Friday, June 6, 2008

In Memory of Yves Saint Laurent and His Impact on American Women Wearing Pants

The June 3, 2008, Wall Street Journal carried an article by Woody Hochswender entitled “He Made Pantsuits Suit Working Women” in a tribute to designer Yves Saint Laurent, who died in Paris June 1.

I related to Hochswender’s article on two levels. First, in my book MRS. LIEUTENANT: A SHARON GOLD NOVEL, at the Ft.Knox PX Sharon buys towels and washcloths designed by Yves Saint Laurent. "These are terrific prices," Sharon says to Kim by way of making up. "The person who ordered these probably doesn't even know that Yves Saint Laurent is a famous designer."

Second are these words of Hochswender: “(The) trousered suit for women was a look he did not invent but refined and made respectable for respectable women to wear. With it, Saint Laurent changed the course of fashion and perhaps added momentum to the social forces that make history.”

Hochswender goes on to describe a world in which women “were not permitted to enter the finest restaurants in midtown Manhattan unless they were wearing a dress or skirt.” Then he says: “Such was the world in the late 1960s, when Saint Laurent introduced his pantsuit.”

I don’t actually remember this moment in U.S. women’s social history because at that time I was an undergraduate student at Michigan State University, and fashionable clothes were about as far removed as landing a man on the moon. (Matching cardigan and skirt sets by Villager had barely penetrated MSU.)

Yet I do remember May-July 1970 when, as a new army officer’s wife, I had to learn how to be a proper officer’s wife. Here’s what the third edition of Mary Preston Gross’ booklet “Mrs. Lieutenant” (with a copyright of 1968) said about pants:

"Slacks and shorts on the tennis court, or about the house, are fine on a cute slim figure but are out of place and usually forbidden at the commissary, post exchange, theater, and public places. Since today's fashions stress women in pants, try to be discreet as to where and when you wear them."

Obviously the fashion world of Yves Saint Laurent hadn’t yet invaded U.S. army posts in the spring of 1970. Yet, whether we new officers’ wives knew it, the world of women in the United States was beginning to rapidly change. And with hindsight we must give Yves Saint Laurent his due for helping bring about that change.

Day 5 of the MRS. LIEUTENANT virtual book tour: Stop in at for two posts about the book: an overview of the story to be followed by an interview of Kim Benton, the Southern Baptist who carpools with Sharon Gold for the nine weeks of Armor Officers Basic.

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