I have personally always found the greatest charm in the long, sweeping curve from the ribcage past the waist and down to the hips. It is the most subtle line, curving like a serpent.1 Yohji Yamamoto, in Yohji Yamamoto & Ai Mitsuda, Yohji Yamamoto: My Dear Bomb, trans. James Dorsey, Ludion, Antwerp , 2010, p. 72.
Yohji Yamamoto’s debut Paris collection, presented in 1981, earned him a reputation as a groundbreaking anti-fashion designer who shook up conceptions of Western-style clothing. He persuaded the fashion world that there was incomparable femininity and beauty in wabi sabi – the Japanese concept of a transient state of beauty marked by imperfection and incompleteness. Alongside fellow Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo, Yamamoto heralded the age of black and deconstructionism with abstract emotional projections that enveloped the body rather than gripped it. Italian fashion editor Carla Sozzani described Yamamoto’s clothes as a ‘revolution’.
While his anti-fashion sentiment initially seemed an assault on established traditions, Yamamoto has proven himself equally informed by the conventions of Western fashion and often pays homage to some of the great twentieth-century designers, including Christian Dior. Yamamoto’s references are never literal, but are rather conversant in a deep understanding of fashion history. This small exhibition reflects the influence of Dior’s 1947 Bar suit on Yamamoto, and at the same time considers how each designer changed the course of fashion history.
Bar suit has become one of Dior’s most iconic designs. Its unmistakeable silhouette was shaped by corsetry and tailoring into an armature of voluptuous curves. The tight-fitting jacket with padded hips emphasised the petite waist, and the long pleated wool skirt heralded a complete change in fashion. Carmel Snow at Harper’s Bazaar dubbed it the ‘New Look’.
The New Look transformed women’s fashion almost overnight, from the angular silhouette of the 1940s into softer feminine hourglass shapes with wasp-waists and billowing skirts. Long flowing skirts were worn for daywear, shoulders were sloped not square, neat hairstyles replaced loose hair and shoes changed from thick wedges to slim, elegant courts with narrow toes and stiletto heels. Dior had responded to the Zeitgeist, saying:
What was heralded as a new style was merely the genuine, natural expression of the kind of fashion I wanted to see. It just so happened that my personal inclinations coincided with the general mood for the times and thus became the fashion watchword … it was as if Europe had tired of dropping bombs and now wanted to let off a few fireworks.2 Christian Dior, quoted in Marie-France Pochna, Christian Dior: The Man Who Made the World Look New, trans. Joanna Savill, Arcade Publishing, 1996, p. 140.
He designed as if the Second World War had never occurred and referenced historical techniques and silhouettes.
Dior’s new direction also sparked controversy and protest. In America, the Just Below the Knee Club attracted three thousand female members who opposed Dior’s corsetry and long skirts as restricting, antiquated and against sexual equality. Thirty thousand men also formed a group named the League of Broke Husbands, opposed to the exorbitant costs associated with such decadent uses of fabric. In France Dior was criticised for flaunting such opulence in a country paralysed by strikes, government crisis and general gloom. However, these protests were short-lived and the New Look came to epitomise French fashion and Parisian chic, particularly for American and Australian audiences. Dior’s contemporaries followed his lead, including Jacques Heim, who designed an interpretation of the Bar suit featuring a dusty pink jacket and black tulle skirt. Seven years after the fact, Dior’s own 1954 collection still retained references to the New Look, specifically in Zelie, cocktail dress, with the impression of a hip-length jacket in the bodice, a drawn-in waist and full three-quarter length skirt.
When Dior released his debut collection Yamamoto was only four years old. He recounts working in his mother’s dressmaking shop much later, in 1969, and how women continuously brought in images clipped from magazines of hourglass silhouettes they wanted copied for themselves.3 Yamamoto & Mitsuda, p. 30. Far from Paris, twenty-two years after its inception, Dior’s silhouette endured. Yet this image of womanhood was something that Yamamoto was determined to counter.
After training at Bunka Fashion College, Tokyo, Yamamoto continued to study independently for a decade. ‘Simply put’, he wrote, ‘the work of a fashion designer is a battle with tailoring’.4 ibid., p. 64. For ten years he questioned the rationale of a collar, the quality and weight of fabrics, the shape of a sleeve, the possibilities of a pocket and the impact of a button. Yamamoto studied the basics in order to discover their contradictions and eventually to devise his own language. ‘Endless repetition and the study of the classics. After that one may topple the establishment’, he wrote.5 ibid., p. 63.
Yamamoto’s 1981 collection toppled the establishment and was described as ‘a nuclear bomb explosion’ and ‘an emotional shock’.6 Vogue, ‘Designers: Yohji Yamamoto’, Voguepedia, http://www.vogue.com/voguepedia/Yohji_Yamamoto, accessed March 2013. His first designs presented a quiet, sombre beauty amid the dizzying, rowdy colours of contemporary 1980s fashion. His spring-summer 1983 collection was unstructured, monochromatic and unembellished, advocating a look of imperfection and a lack of symmetry. Experiencing it, for journalist Irène Silvagni, was like ‘reading an entirely new sort of book’.7 Irène Silvagni, quoted in Yamamoto & Mitsuda, p. 78. Yamamoto’s radical designs, alongside those of Kawakubo, began a new age in fashion history.
Progressively, Yamamoto’s collections started to bring his knowledge of European fashion into play. Armand Limnander wrote of Yamamoto’s 2000 collection: ‘Deconstructing (and then reconfiguring) traditional clothing and silhouettes has always been an essential component of Yamamoto’s work, and this season he addressed the issue head-on’.8 Armand Limnander, ‘Spring 2000 ready-to-wear: Yohji Yamamoto’, 3 Oct. 1999, Style.com, http://www.style.com/fashionshows/review/S2000RTW-YJIYMOTO, accessed March 2013. In this collection Yamamoto appeared to rewrite Dior’s New Look Bar suit. By this time the suit was a fashion classic, heavily reproduced through Willy Maywald’s 1955 photograph which re-presented the ensemble with a softer, more romantic styling. When the Bar suit was first shown in 1947 it was presented with its jacket closed and with a black wide-brimmed hat. In Maywald’s image the base of the jacket is parted, the model wears a light straw hat, leans back and is positioned along the banks of the Seine. Over time, the image has become a construct of Western femininity, representative of Dior and of an era.
Jacket and skirt, 2000, by Yamamoto, follows the structure of Dior’s Bar suit, with its tight peplumed jacket and three-quarter length skirt. Each design highlights the curve of the line from the base of the ribs to the hips – the line Yamamoto finds the most charming – in utterly different ways. While Dior pushes this line to extreme slenderness and breadth through padding, boning and corsetry, Yamamoto presents a subtler line with the hallmarks of the New Look.
Yamamoto’s silhouette is relaxed and its colour palette is altered. The patched appearance of the jacket reflects the unconscious beauty and natural appeal of a worn garment loaded with history. In the skirt, hip padding typically used under skirts in the late 1940s and 1950s is drawn to the outside, scrunched and layered to support the peplum of the jacket. Yamamoto styles the ensemble with flat shoes for the active contemporary woman. Four years later Yamamoto revisited Dior’s New Look by designing a wide-brimmed, elegant black straw hat that merges references to Maywald’s iconic image and the original presentation of the New Look Bar suit. Wide-brimmed hats are frequently included in Yamamoto’s collections.
Both designs by Yamamoto present a thoughtful homage to Dior’s New Look Bar suit, making reference to its sinuous curves using the Japanese designer’s vocabulary of imperfection and incompleteness. They not only reinforce the resounding influence of the New Look on Yamamoto, but also reflect his paradoxical pursuit of anti-fashion through fashion. Yamamoto questions Western conceptions of perfection, opting instead to reveal the beauty of ‘scars, failures, disorder’9 Yamamoto, quoted in Frédéric Bonnet, An Exhibition Triptych: Yohji Yamamoto, The Press SARL, Antwerp, 2006, p. 8. in a delicately patched jacket and calculatedly dishevelled skirt. Dior and Yamamoto are aligned in their sensitive interpretation of feminine beauty: both show an appreciation of female curves through their individual styles for different generations of women. Yamamoto explains his approach: ‘With my eyes turned to the past, I walk backwards into the future’.10 Yamamoto, quoted in Suzy Menkes, ‘Feeling the flow of Yamamoto’, The New York Times, 14 March 2011.
In 1947 Dior sculpted women in tight corsets and full skirts to present an articulation of Western femininity. In 1981 Yamamoto undid this perception, presenting an alternative in loose abstract silhouettes that engulfed the body. The designers’ output is incredibly diverse, yet at moments there is resounding synergy between them. Dior and Yamamoto: The New Look highlights some of these instants and considers each designer’s impact on the history of fashion, as well as the resonating influence of Dior’s New Look.
Yohji Yamamoto, in Yohji Yamamoto & Ai Mitsuda, Yohji Yamamoto: My Dear Bomb, trans. James Dorsey, Ludion, Antwerp , 2010, p. 72.
Christian Dior, quoted in Marie-France Pochna, Christian Dior: The Man Who Made the World Look New, trans. Joanna Savill, Arcade Publishing, 1996, p. 140.
Yamamoto & Mitsuda, p. 30.
ibid., p. 64.
ibid., p. 63.
Vogue, ‘Designers: Yohji Yamamoto’, Voguepedia, http://www.vogue.com/voguepedia/Yohji_Yamamoto, accessed March 2013.
Irène Silvagni, quoted in Yamamoto & Mitsuda, p. 78.
Armand Limnander, ‘Spring 2000 ready-to-wear: Yohji Yamamoto’, 3 Oct. 1999, Style.com, http://www.style.com/fashionshows/review/S2000RTW-YJIYMOTO, accessed March 2013.
Yamamoto, quoted in Frédéric Bonnet, An Exhibition Triptych: Yohji Yamamoto, The Press SARL, Antwerp, 2006, p. 8.
Yamamoto, quoted in Suzy Menkes, ‘Feeling the flow of Yamamoto’, The New York Times, 14 March 2011.