A conversation about the bond between fashion and fine art is incomplete without an in depth discussion of Yves Saint Laurent's Mondrian dress. The shift dress that puts all other shift (or sack as they were called) dresses to shame was designed as an ode to painter Piet Mondrian. It's hard to believe now amidst Peter Doglio x Dior Homme, Noel Fielding x Fendi, and other art meets high fashion collaborations, but for many years fine art and fashion operated in distinctly separate realms. However, Laurent’s lifelong love of painting both as an artist in his spare time and collector of rare works resulted in a garment that would change the strict separation.
The Mondrian dress was conceived for YSL’s Fall/Winter 1965 collection, just after sack dresses had evolved to the slimmer and chicer shift dress silhouette. Laurent looked at the new shape and realized its planarity was perfect for a field of color blocks, like the works of Mondrian, who worked with primary colors in linear arrangements. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s archives of the Mondrian dress, “Saint Laurent made the historical case for the artistic sensibility of his time,” through the piece.
Simple though it may look, the dress was also a sartorial development on the designer's part. Each block of intentionally colored jersey was pieced in order to create the semblance of Piet Mondrian’s 1929 painting, simply titled "Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow."
Mondrian was a Dutch painter who took much of his inspiration from Impressionist art. His use of vibrant primary colors is reminiscent of Vincent Van Gogh, influenced by pointillism and Fauvism. His early career consisted mostly of still life scenery, a stark difference from his most popular geometric creations. However, through these first landscape images, his distinct style still shines through the Rembrandt-esque palette of subdued ochres, russets, and browns.
The first decade of the 20th century marked the beginning of Mondrian’s transition to pointillism and cubism. The former is defined by the technique of dabbing tiny dots of different colors to create a picture, and cubism by its ability to show all angles of a person or object at once through abstraction. During this period, Dutch artist Paul Cézanne was revolutionizing the art world with his pointilist works, and Mondrian no doubt was inspired by the impact of such radical thinking.
By 1930 the painter had found his voice and reached the high point of his career. World renowned works like the "Broadway Boogie-Woogie," "Victory Broadway Boogie-Woogie," and "Tableau No. IV" were all conceived from years prior spent researching and experimenting with various styles.
The painting that inspired Saint Laurent’s Mondrian dress, came a year prior to the boom in the painter's professional success. "Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow" was completed in 1929, the same year he made a series of far more serious black and white lined paintings, and a year before he essentially redid the painting, that time with much more success. This makes it all the more interesting that Saint Laurent would select this work for his dress.
The selection speaks to the painstaking hours of conceptual and technical practice that is shared between both fine artist and painters alike. This is reflected in the Mondrian dress not only because it looks like the painting from a distance, but because up-close the dedicated sewing work of the master dressmaker is also on display. Just like the awe inducing brushstrokes of a painter, which appear effortless but indeed are not, Laurent’s seemingly simple dress is in fact constructively complex and the perfect representation of the relationship between fine art and fashion.