Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the 70 by Patricia Mears and Emma McClendon, review

Study of Seventies style gurus doesn't quite measure up

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The Independent Culture

This season, the Seventies are back in fashion. So what better time to explore the careers of two designers who shaped that decade's aesthetic in their own inimitable ways? While this book makes a valiant attempt to do just that, there is a strange stiffness to the way in which the vibrancy of the time, and the designers' lives, is rendered.

Perhaps this is due to the academic nature of the two writers – both of whom are on the curating staff of the Museum at FIT (the Fashion Institute of Technology, one of New York's design-led universities. The book's photography doesn't help matters – pieces from the museums archives are photographed on blank-faced mannequins, which makes for a clean and clear, if dull, display. However meticulously researched a fashion book is its success is often dependent on the quality of its visuals; in this case most are too close for comfort to the hermetically sealed environs of the institute's archives. Not all is lost however. Joe Eula's illustrations of Halston's work and some of Saint Laurent's design sketches are a delight that add depth and visual vibrancy.

A neat timeline, which puts archive imagery to good use is relinquished to the back, but would better serve the reader if it were placed up front as an introduction to the events that proceed to be examined. There are scant biographical details within what is essentially a concise collection of essays and certainly no salacious revelations. Instead, the authors use the exhibition pieces as a device to compare the parallels in the working lives of the two men who came to define Seventies style.

And it's an interesting comparison to make, not least with the hindsight that a good three decades affords. While both men were celebrities in their day, today Halston is probably less well known to those who don't count the Seventies as their specialist subject. That's not to marginalise his work – which perfectly represents the ease of American dressing while belying the complicated construction beneath. The authors make an admirable attempt to communicate that complexity, which in practice makes for dry paragraphs mired in technical terms.

Although examining the designers in parallel, it feels as though Saint Laurent is afforded a certain prominence: perhaps because his label, and life, continued beyond Halston's; perhaps because his business model was as revolutionary as his clothes. The authors do offer interesting insights into both men's bodies of work, but at times their examinations feel both too shallow and yet off-puttingly narrow.

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