NEW YORK Jean Paul Gaultier’s contribution to 20th-century fashion might be summed up in two garments: the corset and the men’s skirt.
Stepping back a bit, however, Gaultier accomplished much more than that.
He was one of the first openly gay designers, and in an era ruled by street fashion, he made being a high-fashion designer seem cool. The army of pop stars who followed in his wake, becoming designers themselves, is evidence of this, as well as the popularity of television shows like “Project Runway” and the smaller contingent of artists who have used fashion collections and runway shows as models for performance-based art works.
But first, the corset and the skirt. Quoted in the colossus of a catalog accompanying the exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum (through Feb. 23), fashion historian Valerie Steele, who has written a book on the history of the corset, says that it was traditionally viewed as “an instrument of female oppression and a cause of ill health, even death,” but that Gaultier transformed it into an emblem of women’s “liberation” and “sexual power.” Although, as Steele points out, one particular woman helped Gaultier achieve this feat: Madonna.
The Material Girl
Gaultier began working with the Material Girl in the 1980s and has designed costumes for several of her tours – pieces of which are on view here – including as recently as 2011. But the ones he created for her “Blond Ambition” tour in 1990 became a cultural milestone.
Gaultier’s corset was created during the AIDS crisis, the culture wars and the heyday of post-feminist theory, with Judith Butler describing “Gender Trouble” in her book of that name in 1990 and Donna Haraway’s writing “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1991) about hybrid, post-human bodies. Madonna’s male dancers wearing Gaultier bras with large, conical breasts onstage were a radical pop illustration. (Lady Gaga as heir to both Madonna and Gaultier is mentioned frequently throughout the catalog.)
Regarding the male skirt, which he introduced in 1983, Gaultier has argued that it has been worn by men throughout history: Scottish kilts, or the skirts worn by Japanese samurai, or the Parisian bistro waiter’s long aprons. A mannequin at the show, with Gaultier’s face projected onto it like a Tony Oursler artwork and offering a somewhat unsettling soundtrack greeting, is clad in a long skirt, suggesting that this is Gaultier’s most personal and signature contribution.
‘TV was my Bible’
The exhibition is divided primarily by collection and period, but sometimes these are mixed up. There are collections influenced by art, including “Dada” (1983), “The Surrealists” (2006-07), “Constructivist (Russian)” (1986-87) and “Tribute to Frida Kahlo” (1998); and more tongue-in-check art-themed ones like “Japanese Tourists at the Louvre” (1999) and “Good-Time Gauguin” (2000).
What is emphasized early in the show, organized by Gaultier and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (with the Brooklyn edition organized by Lisa Small, a curator at that museum), is that Gaultier came of age witnessing the rise of punk, New Wave and cultural and identity politics, and watching television. (“TV was my Bible,” he says in the catalog.)
What becomes clear throughout this show, however, is that Gaultier is very, very French. Lurking behind every garment is the rigorous history of French couture – in addition to working for Cardin, Gaultier cites Yves Saint Laurent and Courrèges as major influences – but also French clichés, like his numerous plays on the striped French sailors’ sweater that his mother dressed him in as a boy, or the Folies-Bergère, another early inspiration. There are even nods to French philosophy in collections like “The Existentialists” and a sound recording accompanying a mannequin in a camouflage-effect ruffled tulle gown (worn by Sarah Jessica Parker at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2000) that quotes Roland Barthes’ structuralist text “The Fashion System” (1967).
Gaultier is the consummate Frenchman – what could be more Gallic than a fashion designer? But he too is open to the whole world, even if, like Madonna, Gaultier’s relevance has waned since the 1990s.
Gaultier has contributed a great deal not only to democratizing fashion but also to promoting ideas of beauty, gender, race and class that challenged mainstream mores. For this reason, it is particularly nice to encounter his subversively but exquisitely crafted objects in an art museum.
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