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Yves Saint Laurent's creations for French actress Catherine Deneuve at Christie's auction house in Paris.ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images

During January’s haute-couture fashion week, Christie’s Paris displayed French actress Catherine Deneuve’s extensive Yves Saint Laurent wardrobe before it was sold at auction on Thursday. Much like Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy, Deneuve and the late Saint Laurent enjoyed a long professional and personal friendship, beginning in 1965 with his first commission (a dress in which she would be presented to the Queen). Saint Laurent would design clothes for her, and inspired by her, for the rest of his life, including garments for Deneuve’s characters in movies such as Belle de Jour. She was the first client of his 1967 Rive Gauche store opening.

The auction comes as Deneuve, 75, leaves her 19th-century Normandy chateau – the country home where she had been storing the garments. The auction catalogue of Catherine Deneuve et Yves Saint Laurent: De Mode et D’Amitié includes more than 300 lots, ranging from intricate haute-couture pieces, to ready-to-wear apparel, to accessories such as bow ties and floppy-brimmed hats that were in a subsequent online sale ( It’s disappointing, however, that in the catalogue, the clothes are arrayed by colour rather than biographically. It’s a missed opportunity and creates a distance that treats the clothes – it’s hard to know what to call them; a collection? an archive? – as objects, rather than as what they are, which is autobiography.

In my experience of museum fashion exhibitions, and probably yours, the thing incredulous visitors are most often heard whispering is, “Who wears this stuff?” That’s because, in that context, clothing is usually separated from the wearer’s identity in favour of focusing on the creator, his/her craftsmanship and the general cultural context. The typically female wearer – and how, when and why she wore the item – becomes beside the point. From Audrey Hepburn to Aretha Franklin, the Duchess of Windsor to Daphne Guinness, and now Deneuve, these major wardrobe-and-wearer auctions are seldom the domain of men’s clothes. (The wardrobe of noted sartorialist Duke of Windsor is the exception.) “They’re just clothes" is a frequent dismissive refrain about fashion and fashion exhibitions, but the contents of a woman’s closet are important means for considering how dress is a tool in creating social identity. Given the historically limited opportunities for women, what women often had, and still do, was their clothing. What women wear matters.

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Frida Kahlo fashioned her image and made herself subject and object, so possessions such as emery boards, eyebrow pencils and a Revlon tube still containing a nub of lipstick are relevant.Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Archives/Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Museums

The Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum mined a similar theme and explicitly wove the artist’s signature mix of indigenous Mexican garments, chinoiseries and Victoriana into a narrative of her life. Like other artists, Georgia O’Keeffe, Claude Cahun, to name just two examples, Kahlo used her sartorial identity as an extension of her work. She fashioned her image and made herself subject and object, so possessions such as emery boards, eyebrow pencils and a Revlon tube still containing a nub of lipstick (in “Everything’s Rosy”) are relevant.

Granted, some clothing collecting can be extreme, such as the personal fashion archive of fashion editor and street-style queen Anna Dello Russo. She famously maintained a second separate apartment just to store the clothing and more than 4,000 pairs of shoes amassed from more than 30 years in the business, and sold most of it last year through Net-a-porter and Christie’s. “I had to give space to life!” she explained to Vogue when she sold it all off for charity.

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Illustration of Sara Berman's Closet.Mercie Ghimire/Skirball Cultural Centre

Consider Maira and Alex Kalman’s multimedia artwork Sara Berman’s Closet. The art project and illustrated book tribute to the late Berman highlights what’s absent from the Deneuve auction exhibit. The Belarusian immigrant to New York was not famous in her lifetime – she was the mother of artist Maira and grandmother of curator Alex. It’s told through objects found in Berman’s Greenwich Village studio. Following Berman’s death at the age of 84 in 2004, the family preserved the contents of that closet (clothing, accessories, even the partial bottle of Chanel No. 19). A decade later, they recreated the closet in a storefront window for Mmuseumm; in 2017, an exhibition at the Met did the same: Visitors stood before an alcove recreating the meticulously organized closet of her modest apartment, and could peer in at the contents are tidily starched, pressed, folded and carefully stacked on the shelves. A similar version of that installation is currently at the Skirball Cultural Centre in Los Angeles (until March 10,, in dialogue with a series of 12 new paintings by Maira Kalman.

The Berman artefacts have neither the pedigree nor the provenance of the YSL/Deneuve pieces, but are the more emotionally resonant of the two. After a long marriage that ended in divorce, Berman adopted a minimal wardrobe consisting entirely in shades of cream and ivory – slacks, 12 T-shirts, two nightgowns, 13 blouses, seven hats and seven brassieres all monochromatic down to the socks. The limited palette reinforces the feeling of a studied art installation. But what it represents is a deeply intimate glimpse of a life lived. Seeing these everyday objects recreated in a private, albeit banal context makes it an intimate experience.

In the Deneuve catalogue, famous outfits including smoking tuxedos, sequined cocktail dresses and feathered evening gowns are on mannequins, and the pages are peppered with photographs reminding us of recent history, of the actress walking the steps at Cannes or the Césars, on magazine covers, and with reproductions of personal notes to her in Saint Laurent’s own hand. The shoes in both collections, moulded to the echo of their owners foot shape, leave little doubt that these were ever functional objects. They’re what get me, in an exhibit that quietly asserts identity. It isn’t that less is more – but considering them side by side the more glamorous array, for all its personal touches, feels less intimate than the spartan and silent, anonymous Berman. There have been many variations on what Coco Chanel once observed, which roughly translates as, “Look for the woman in the dress. If there is no woman, there is no dress.”

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