YSL ‘Style is Eternal’ at The Bowes Museum

Might I suggest that before you get started you make a cup of tea/coffee and get a snack of choice – you might be here a while. This post is also going to be picture heavy.

You might remember that I visited The Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle,Durham in April for their ‘Birds of Paradise’ exhibition (post and pictures here if you missed it). I only managed to catch this as I had seen mention of an upcoming Yves Saint Laurent exhibition in a magazine. What!? I thought. But that isn’t in London! Yes, Durham is in the north and they have got this absolute gem until October.

Marina Schiano wearing the short evening dress Haute couture collection Fall-Winter 1970 © The Estate of Jeanloup Sieff

Unlike the Birds of Paradise I have managed a visit right at the start of this exhibition so you have all the way through to the 25th October to arrange a visit if you like what you see. Seriously consider it if you can – Durham has plenty to offer in addition to this gem, and if you feel like getting further north Northumberland is pretty gorgeous.

The tickets we bought were timed entry tickets, and I was glad to have them as the queue was building up in the foyer of the museum mid-morning and The Management reported that it got longer toward lunchtime. I think they have a winner.

Screen showing YSL runway show - Matisse inspired gowns.

Screen showing YSL runway show – Matisse inspired gowns.

Screen showing YSL runway show

Screen showing YSL runway show

Whilst on the balcony waiting for entry it was possible to watch a video (or whatever they are called these days!) of YSL runway show(s?). There was a sign showing that flash photography was not allowed but I checked with a room steward and was told it was OK to take photographs without flash. Unfortunately that means that some of the photographs are not as sharp as perhaps they could be. However, what I lost in quality I made up for in quantity. More about that later.

The initial ‘crush’ in the first exhibition room quickly spread out enabling anyone to be able to look as closely as was possible at these magnificent garments.

Bowes museum case reflecting YSL Style

Bowes museum case reflecting YSL Style


The permanent cases in The Bowes which house their own costume collections had been changed from my last visit to reflect the YSL garment shown in that particular case. Well done The Bowes. The case on the left shows tailored styles go well with the fabulous 1967 trouser suit, which I thought would not have looked out of place on a war time ‘spiv’.

YSL toiles

YSL toiles


Not all of the pieces were complete garments, and I was particularly happy to be able to have a really good look at the toiles produced by a couture house. I have to admit they are streets better than my own (when I actually do make a toile) and I loved that anyone could have been able to follow them to create a garment. Maybe that’s a lesson I need to learn in my pattern cutting.


YSL A/W 1978 Haute Couture

YSL A/W 1978 Haute Couture

a/w 1980 detail

a/w 1980 detail

The attention to detail shown by YSL is incredible. He was meticulous in his designing (apparently the drawings were done in two weeks away, twice a year, and he didn’t know until he started drawing what would appear), and was known to have things re-done if the seam was even as little as 1mm away from his requirements. This is why haute couture is so costly. His attitude to design was not to follow ‘fashion’ but to concentrate on ‘style’. As has been quoted ‘Fashion fades but style is eternal’.

YSL evening gown s/s 2001

YSL evening gown s/s 2001

YSL evening gown s/s 2001 detail

YSL evening gown s/s 2001 detail


I did try to take photographs of the details within the garments, we all get to see so many ‘styled’ pictures in magazines of spectacular garments but rarely do they show the tiny details involved in getting that finish. Many of the ideas are way beyond the scope of the majority of dressmakers but some were achievable with a great deal of attention to detail.



YSL Evening gowns inspired by Henri Matisse. a/w 1980

YSL Evening gowns inspired by Henri Matisse. a/w 1980

YSL Evening gown inspired by Henri Matisse. a/w 1980 (Detail)

YSL Evening gown inspired by Henri Matisse. a/w 1980 (Detail)

The gowns inspired by Henri Matisse were fabulously colourful, and whilst it would be incredibly time consuming to spend the time needed to do all the applique to get that amazing skirt it would be possible – just put by a month or two to make that if you want….. (and if you look very closely at the detail you can see that there are some ‘fluffy’ edges showing round some of the leaves – not machine ‘perfect’ but showing that these are truly ‘hand made’).


I was fairly surprised at just how wearable so many of the garments still were despite having been designed anything up to fifty+ years ago. Many elicited gasps of admiration from some of the young ladies who were visiting who wouldn’t have been born when they were designed. There were several I would have been very happy to have taken away had I been allowed. Who am I kidding – I would have been gloriously happy just to have been allowed to hold one up against me to see how I looked. I might even have agreed to diet for one of those (and there is little chance of me actually dieting for any other reason).


YSL Jumpsuit s/s 1975

YSL Jumpsuit s/s 1975

YSL 'Transparence' gowns

YSL ‘Transparence’ gowns

This jumpsuit would not have looked out of place during Jump Into June. So many garments were absolutely dribble worthy that it would be almost impossible to have a favourite. I loved one of the Transparence gowns (second from right), though clearly if I wanted to take inspiration from that it would have to be executed in something opaque, but I think my favourite is probably still the Mondrian shift dress which despite being designed in 1965 still looks incredibly fresh.

YSL'Art'  Dresses

YSL ‘Art’ Dresses



Throughout the exhibition it was possible to see where later designers had taken inspiration, and I did intend to try to show some YSL/Other designer comparisons but I haven’t had an opportunity to do that yet.

I was horrified amazed to discover that I had taken over 100 pictures – clearly I couldn’t put them all on this post but if you are still curious (and perhaps aren’t able to get to Bowes to see this in person) here is the link to all of them on Flickr.



6 Comments on “YSL ‘Style is Eternal’ at The Bowes Museum”

  1. sewruth says:

    Thanks for such a comprehensive review especially for us who can’t even make it to Durham.

  2. sew2pro says:

    That’s a great review Kim and thanks for taking so many pictures to share. I can’t say there are many designs that I’d be comfortable wearing (not that anyone will ask…) but there’s much there that’s impressive and inspiring, including the feathering on the Matisse dress which shows us we’re all limited by the fabric with which we work.

    I love the lips dress (I favourited it on your flickr album).

    I have a list of 10 places I’m desperate to see soon. Amongst more exotic locations such as Mexico, Northumberland is pretty high. If only the rest of the family were as adventurous, I’d pack us up tomorrow.

  3. You are very welcome Marianna. There were several garments I would have happily made off with, and whilst I admired the lips dress it wasn’t one of them. Isn’t it great that we all look for different things in these exhibitions. I wondered if Lulu Guinness got some inspiration from that dress.
    Northumberland is beautiful and there is lots to see (Alnwick castle was used in Harry Potter – could you bribe the kids with a visit?). I confess to making more efforts to see the place now I no longer live there. Oh, the beaches are magnificent but make sure you take a warm towel if you brave the North Sea!

  4. fabrickated says:

    Thank you for this inspirational review. I was so excited to see toiles. How can I get myself there before the end of October, hmm??

    • I thought it was great that they were included. Geeks like me love seeing this preparatory stuff. I loved the exhibition – fifty garments I wasn’t going to see otherwise – and was able to add a family visit to the weekend. It is a long way from most places but is lovely to visit. Hope you get the chance.
      Thanks for stopping by 😃

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