991 Rive Gauche collection, Saint Laurent created a gold-lamé  hooded dress which again referenced the sari. For the very same collection, he also designed an ensemble of a heavily embroidered jacket and skirt in gold which somehow again reminds me of the Mughal throne.[13]

Yves Saint Laurent, gold sari-inspired ensemble, 1991.

Undoubtedly, Saint Laurent knew Christian Dior’s sari-inspired “Soirée de Lahore”-dress from 1955. Saint Laurent led the Maison Dior after the designer’s death before starting his own label in the early 1960s. 

Christian Dior, Sari-inspired dress, 1955.

A beautiful interpretation of the sari-drape paired with a Western silhouette is a red one-sleeved dress from 1993.

Yves Saint Laurent, Dress with a Western silhouette and sari-drape, 1993.

Even towards the end of his career, for the Spring/Summer 1999 collection, Saint Laurent went back to this idea of sheer drapes.

Yves Saint Laurent, 1999.

Conclusion

India has served as a major source of inspiration for Yves Saint Laurent, even though he never visited the country. Nevertheless, his research through books, objects and artefacts allowed him not only a thorough understanding only of the country but also to appreciate its arts, textiles and traditions. However, it has to be emphasised that Saint Laurent’s vision of India was not a reflection of the reality and this was also not his goal.

“I have approached all countries through dreams I need only peruse a very beautiful book about India to design as if I had been there. This is the role of imagination.”[14]

Yves Saint Laurent

Saint Laurent wanted to create his own version of India or the “Orient” which resulted in many beautiful designs incorporating elements from various regions and time periods of India.


Footnotes:

[1] Samuel 2023, p. 147.

[2] Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris 2023 a.

[3] Samuel 2023, p. 147, Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris 2023.

[4] Samuel 2023, p. 150.

[5-8] ibid.

[9] Architectural Digest 2023, Samuel 2023, p. 150.

See Also
When the Dirndl Walked the Runway Chanel Metiers DArt 2015 Salzburg Schloss Leopoldskron Lagerfeld

[10] ibid.

[11] Samuel 2023, p. 155-156.

[12] ibid.

[13] Jay 2022, p. 69.

[14] Samuel 2023, p. 147.

Sources:

Architectural Digest, The Contents of Patricia Lopez-Willshaw’s Saint-Tropez Villa Undercover at Auction, last accessed on 25 October 2023.

Google Arts & Culture, last accessed on 25 October 2023.

Phyllida Jay, Inspired by India. How India Transformed Global Fashion, 2022, p. 69.

Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris, last accessed on 25 October 2023. (2023a)

Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris, Yves Saint Laurent : les costumes de l’Inde, Rencontre avec Amina Taha-Hussein Okada, 12.12.2018 at 19h30, Recording on iTunes, last accessed on 25 October 2023. (2023b)

Aurélie Samuel, The Imaginary India of Yves Saint Laurent, in Hamish Bowles, India in Fashion, 2023, New Delhi, p. 147.

Sotheby’s, Collection Didier Ludot, last accessed on 25 October 2023.


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