“The fashion house of Christian Dior is bestowing the ultimate glory on a 34-year-old Parisian designer named Marc Bohan,” trumpeted the New York Times. Ouch. For three years, that “ultimate glory” had belonged to a young wunderkind named Yves Saint Laurent, but at the time the announcement came on this day in 1960 that his golden needle was revoked, the then-24-year-old Saint Laurent was far away, losing his marbles in a French military hospital.
YSL had been named House of Dior’s chief designer at just 22 years old, becoming the youngest couturier in the world, when Christian Dior died three years earlier in 1957. But YSL at Dior was like trying to fit a circle into a square. In his first show for Dior on January 30, 1958, he ignored the traditional whale-boned corsets and cinched, ladylike silhouette. Saint Laurent ignored the waist completely and sent a girlish collection of trapeze dresses down the runway to the rapture of his audience. In July of 1960, in what would be his last collection for Dior, he broke further from the norm with his Beat collection, inspired by the arty Left Bank bohemians who couldn’t be any more different from Dior’s traditional clientele. (Or, to put it in Mad Men terms, because that’s just so much fun: Saint Laurent was dressing Midge, Don’s Season 1 grass-smoking mistress, when he should have been dressing Betty.)
Just before his death, Christian Dior himself had recruited Bohan from Jean Patou’s house. Bohan was a slightly more mature, conservative fellow whom former Vogue editor Bettina Ballard compared to “a banker or an engineer.” According to Alicia Drake’s fascinating book, The Beautiful Fall, Dior’s minions kept Bohan under wraps as a secret backup plan in case YSL didn’t work out, sending him off to New York or London to design ready-to-wear until the time was ripe.
That time came thanks to a little matter called the Algerian War. Young French men were being conscripted to fight for the crown jewel of le tricouleur’s dwindling colonial empire, and scrawny, timid, homosexual Saint Laurent had gotten out of it several times because his employer had put up a fight for him. But when Charles De Gualle tried again to get Yves in 1960, Dior’s effort was not so concerted. He had to go.
On top of being scrawny, timid and gay, what made the whole idea of fighting the Algerians repulsive to Saint Laurent was that he was from Algeria. He came from a family of French colonists and lived there until he was 17, and he loved the North African country he considered his home. Before training camp was even over, he suffered a nervous breakdown and was sent to convalesce for a month at a military hospital in the south of Paris—though he was reportedly subject to all sorts of humiliation there, including electro-shock therapy and lots of conjuring up of old schoolboy taunting traumas. “It was horrifying,” Saint Laurent told Le Figaro in 1991. “There was everything there to cause you anguish. At the end I must have weighed thirty-five kilos and I had trouble with my brain.” Meanwhile, Dior saw its opportunity: in his fragile state, how could Saint Laurent be expected to perform his job? They plunked Bohan down in the role of lead designer behind his back.
When he returned to the “real” world, Saint Laurent was offered Bohan’s old position as the ready-to-wear designer at Dior’s London division, but he’d had enough humiliation, thank you very much, and went on his way. For Bohan’s part, he had his first show with Dior four months later in January 1961 that was so deliciously Dior it quite literally caused total pandemonium. He borrowed from the late 1920s, dropped the waistlines, flared the skirts, embellished with fur stoles and wowed with his versions of Dior’s traditional beading and embroidery. The audience became a “shouting, clapping, surging mob,” reported the New York Times. “Chairs were toppled. Champagne glasses were broken. People were knocked down. It was a complete triumph for the designer, who recently replaced Yves Saint Laurent.” –Cody Bay