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Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Ready-to-Wear Revolution

“Ready-to-wear is not, as far as I am concerned, a lesser genre, a sort of sub-haute couture; it’s the future.”
Yves Saint Laurent in French Elle (October 26, 1967)

Yves Saint Laurent began as Christian Dior’s protégé but later firmly establish his own place in fashion history. After leaving Dior, the Algerian-born French designer opened his own couture house in 1962. However, this too was only part of his long career. He went on to play a crucial role in one of the most notable revolutions in the haute couture world: the rise of prêt-à-porter (or ready-to-wear) fashion lines. 


30, avenue Montaigne - the “birthplace” of the House of Dior (left) and Saint Laurent in front of Rive Gauche (right)

On September 26, 1966, Yves Saint Laurent opened his first ready-to-wear shop: Rive Gauche. This literally translates to “left bank” and refers to the location of the store along the Seine. The aptly chosen name both literally and metaphorically positioned Rive Gauche opposite of the haute couture shops on the other side of the Parisian river. Note the very different facades of the two buildings above. The front Rive Gauche almost merges with the sidewalk, inviting anyone passing by to enter. 

     Double-knit pantsuit, 1968-1969, gift of Shirley Fiterman 


Cotton floral jacket and hot pants, 1966-1975, Gift of Ann Ferris

The designer sought to dress all women, not only those who could afford his couture creations.  While Rive Gauche garments were by no means inexpensive, they cost considerably less. A 1971 article in French ELLE features a comparison of Saint Laurent’s designs. A haute couture shirt dress costs 5,500 F, but the strikingly similar Rive Gauche version could be purchased for only 650 F - just over one-tenth the price.

    Velvet and feather pantsuit with sheer blouse, 1966-1969, gift of Shirley Fiterman 

    Wool blouse and skirt, 1966-1975, gift of Aileen Grossman 

For Saint Laurent, Rive Gauche offered him freedom from the strictures of couture. The line became a way for the designer to explore and experiment. The ready-to-wear shops offered a wide range of styles, which allowed women to create their own wardrobes.  This approach to fashion is firmly entrenched in the broader cultural shifts towards autonomy and individuality during the 1960s and 70s.