FEATURE
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FIRST COLLECTION, Women’s prêt-à-porter spring/summer 1977, thirtieth anniversary retrospective runway show, 2006. © Patrice Stable/Jean Paul Gaultier.
Jean Paul Gaultier


From Street to Chic

 

 

 

It is a testament to Gaultier’s vision and longevity that it is hard to tell when he created many of the pieces in the exhibition; over thirty-five years, his style has remained consistent and has largely defied trends.


Thirty-five years is a long time to be an enfant terrible. Though he will turn sixty in April, Jean Paul Gaultier’s childlike humor and naughtiness has never been diminished—or duplicated. A new touring exhibition and catalog, The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, invites us into Gaultier’s vertiginous orbit.

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FISHNET TIGHTS, Parisiennes collection, Haute couture fall/winter 2010 - 2011. © Patrice Stable/Jean Paul Gaultier. Photographs courtesy of Dallas Museum of Art.

French fashion takes itself very seriously. Haute couture is not an artform but a syndicate, bound by written rules and hallowed traditions. But the irrepressible Gaultier loves to play—perhaps because he was barely more than a child when he began his career. Gaultier began sketching at an early age, and in 1970, on his eighteenth birthday, he was hired by Pierre Cardin, once something of an enfant terrible himself. Gaultier learned on the job, working for a string of couture houses before showing his first ready-to-wear collection in 1976. His early couture training is evident in his craftsmanship if not his sometimes outrageous taste.

Gaultier got into fashion at a time when traditional couture and street style could not have been farther apart. The punk movement was scandalizing the United Kingdom, and for his first collection Gaultier transplanted it from London to Paris, putting a very Gallic spin on the punk aesthetic. Aspects of punk—tribalism, bondage, recycling, androgyny—have been constant themes in his work. Like his hero, Yves Saint Laurent, Gaultier has repeatedly turned to the street for inspiration—sometimes literally recruiting his models off the street.

Gaultier has always challenged conventional standards of beauty by using models of all shapes, sizes, ages, and colors; in the exhibition catalog, fashion editor Suzy Menkes credits him with bringing “ethnic diversity to the Paris runways.” His runway models have been pregnant, elderly, bald, pierced, or tattooed; he has sent celebrities, ninjas, midgets, and barnyard animals down the catwalk. He has made up models to look bruised and bloody, like boxers. He concluded his Spring 2011 show with a traditional wedding gown, but it was worn by an androgynous male model. Gaultier insists that he does not choose his models for shock value, but because he genuinely finds beauty in unexpected places; he was bereft when people thought he had sent plus-size model Velvet D’Amour down the runway in lingerie as a joke or a political statement. Nathalie Bondil, Chief Curator at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which organized the exhibition, observes that Gaultier “has a true generosity and a solid social message.” His optimism and tolerance act as an antidote to the fashion world’s proverbial snobbery and pretentiousness.

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LES INDES GALANTES [Romantic India] collection, Lascar dress, Haute couture spring/summer 2000. © P. Stable/Jean Paul Gaultier.

Gaultier’s materials are as unconventional as his models; he once made a dress out of bread. Along with his contemporaries Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana, he took fetish materials once found only in sex shops—latex, rubber, neoprene—and made them chic. He has rendered his trademark sailor stripes in leather, lace and crochet, and made thigh-high stockings from floral brocades and feathers. His love of contrasting fabrics and colors nearly bankrupted him in the early years of his business; today, he complains, they do not make silk velvet like they used to.

For all his Anglophile tendencies and ethnic inspirations, Gaultier’s iconographic language is exuberantly, stereotypically French: Breton sailors’ striped shirts, berets, baguettes, trenchcoats, and toile de Jouy. He can work the Eiffel Tower into the pattern of fishnet stockings, or the sheer lace back of a man’s black jacket, or the beading on an evening gown, or the heel of a shoe. A cheeky cancan-inspired skirt has fishnet-clad legs printed in a circle all around the lining. Gaultier is also fluent in fashion history, remixing it for modern audiences. He recreates a man’s eighteenth-century coat in faded denim, rips off the sleeves and pairs it with a tattooed bodysuit. Gaultier is not the first or the last designer to use antiquated garments like corsets and crinolines in his designs, but only Gaultier would use a crinoline as a bridal veil, or turn a salmon pink satin corset into a jumpsuit.

Gaultier finds inspiration in everything from mermaids to sherpas. One of his collections was inspired by Orthodox Judaism, with menorahs lining the runway; another by Catholic icons, with every model wearing an elaborate halo; another by Frida Kahlo; another by The Love Boat. He has had models strip as they come down the catwalk, so the clothes are lying all over the floor at the end of the show. In the exhibition, mannequins on crutches and crawling on leashes evoke Gaultier’s famously nontraditional fashion shows.

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L’HOMME OBJET [Boy Toy] collection, Men’s prêt-à-porter spring/summer 1984. © P. Stable/Jean Paul Gaultier.

Above all, Gaultier plays with gender roles. A favorite peplum jacket was inspired by women remaking their husbands’ clothes for themselves during World War II. For his Winter 2006/2007 couture show, Gaultier dressed his female models in top hats made of hair—a surreal juxtaposition of masculine and feminine. He is famous for putting men in skirts—not as drag, but as a legitimate, manly fashion choice. When Gaultier first showed skirts for men in 1984, he sold three thousand of them; fourteen years later, when soccer star David Beckham wore a Gaultier sarong to a nightclub, it was still front-page news.

If modern men can wear skirts, then modern women can wear corsets. With help from Madonna, Gaultier transformed the corset from a symbol of oppression to “a sign of women’s liberation, of women assuming power, sexual power included, over their own bodies,” in the words of fashion historian Valerie Steele. Unlike his contemporary, Vivienne Westwood, Gaultier is inspired by the undergarments of the 1930s through 1960s—his mother and beloved grandmother’s generation—rather than the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. He merges the bra, girdle and corset into one fetishized body that is more retro pinup girl than fin-de-siècle courtesan. According to Madonna, it is wearing the corset as outerwear, rather than underwear, that “turns it into a symbol of feminine power and sexual freedom.”

Unapologetically strong and sexual, Madonna is perhaps Gaultier’s ideal muse. When she commissioned him to make costumes for her 1990 Blond Ambition tour, it was a perfect match of designer and client. Although Gaultier had dressed Madonna before, Blond Ambition took both of them to new levels of notoriety. The tour (and the subsequent documentary Truth or Dare) made Gaultier a household name in the United States. As he does in his runway shows, Gaultier played with masculine and feminine iconography, mixing corsets, pinstripe suits, bowler hats, and bondage gear. Today, cone-shaped bras inevitably conjure up memories of Madonna, but Gaultier was making them much, much earlier. Included in the exhibition is Gaultier’s first muse, his childhood teddy bear, Nana, stapled into cone-shaped falsies young Jean Paul crafted from newsprint.

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BARBÉS COLLECTION, Women’s prêt-à-porter fall/winter 1984 – 1985. © P. Stable/Jean Paul Gaultier.

The exhibition is being billed as a contemporary art installation, not a fashion retrospective. After all, Gaultier still designs six collections per year, and dresses fashion icons from Lady Gaga to Michelle Obama. The interactive, multi-sensory display is certainly unlike any costume exhibition you have ever seen, combining clothes, photographs, sketches, fragrances, film and audio clips, and that teddy bear. The exhibition’s chief innovation (or gimmick, depending on your perspective) is its use of mannequins equipped with speakers and video projections, so their faces move, blink, speak (in French and English), whistle, and even sing—a deeply cool and unsettling effect. We are used to staring at mannequins in museums; disconcertingly, these mannequins stare back. Some have the faces and voices of Gaultier’s models; one has the designer’s own face and voice, personally welcoming visitors. The exhibition is arranged thematically rather than chronologically, bringing Gaultier’s obsessions to the fore: corsets, kilts, feathers, and, of course, sailor stripes.

The exhibition catalog reveals that Gaultier’s mother dressed him in striped sailor shirts from a young age, and he adopted them as a uniform so he would not have to worry about what to wear. “They go with everything, never go out of style and probably never will,” he claims. Paired with a tartan kilt or leather pants, they are the perfect expression of Gaultier’s Anglo-French-punk aesthetic, and contribute to his ageless, Peter Pan persona.

In one gallery, a rotating catwalk recreates a fashion show, with a dozen or so mannequins briskly circling the room on a conveyor belt. Costume curators have longed dreamed of showing clothes like this: in motion, and from all angles. Just imagine a fringed flapper dress swaying in jitterbug time. But there is a reason it is not done more often; it puts tremendous strain on garments, particularly historical garments. Because the bulk of the one hundred forty pieces in the exhibition come from Gaultier’s archive rather than museum collections, the usual conservation rulebook has been tossed out. Who knows what these clothes are going to look like at the end of their two-year world tour? Or perhaps a better question is: who cares? Clearly not Gaultier; without his cooperation, none of this could have happened. And such ethical nuances will be lost on the exhibition’s visitors, who will be too busy playing paparazzi, shooting their favorite looks with their iPhones as they go flying by on the catwalk. Elsewhere, the use of stand-alone platforms allows visitors to appreciate Gaultier’s craftsmanship from all angles, and at very close range—again, much closer than would be possible with museum pieces. One mannequin reclines on a platform in a long, lacy mermaid gown, the hem hanging down to the floor; the garment’s vulnerability is made even more conspicuous by a label telling us it took more than one hundred seventy-six hours to create the gown.

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EAN PAUL GAULTIER’S TEDDY BEAR, Nana, wearing the first cone bra. © Rainer Torrado/Jean Paul Gaultier.

At a time when many museums are experimenting with invisible mounts and other unconventional costume display tactics, this exhibition has succeeded in finding a way to make traditional mannequins look new and exciting. But while undoubtedly impressive and very much in keeping with the designer’s playfully provocative reputation, it is debatable whether the technology serves the exhibition or simply amps up the “wow” factor of garments that would look spectacular even in a much more conservative presentation.

Because for all its edginess and gadgetry, the lasting impression of The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier is one of simply gorgeous clothes. Gaultier is a master tailor; he often deconstructs his suits, putting the lining and topstitching on the outside of his jackets, or attaching the jacket by shoulder straps, leaving the sleeves dangling. “He can allow himself many flights of fancy because the basic structure of the garment is always impeccable,” actress Catherine Deneuve testifies in the catalog. The exhibition is full of technically brilliant trompe l’oeil effects: a startlingly realistic leopard skin turns out to be made entirely of beading. So does a tartan kilt. The white pinstripes on a black silk georgette shirtdress are actually rows of mother-of-pearl buttons, half-hidden inside knife pleats. The shoes—all created for the runway—deserve an exhibition of their very own. Though he did not show a couture collection until 1997, Gaultier has always paid careful attention to the details of fashion, beautifully captured in the catalog photography.

One section of the exhibit is devoted to Gaultier’s work for the stage and screen, and the collections inspired by those pursuits. His Jetsons-go-to-an-S&M-club costumes fit right into the futuristic setting of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, creating a fun, sexy vision of the future that is light years away from the stylized self-seriousness of, say, Blade Runner or The Matrix. A man’s frock coat printed with the faces of matinee idols in shades of black, white and gray is a wonderfully literal evocation of old Hollywood glamour, as is a slinky evening gown trimmed with strips of film.

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DADA collection, Women’s prêt-à-porter spring/summer 1983. Model: Dita Von Teese, photographed for Flaunt in 2003 by Perou.

The exhibition catalog, edited by curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot, reads like a particularly luxe edition of a glossy fashion magazine; parts of it are actually articles reprinted from fashion magazines. Editorial and advertising photographs illustrate candid, deliciously gossipy interviews with Gaultier, his famous clients, collaborators, models, friends, family, and fellow designers. There are useful reference materials here (such as timelines and a comprehensive bibliography) but no exhibition checklist.

It is light on scholarly analysis, heavy on jaw-dropping images (not to mention just plain heavy, weighing in at nine pounds). It is a testament to Gaultier’s vision and longevity that it is hard to tell when he created many of the pieces in the exhibition; over thirty-five years, his style has remained consistent and has largely defied trends. Indeed, several of his once-shocking creations look perfectly wearable today, an indication of how thoroughly Gaultier’s unique brand of Gallic whimsy has permeated the mainstream. Without him, would we have Katy Perry’s pinup-girl style? Would we have Martin Margiela, who credits his former boss with shaping his taste? Would we have non-white supermodels? Gaultier has given us much more than stripes and corsets.

 

 

 

QUICK LINKS

More Jean Paul Gaultier images

 

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk is on display at the Dallas Museum of Art through February 12, 2012. It will travel to the de Young Museum in San Francisco, March 24 - August 19, the Fundación Mapfre-Instituto de Cultura in Madrid, September 26 - November 18, and the Kunsthal Rotterdam, February 9 - May 12, 2013.

 

SUGGESTED READING
Loriot, Thierry-Maxime, ed. The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc, 2011.
Chenoune, Farid. Jean Paul Gaultier. New York: Assouline Publishing, 2005.
McDowell, Colin. Jean Paul Gaultier. New York: Viking Studio, 2001.

 

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles. She has worked as a curator, consultant and educator for museums and universities around the world. Recent publications include Paris: Life and Luxury in the Eighteenth Century (Getty Publications, 2011) and Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700 - 1915 (Prestel, 2010). She has appeared as an expert commentator in Biography Channel documentaries on fashion designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier, whose artistry she explores in this issue.

 

 

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