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When Does Fashion Belong in a Museum? When Can You Just Wear It?

We ask the curator of Yves Saint Laurent: A Retrospective.

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There’s a scene in Girlboss where an irate vintage collector shows up at Sophia’s doorstep. She calls her a disgrace, a tramp, and even a murderer—all for cutting up vintage dresses and re-selling them online.

“I used to be like that,” says Florence Müller, the fashion historian behind the traveling museum exhibit Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective. “But now I think there needs to be a balance. And if you look at the clothing in this YSL exhibit, many pieces have been worn many times.”

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Now at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the comprehensive show has over 400 items, including vintage clothing and jewelry, hand-drawn notes, fabric swatches, photo contact sheets, and even film reels from the designer’s extensive archives.

But will—or should—anyone get to wear them? We asked Müller for her expert opinion on vintage shopping in the Instagram era.

We’re feet away from the famous Mondrian dress. If I find another one at a thrift store, can I wear it, or do I have to give it to a museum?

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You know what? I can answer from a very personal perspective… I used to think everything had to be in a museum. Now, I have a different view… I’ve gotten to wear a vintage [YSL] tuxedo from [someone’s] personal collection. And it’s amazing. It gives you a different perspective and appreciation of the clothes. And my psychology on this has changed. I’ve gone to the next step, and I’ve discovered how fun it is to search for things on the internet.

Where should we shop for vintage YSL?

I like 1st Dibs and eBay. I love it! Of course, you get a little frightened about the sizes and if something is fake, but if you’re knowledgeable about fashion, you can often tell from the fabric and details. They’ll tell you what’s true.

What’s the last YSL piece you bought online?

Right before this opening, I went on 1st Dibs, and I bought two vintage YSL Rive Gauche dresses. The YSL Foundation heads saw me in one, and they were like, “Oh Florence, you’re starting to compete with us for archive pieces!” [Laughing]

They were joking, but are some fashion historians like that Girl Boss episode? Do they think everything should be archived?

Oh, sure. I understand those feelings, but I felt like it wasn’t a big deal. This dress I’m wearing is from the “Peasant” family that Saint Laurent was doing for Rive Gauche from the late ’70s and ’80s. I thought it was quite simple, but at the same time, sure, it’s a part of fashion history. It represents this new bohemian thing that started happening…

But it’s okay to wear.

Absolutely.

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Which vintage pieces are not okay to wear, in your expert opinion?

I do think that very exquisite, very rare vintage pieces do have to go to the museums. For example, the first tuxedo that YSL ever made for his Rive Gauche collection? That has to go to a museum. If you find one in perfect condition, first of all, you could probably get a lot of money for it. But also, it’s historic in a way that’s irreplaceable. On the other hand, I do know a few women who have them from the second and third seasons, and they fit them perfectly, and just wear them around, and that’s cool.

Has anything changed in the way museums and historians collect fashion?

I think the history of a designer is great. I think it’s important to be able to have Yves Saint Laurent’s perspective on his creations; his drawings, his notes, his styling, his energy. But I think today, we are ready also to speak about the story of the women who are wearing the clothes. Who got to wear these dresses? Why? In what circumstances? Which reasons? And the personality of the women play just as big a part in the story of the designer, I think. That’s why in this show, we have photos of [Saint Laurent muses] Betty Catroux and Loulou de la Falaise. These women have given so much to the whole vision of the house. They’re very important. And today, we’re totally into them! We’re creating a new era of this style. Look at all these young girls on the websites.

Do you mean fashion bloggers?

Yes, bloggers, and also just young girls who love fashion. They are choosing through their assemblage and their mix of pieces, they’re creating their own style and I think that’s as important as the designer’s creations. Of course, we need the designer. I would never say “it’s just about the girls.” We need people with the technical knowledge and vision and historical perspective and creativity—we need great designers. It all starts from them. But fashion museums need to be more balanced between the story of the women and the story of the designers. And when you wear vintage clothes, you become part of that story. So, you can wear it. More than that, you need to wear it.

If Yves Saint Laurent were alive today, would he want his pieces in a museum, or in someone’s closet?

I’m sure he would want to see girls wearing his designs, still. He would love it. You have to remember that Paloma Picasso, when he met her, she was dressed head-to-toe in vintage pieces she was wearing from the flea market in Paris. He said he was inspired by her turban, and her fur jacket from the ’30s. His famous 1971 collection was inspired by her flea market clothes. So he’d be very, very pleased to know that’s happening now, but it’s his clothes that girls are hunting.

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