08 May The outfits of a femme fatale: Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour
Wearing a wardrobe crafted by Yves Saint-Laurent at the height of his talent, Catherine Deneuve plays Séverine Serizy, a young frigid bourgeois housewife with sadomasochistic fantasies, who spends her afternoons as a prostitute in an intimately run brothel.
The clothes created by the french couturier for this ultimate fetishist film form a full set of sartorial metashots that Buñuel integrates in his cinematography. In a “psychoanalytical” exercise worthy of Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault, the filmmaker uses each piece of fabric as a fantasmatic screen. The extreme stylization and sobriety of the outfits have the same quality of the fantasies that haunt Séverine.
Six variations on the femme fatale’s cold eroticism: splendours and miseries of the Parisienne.
METASHOT 1 Séverine with a red suit (a double breasted Eisenhower jacket and a sleeveless A-line dress) and a pair of Roger Vivier’s red patent Pilgrim pumps.
METASHOT 2 Séverine with a brown outfit: a fur lined double breasted leather coat, a sleeveless A-line dress with a polo neckline, a pair of gloves and a Kelly bag.
METASHOT 3 Séverine with a khaki shirt-dress (fly front, epaulettes, shirt cuffs, two patch pockets to the hip and thin gold chain belt), a grey wool military double breasted coat with three-fourth sleeves, a black wool pillbox hat, a black leather Kelly bag, brown tortoiseshell wraparound sunglasses and black patent Pilgrim pumps.
METASHOT 4 Séverine with the iconic black PVC trench coat, a black wool pillbox hat and brown tortoiseshell wraparound sunglasses
METASHOT 5 Séverine with a brown zip front fur coat, light brown drainpipe trousers and a leather hat with fur trim and brass studs.
METASHOT 6 Séverine with black zip front shirt-dress with white silk collar and French cuffs, a black patent square buckle belt and black suede court shoes.
Dress shown in image: Catherine 60s A-line dress in black and white
Bust: Measure around the fullest part of your chest
Shoulders: Measure from edge of shoulder to shoulder
Waist: Measure at the narrowest part of your waistline
Hip: Measure at the fullest part of your hip
Inside leg: Measure from the top of your inside leg to the floor
* all sizes are in centimeters
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Style; It's All About Yves
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January 9, 2000, Section 6, Page 45Buy Reprints
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On one level, Luis Bunuel's 1967 film ''Belle de Jour'' is a parable for our times: a bored young housewife takes a day job and ends up destroying her husband and their life together. But the fact that the day job happened to be in a whorehouse, that the actress was Catherine Deneuve and that the clothes were by Yves Saint Laurent did more than create the most scandalous, erotic film of the day. ''Belle de Jour'' gave a double life to luxury clothes so powerful that designers have been fantasizing about it ever since.
In fact, it was only the third day of the spring collections in Milan last September when astute fashion observers like Gilles Bensimon, the publication director of Elle magazine, and Suzy Menkes, the fashion editor of The International Herald Tribune, stopped muttering millennium and started talking, once again, about ''Belle de Jour.'' Not that there was any outfit from ''Belle de Jour'' on the runway; it was the character who was. The clothes could have been in the closet of a woman like Deneuve's character, Belle: clothes for repressed upper-class women who may or may not be longing for a little illicit titillation.
This is the third time in a single decade that Saint Laurent has been revived and recycled by important designers. Yet it is never his Ballets Russes collection that is referenced, or his Mondrian dress. Designers never seem to draw on the particular talent that Women's Wear Daily articulated early on, his gift as a ''master colorist''; no designer has yet come close to marrying the hues that Saint Laurent still does effortlessly.
No, it is always one particular period that studiously hip designers like Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford of Gucci and Miuccia Prada return to again and again and again, and that is the ''Belle de Jour'' days -- a precise decade from the time of the movie's release: 1967 to 1977. In those years, Saint Laurent was indeed designing impeccably tailored clothes with an aura that became a uniform for French ladies who were ''very classy,'' as the procurers in Bunuel's film might say. But it wasn't just Saint Laurent. Other powerful image makers made these bourgeois clothes come alive by implying that they had a kinky subtext.
Deneuve, dressed in Saint Laurent throughout the movie, plays a frigid newlywed, sleeping in a single bed and not wanting to have sex with her husband, Pierre, described by one lothario as a sort of Cub Scout. ''Belle de Jour'' is the name she is given when, unable to suppress sexual fantasies in which she is degraded, she decides to become a prostitute by day. She arrives for work and puts her upper-class designer clothes in a cupboard until she resumes that role. But as her sexual life gets more dangerous, her sexual fantasies get more degrading, until in one, she's tied to a tree and shot in the cheek. Yet she can't help herself and doesn't quit her working-girl life until she's discovered by a friend of her husband. But alas, it's too late.
In this black comedy (particularly if you're French), Deneuve's clothes get continual comments from her fellow call girls and their clients. One dress is ''pretty but not that easy to take off,'' according to a peer; another notes, ''What a great cut, it's really nice,'' and ''Money buys anything.'' To which the man who becomes Belle's first paying customer says, ''But you can't buy class.''
That's what he thinks.
Saint Laurent's clothes were proof that class could be bought. Even after she has caused her husband's ruin, Deneuve, dressed in a tidy black Saint Laurent dress with white cuffs and collar, is told, ''You look like a precocious schoolgirl.'' But even those schoolgirl clothes have the same double life that Belle was having: they might look classy on the outside, but they cloaked a raging, unsatisfied sexual appetite.
Bunuel's erotic parable profoundly influenced fashion photography when it was released. Helmut Newton's images of Saint Laurent in the years that followed were full of the same suggestiveness that Bunuel imparted to the clothes: bisexuality, violence and bodies for sale. Newton's terrific book recording his magazine work, ''Pages From the Glossies: Facsimiles 1956-1998'' (Scalo), documents his visions of Saint Laurent in chronological order. There's the sweet ''Hot Lips'' print, which Prada copied this season (reinterpreting it with lipstick tubes instead). Newton shot a model wearing the lip-printed blouse for Nova magazine in 1971, with a hand grenade at her lips, loaded ammo belts at her hips. In 1972, Newton shot Deneuve for the cover of French Vogue with all the enigmatic, heavy-lidded boredom she displayed as Belle de Jour. For Newton's collection coverage in French Vogue that year, Saint Laurent's work was described by the magazine as being ''superb and reserved: a manner, a style, an insinuating charm, a calm sweetness, something subtle which pleases women immediately.'' Newton photographed two models eyeing each other lasciviously as the designer reclined between them on a tiger rug. He then put a model -- in one of the floppy-tie dresses that Prada revived this season -- in bed with Saint Laurent, a camera between them pointing, presumably, at a mirrored ceiling. Reserved. Subtle.
It was a Newton photograph of the 1975 fall haute couture that forever defined Saint Laurent's work visually. The famous photo was of an androgynous streetwalker in a ''smoking,'' smoking. The rest of the series shows more clearly the shoot's intentions, as every model is dressed like Belle de Jour's peers -- in conservative clothes, waiting in the streets for a client.
What's so astounding is the power of imagery to define precisely who Saint Laurent was then and whom fashion connoisseurs see him as today. There is nothing in the clothes themselves to suggest what Bunuel and Newton projected onto them.
After dabbling in other styles, like the Ballets Russes in 1976, Saint Laurent returned again and again to the classics that Newton and Bunuel had successfully turned into provocative reference points. Deneuve never stopped representing the inscrutable woman, all icy repression on the outside and ravenous lust on the inside. (She played a vampire who seduces Susan Sarandon in ''The Hunger'' nearly 20 years after she made ''Belle de Jour.'') But as Saint Laurent's less iconic customers got older, men stopped seeing in them the 23-year-old virginal bride who really wants to work in a bordello.
Yet designers who followed Saint Laurent didn't stop seeing that vision. ''Belle de Jour'' led them to develop an illusion of their own: if they had to create conservative clothes for commercial reasons, they could dream that the woman who bought them saw something deeper and more profound in them. Or, that she wasn't as boring as she looked.
''Belle de Jour'' may have addressed a certain male fantasy that all women would like to work part time as call girls, but it also addressed designers' fantasies that even the dullest garments they produce might be considered racy.
Of course, modern times defy leaving much to the imagination. New versions of the floppy-tie blouse and dress that Saint Laurent invented are all sheer, and designed to show. (Saint Laurent's were usually worn under suits). Bare legs have replaced the nude stockings that were so crucial to the sexual games Deneuve took part in, as in the opening scene, in which two groomsmen drag her through the woods, stockings yanked around her ankles, ready to ravage her. Or the moment when a particularly dangerous client, Marcel, tells her to leave them on as she undresses. ''A girl tried to strangle me once. Poor girl.''
But what do so many clothes reminiscent of ''Belle de Jour'' -- updated to scream what Bunuel only suggested -- do for the modern woman? Well, for the first time in a long time, she has grown-up clothes to choose from, like the trench coats so prevalent on the runway (fashion's strongest symbol of having something to hide), and the simple dresses that this season replaced suits (for women who work in offices and not bordellos). And the implication is that the woman who wears designer clothes has an inner life, something that the explicitness of most current fashion doesn't allow.
Mostly, though, the suggestion is that designer clothes can give you something that ordinary clothes can't. Not class exactly (especially with the trend, again, of logos decorating designer pieces). It's something more crass than that, and more fitting for these times: they make you look loaded.
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