NEW YORK — Saint Laurent is dead, long live Yves.
When Yves Saint Laurent announced this month that he would no longer dress women all over the world, he was admitting he had died with the 20th century. His look, however, will live forever in the history of fashion.
He had dressed women with the pantsuit for work, he had outfitted them for travel in safari apparel, he had allowed them to appear in rich peasant skirts, he had wrapped them in comfortable Chinese evening pajamas, and had stamped Picasso, Mondrian, and Cocteau on the moving canvas of their bodies.
The cliché is that Chanel freed women and Saint Laurent gave them power. Much more than that, Saint Laurent not only dressed women for work, he dressed them so that they could assume multiple identities.
The Algerian-born Saint Laurent had been in tune with the times since his late teens. When Christian Dior died in 1958, his anointed dauphin, the 21-year-old Saint Laurent, became head of the House of Dior. In 1962, he opened his own house of couture.
He was young enough to be in sync with the changing postwar world. He found fashion in the streets. He was aware of what women needed, and anticipated their desires. In a sense, he put an end to the character consistency that defined Dior and Chanel. Chanel, Balenciaga, and Dior had mainly a single style and vision, while Saint Laurent was aware of the need for women to present themselves in a diversity of silhouettes.
With Saint Laurent, multitasking women were able to multidress. He not only designed couture collections every year, but he also developed a diverse line of prêt-à-porter - ready to wear. All the end-of-the-century designers, from the '70s on, are stamped with and indebted to mâitre Saint Laurent. And that goes from Oscar de la Renta to Giorgio Armani.
What does it mean that Saint Laurent was close to the streets? It means he "read," he decoded, the street. He discovered consciously or unconsciously that the second half of the 20th century had brought an end to consistency and character, 19th-century virtues.
He knew, let us say, that clothes should not be sought to define your true identity, to express your values, or be consistent either with your personality or your station in life. Clothes allow you to change with the seasons, express different moods, and be different people.
Saint Laurent's woman in the safari suit was returning not from Kenya, but - because the item was prêt-à-porter - from a brokerage house, a lawyer's office, an insurance firm.
And in the '50s, '60s, and the '70s, she probably didn't even know what Saint Laurent was doing to and for her and her gender: He was dressing women to be multiwomen.
Rumor has it that Saint Laurent was uncomfortable with the lubricious image Tom Ford had added to his label since Gucci had bought his ready-made line. With his new historical perspective, Saint Laurent has dismissed Tom Ford as nonexistent.
Now that he is on Olympus, looking down at his past work and his progeny, he can comfortably inhabit his role as a Jupiter of fashion. Although he has been losing $10 million yearly on his haute couture collection, it will have a final exhibition, a retrospective, on Jan. 28, as a denouement to all the Paris collections for 2002. This will certainly be the slightly delayed last chapter of 20th-century fashion.
It is no accident that Saint Laurent closed shop and went to Morocco barely four months after 9/11, a seismic event that in essence declared the end of the 20th century. We don't know the shape of the future, but we do know that it is going to look radically different from the past. And we know that the past century will always look like Saint Laurent.
Marshall Blonsky is the author of 'American Mythologies' (Oxford, 1992). Edmundo Desnoes is author of 'Memories of Underdevelopment' (Rutgers, 1990). Both teach semiotics at New York University.