With the Yves Saint Laurent movie hitting cinemas soon, now’s a good time to pay tribute to his couture for Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour, Luis Bunuel’s erotic exploration of female sexual fantasies.
Many other fashion designers have provided costume for films, including Givenchy for Audrey Hepburn, Chanel for Gloria Swanson and Ralph Lauren for Robert Redford in The Great Gatsby, but there is often a disparity between creating a character and creating fashion. In Belle de Jour, YSL’s neat, perfect, lady-like suits are a mask for the fantasy and desire of Deneuve’s character, Severine, a housewife with a secret job in a brothel. Her suits are expensive class signifiers and act as a symbol of her Bourgeois repression.
Severine’s YSL ‘capsule’ wardrobe consists of tailored jackets and conservative knee length skirts. While sexuality is generally conveyed on the screen with satins, silks, and sensual cuts, Severine’s wardrobe covers her and creates an icy bourgeois image that contrasts with her hidden masochistic desires. They blur the line between what is real and what is her fantasy, as signified by the sound of cow bells and an approaching carriage.
As film theorist Stella Bruzzi wrote in Undressing Cinema: Clothing and Identity in the Movies: “The very notion of couture styles being synonymous with art and pure exhibitionism was questioned and mocked by Saint Laurent’s exquisitely mundane wardrobe for Belle de Jour”.
Catherine Deneuve was known for her beautiful features and Parisian style while playing oddball, haunted characters, particularly in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. Belle De Jour’s director Luis Bunuel spoke of Deneuve as being “as beautiful as death, as seductive as sin and as cold as virtue.”
Given their long standing relationship, Deneuve is considered a muse of Yves Saint Laurent. She personally requested YSL to design her wardrobe for Belle de Jour – she was a huge fan, and was guest of honour when he opened his Rive Gauche store in 1966. Deneuve once said, “When I was 22 or 23, I began wearing Yves Saint Laurent. I think I was his youngest client. It was just my nature. I have always liked beautiful things.”
Yves Saint Laurent became a protégé of Dior at the age of 18 after winning a design competition. He was later fired by Dior during a period where he was conscripted in the army, but during the 1960s he created his own label and set fashion trends with a reinvented Beatnik look, military inspired tailoring and safari suits, and his autumn 1965 collection of Le Smoking trouser suits that paid tribute to Marlene Dietrich immediately attracted fashionable celebrities and the Paris jet set. Lauren Bacall famously replied, when asked who designed the black jersey jumpsuit she was wearing, “Of course it’s Saint Laurent. If it’s pants, it’s Yves.”
The YSL couture in Belle de Jour includes a red tweed suit, a shiny black raincoat, sunglasses and hats for going into the brothel incognito, military-inspired coats that give her that buttoned-down, controlled look, and a black dress with white collar and cuffs in the final scene, that gives her the look of a “precocious schoolgirl.”
Yves Saint Laurent didn’t just provide his clothing for the film – he made some suggestions to fit the character. He suggested that Deneuve avoid fashionable miniskirts and instead wear a more conservative knee length which would also look less dated in years to come. It was also his idea to put Velcro on Severine’s clothes, so that they would rip open during the rape scene.
Severine’s clothing is often noted by the other characters in the brothel and stands her apart as a woman of wealth and sophistication, despite her naivety.
Madame Anais describes her as “a real aristocrat” and her wardrobe is noted and envied by the other sex workers. “That looks nice. But not convenient for a quick strip,” says one. “What a nice cut. Look at these details”…“It’s all a matter of money.” When they notice the label on the black raincoat, they question why someone wearing expensive couture would choose to work in a brothel.
Stella Bruzzi writes, “the object of their praise is couture, the exclusivity of the clothes which, in turn, define Severine’s ambiguous sexuality”.
Severine wears red in her first masochistic fantasy, one of many that involve châteaux and carriages, and with servants that whip her. In her fantasies her clothes become defiled, splattered with mud and ripped open, and she is dragged through the woods with her stockings around her ankles. As she pushes the boundaries of what’s expected of her, she sheds the clothes which ties her to the reality of bourgeoisie.
The look of Belle de Jour would stay with Yves Saint Laurent for years to come. In 1975 he defined his autumn collection with models as prostitutes, waiting for clients, but dressed in Severine’s repressed style. He would also create costumes for Deneuve in a further four films – La Chamade, La Sirene du Mississippi, Liza and The Hunger.