June 5, 2008

YSL and the Seventies and Opium

All the tributes and postings on Yves Saint Laurent this week have brought forth nostalgia in me for the seventies. Personally handsome, he had an aware, melancholic, elegant and slender beauty. He was a fragile yet bold introvert who seemed constantly to be making associative connections, thinking about what next, all the time. In his honor I took out my Opium edp and doused myself yesterday and last night, and very much enjoyed the carnation, myrrh, mandarin and sandalwood with floral tones. The clove-like persistence of the fragrance softens down into the sandalwood, but this perfume reacts intensely to body heat, rising up around you until it seems like all the notes are singing with equal strength in a symphonic way. While many consider Opium to be the quintessential "Oriental" fragrance, it is not so easy to wear out and about, these days. It has that huge sillage and is very much of a certain era, and therefore a little difficult for a woman of a certain age to wear without becoming a bit self-conscious, though mostly I do so with a militant sense of choice (yet another seventies legacy, feminism). Perhaps Opium is overdue for a revival. I hope so. Modern girls have engaged with seventies style in many ways, and it's kind of fun for me personally that there is a growing use of sandalwood, patchouli, myrrh, and other incense perfume tones as related to this aesthetic.

YSL drew much from both the romanticized past and an ideal future, putting together details and richness from his personal mythology of special times and places. I have been reading both sci-fi-fantasy and historical fiction lately, and I find similar pleasures therein, from the detailed depictions of vast spaces and deep nature, and the rich descriptions of symbolic adornments used to depict the personality traits of the most active characters. YSL worked in a similar way, and often used alternating themes of past and future. In his rich peasant phase, the jewel color paisleys and abundant fabric, leather and (sadly) fur textures made for a nineteenth century flavored form of casual wear.

His season of forties themes (it may have been YSL that made nostalgia for the recent past a couture convention) that Cathy Horyn describes in her article in the NYT about the big shouldered chubby fur jackets and elaborate up-swept hair, was also enduringly influential. It was related to that thrift shop look that many wore at the time, which was put together by finding beautifully made vintage pieces for a song, wearing them without all the strict undergarments they were made for and thereby giving them a new look. YSL also moved into a heavy use of "modernist" art references to Modrian, Matisse and Picasso, using their simplified and futuristic style of decorative motifs, a use which continues to be relevant and elaborated upon by other designers.

YSL took a direction with Opium ( I understand Givaudan was the supplier of materials for Opium, and also for Obsession by Calvin Klein, which seems like a paler and more casual variation on the same theme) that reached into the symbols and signals of the past and a embodied a sense of exoticism crossed with modernity. He was probably the last of the couturiers of the grand style, whose influence could set a direction that would actually be followed, while he himself followed and allowed his luxurious ideas to be illuminated by the trends of youthful street fashions.

Above ad, the beauty Sophie Dahl famously wearing Opium and not much else.

5 comments:

chayaruchama said...

That woman takes away my breath !
Never was there a more glorious image.
PERFECT.

I loved Opium- but associate it with immense betrayal and heightened eroticism.

I still keep a bottle, hoping I'll change my mind, and be able to wear it again...

Great writing- just inspired.

[BTW- I NEVER did big hair, or shoulderpads; with these GreenBay Packer shoulders-of-the-caryatid, I used to CUT THEM OUT of my clothes... the heresy !]

Lucy said...

Ah yes, Chaya, how many perfumes have been ruined for me by association with a romantic situation turned wrong? Too many.
Yes, that Sophie Dahl is something else. That skin, so graphic, a fantastic vision.
I too cut out the pads from my coats and jackets and other things. I recall finding pads even in the pullover sweaters at that time. A person could end up with stacks of them on top of each other in the winter. The only thing such practices are good for is if you have that slouchy posture -- shoulder pads disguise this very well.

Time heals all wounds, and I think Opium will win in the end with you...can't let the cads "own" such beauty, now can we...

brian said...

Maybe women can't wear Opium for the time being, but men certainly can. The more I get to know fragrances (ie the more I sink into them and spend time walking around in their space) the more I wonder at how many are really not all that hyper feminine after all. A fragrance like Estee Lauder's Alliage is downright robust. Even Azuree smells nearly identical to Aramis, minus some of the citrus tang. If you strip away the marketing and conditioning you find these fragrances are a lot more androgynous than they at first seem. I bought Opium EDP at a discount shop here. It was 3.4 oz for 30-40 bucks. I saw it and because it was so cheap I thought, why don't I smell it. I never had, because it's supposed to be your grandmother's scent. I was instantly floored by it. I couldn't believe how amazing it was, and because I'd never smelled it before it just smelled new to me, like nothing else, and it occurred to me that I should buy it, even if I wasn't supposed to wear it. And now I do wear it. And it makes my eyes roll back into my head. Which makes the ad so apt. Thanks for writing such juicy stuff, Lucy.

Lucy said...

Thank you Brian, I have been enjoying your writing on your site quite a lot lately -- I love that series on Dandies...

Yes, the unexpected pleasures (especially in perfume) are pure gifts, they cause us to step away from cynical expectations -- and then that really puts you in a different frame of mind, does it not? The idea of a man walking around in public wearing Opium is so lovely. You are making such a good example! I hope it is emulated by more men...

brian said...

Me too! How about I give them all a head start and carry Opium around with me like they do in the Department Stores? I can spritz men surreptitiously and they will wander around smelling like their dates' carnation corsages rubbed up against their clove cologne.