L’Eléphant Blanc is part of Yves Saint Laurent’s Trapèze collection for the House of Dior, Spring/Summer 1958, which introduced the versatile trapèze silhouette to haute couture. Saint Laurent’s first collection at Dior placed him firmly on the path to becoming one of the most well-known designers of the twentieth century.
About the Look
Yves Saint Laurent’s L’Eléphant Blanc (white elephant) was featured in his first collection for the house of Dior, the 1958 Spring/Summer Trapèze collection. This white, heavily embellished dress hides a boned corset and a stiff horsehair understructure to give it its unique shape (Fig. 1). The beads and rhinestones are attached to a layer of netting on top of the white silk hiding the understructure. The Metropolitan Museum of Art describes the final effect as:
“Seeking a shape for independence, though still tethered, the ‘Eléphant Blanc’ dress also employs a shimmering embroidery on net that requires a finishing flourish to the thread work on a transparent surface. Thus, in both surface decoration and in structure, Saint Laurent gained the effect of ethereal, bouyant freedom while retaining the structure of the couture.”
Saint Laurent’s trapèze silhouette received critical acclaim as a new take on Dior’s A-line.
Yves Saint Laurent (French, 1936–2008) for the House of Dior (French, founded 1947). Ensemble, Spring/Summer 1958. Silk, metallic thread, glass, plastic. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art,1977.329.5a, b. Gift of Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, 1977. Source: The Met.
About the context
For his first collection at Dior, Yves Saint Laurent needed something groundbreaking to make an impact on the world of haute couture. He found it in his trapèze silhouette, taking Dior’s classic 1947 A-line skirt shape and marrying it to the waist-less silhouettes of the 1920s. The new silhouette was offered in many varieties, from afternoon dresses (Fig. 2), to cocktail dresses and evening gowns (Fig. 3). Saint Laurent had created an adaptable dress style and successfully thrown the Paris fashion scene something new and delightful. By establishing a new silhouette for Dior, Saint Laurent was employing a tactic used by Christian Dior himself. In his book Yves Saint Laurent: Style (2008), Pierre Bergé and Hamish Bowles explain:
“Each season, Christian Dior and his equipe would reinvent and finesse the best sellers of the previous season, but leaven the collection with a handful of dramatic designs that would emphatically reinforce the message and new statement ‘line’ of the season, […] For his debut, Saint Laurent subtly referenced Dior’s A-line of Spring/Summer 1955.” (16)
It is clear that Saint Laurent drew inspiration from his predecessor to conceive the trapèze silhouette. In As Seen in Vogue: A Century of American Fashion in Advertising (2004), fashion historian Daniel Delis Hill observes the evolution of the trapèze shape:
“Saint Laurent’s trapeze designs continued the loose-fitting and waistless silhouette, this time, though, with hemlines peaked at the knee.” (88)
Saint Laurent’s Spring/Summer 1958 collection was met with critical acclaim from the press. A Women’s Wear Daily headline from 1958 praised the collection, exclaiming, “Paris Couture Openings: Great Ovation Given New Dior Collection With ‘Trapeze’ Line: Top Silhouette.” In a March 1958 Vogue article, “Fashion: Paris Collections” (Figs. 2-3), editor-in-chief Jessica Daves writes:
“To begin with the Dior line: the narrow-shouldered bell-skirted dresses make a shape- a shape more beautiful than its name, ‘Trapeze.’ It is a swinging shape that appears for every hour of day or evening- in tweed, in chiffon, in linen, in sequins, in tulle.” (3-4)
While noting the success of the collection, Daves also notes the versatility of the silhouette, and juxtaposes L’Eléphant Blanc with a daytime silhouette in the spread for Vogue (Fig. 2). L’Eléphant Blanc itself is a perfect example of how successful the evening dress silhouette was, and Saint Laurent included several afternoon dresses of the same silhouette in the collection. His afternoon dresses were made from materials like mohair (Figs. 2, 4) and had details like Peter Pan collars (Fig. 5), bows, and center-front buttons (Fig. 6) to provide a softer daytime look. Not every dress in the collection featured the trapèze look specifically, but instead had matching coats that showcased the theme (Figs. 7, 8).
In an article titled “Dior Prestige for Fashion News Sustained in Launching of ‘Trapeze’,” M. D. De Laprade and Mary Neale describe their first impressions of the collection in January 1958:
“The ‘trapeze’ silhouette supplied… the Christian Dior tradition, but with a younger slant. They are essentially flattering and feminine; the young designer obviously believes in making women look pretty… The trapeze silhouette runs through the collection from day to evening and, true to its name, delineates a gentle slope from shoulder to 20-inch hemline for daytime; in dresses, there is a slight indentation below the bust… The line is exaggerated when used in evening models; the slope frequently starting from a strapless decollete.” (5)
In The History of Modern Fashion (2015), authors Daniel Cole and Nancy Diehl elaborate on the different uses of the trapèze silhouette:
“Saint Laurent presented his first collection for Dior in 1958, and transformed the A-Line silhouette into the ‘Trapeze,’ which was offered in several variations, including a day version with practical patch pockets, and a cocktail version with a bubble hem.” (242)
his garment was featured in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Spring 2016 exhibition “Manus x Machina.” On the 70th anniversary of the House of Dior, a series of books began to be published devoted to each designer who has headed the house. The second volume, Dior Anthology Vol. 2: Dior by Yves Saint Laurent, focuses on Yves Saint Laurent and features L’Eléphant Blanc (Fig. 9).
L’Eléphant Blanc (Fig. 10) and the trapèze silhouette are one of the many triumphs of Yves Saint Laurent and the House of Dior. The trapèze dress was a fresh new look on the runway and a grand departure from gowns of decades past. Saint Laurent’s first collection at Dior was a milestone for his career and placed him firmly on the path to becoming one of the most well-known designers of the twentieth century. The trapèze dress was a predecessor to many of the silhouettes that became popular in the 1960s, and the idea can be seen carried through in Saint Laurent’s later work. L’Eléphant Blanc is still as elegant and fashionable today as it was in 1958.
Berge, Pierre, and Hamish Bowles. Yves Saint Laurent: Style. New York: Abrams, 2008. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/938100716
Cole, Daniel James, and Nancy Deihl. The History of Modern Fashion from 1850. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2015. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/1028448758
Daves, Jessica. “Fashion, Paris Collections.” Vogue (March 1, 1958), 104-107. https://archive.vogue.com/article/1958/03/01/paris-collections.
- De Laprade, M. D., and Mary Neale. “Dior Prestige for Fashion News Sustained in Launching of ‘Trapeze’.” Women’s Wear Daily 96, no. 22 (Jan 31, 1958), 5. ProQuest
“Dior Anthology Vol. 2: Dior by Yves Saint Laurent.” Fashionela, 26 May 2017. www.fashionela.net/people-in-fashion/designers/dior-anthology-vol-2-dior-by-yves-saint-laurent/.
“‘L’Eléphant Blanc.'” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed March 06, 2019. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/81476
Fairchild, John B. “Great Ovation Given New Dior Collection With ‘Trapeze’ Line.” Women’s Wear Daily 96, no. 22 (Jan 31, 1958): 1. ProQuest
“First Collection and First Success.” Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris. Accessed March 06, 2019. https://museeyslparis.com/en/biography/premiere-collection-premier-succes
Hill, Daniel Delis. As Seen in Vogue: A Century of American Fashion in Advertising. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2004. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/876672122
“Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology.” The Met , The Metropolitan Museum of Art, www.metmuseum.org/press/exhibitions/2015/manus-x-machina.