The city’s latest blockbuster art museum fashion exhibition is “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk,” at the Brooklyn Museum. Much fussing has been done over the curious digital video faces projected on the mannequins, and how it compares to the McQueen exhibition, and whether the presentation favors froth and frivolity over technique, and why at $125 the exhibition catalog is so damned expensive (that was just me, wearing a Breton stripe shirt and talking to myself in the mirror).
One aspect of the exhibition that is captivating regardless of where one lands on $125 books and mannequins that wink and pout is the designer’s slew of muses and collaborators. While many designers struggle to connect celebrity with their designs beyond the red carpet, Gaultier has done a fine job of assembling a pantheon of celebrities-in-crime, a haute motley crew if there ever were one: Madonna, Beyonce, Dita Von Teese, Beth Ditto, and Crystal Renn. Not only is his grouping diverse, but each one does a distinctive job of expressing Gaultier’s irreverent sensuality. Through his exaggerated, fanciful, and outlandish designs, Gaultier posits that sex and sexuality needn’t be serious to be sexy. Below, a gloss on each of the women presented in the exhibition, and how their iconic looks from the retrospective articulate the designer’s signature aesthetic.
We can’t talk Gaultier without talking Madonna: the designer created the costumes for her notorious “Blonde Ambition” tour, including the cone bra with which she is pretty much synonymous. We seem to forget the critical point that the bra is part of a corset, which, as fashion historian Valerie Steele notes in the aforementioned catalog, was “an instrument of female oppression and a cause of ill health, even death.” Working with Madonna, though, Gaultier, turned it into an image of “sexual power” and “liberation”–indeed, the exaggerated shape becomes subversive where it might otherwise be a signal of submission. The whole reason to go to a fashion exhibition, of course, is to see the famous and wild stuff up close, and in the peachy flesh, Madonna’s cone bra corset is marvelously aggressive and excitingly weird. It cinches its wearer not with a Scarlet O’Hara-like lace-up contraption, but an immaculate basket-weave. Another corset, also worn on the tour, has laces, but they’re bondgage novel rather than functional, and garters dangle with no purpose other than to remind you that this bodice of cheeky sexual aggression is based on an obsolete machine you were never meant to see. Sometimes the idea of someone performing in underwear seems quaint, and yet to see the corsets in person is to be newly provoked.
Beyonce has also worn a number of Gaultier designs in performance, though where Madonna provokes, Beyonce assures. To see a famous person’s clothing in real life is to realize how small they are, because famous people are always small, even–or especially–when they’re our size. You’re struck at how small Madonna’s cleavage must be to fit into those little coffee filters, but the Beyonce offerings simply flatter what’s already there: a corset shape with cinched waist and a flare at the hip. And yet corset isn’t exactly the right word: the most iconic of her Gaultier costumes is the jacket she wore from the Haute Couture Spring 2009 collection in her “I Am….Yours” tour in Las Vegas that same year. With its metallic beading and fan-like skirt, it much more resembles medieval armor than “an instrument of oppression.” It’s protective, and an assurance, perhaps, that she’s what a woman ought to be–yet curiously, armor is often ceremonial.
Dita Von Teese
Dita Von Teese seems to be somewhere in between: she’s crafted weirdness, like Madonna, and yet it’s a conservative craft, a painstaking effort taken in subscription to a past notion of beauty. If you’re attuned to the costumes-reveal-tiny-
Gaultier’s other two significant muses–who, I think it is worth noting, are somewhat uncomfortably grouped together in the corner of a hallway between large exhibition spaces–are Beth Ditto and Crystal Renn. Ditto, the Rubenesque flapper-styled lead singer of Gossip, has a fearless irreverence that makes her an ideal Gaultier muse, and the dress on display is like the fantastical aftermath of an explosion in a saloon florist. In dressing Ditto, Gaultier seems to eschew the rules of the classic female figure flattery that apply when he dresses a woman in a corset, and it raises the question of whether Gaultier thinks a small waist is only interesting when it’s impressively small, or boobs or butts are only intriguing when they can be exaggerated.
Next to Ditto’s offering is the dress Crystal Renn wore in the finale of Gaultier’s Spring 2006 “Country Babes” show, a remarkable tumbling of flowers down a fountain of marbled-flesh tulle. The dress is really something, particularly because you can see in person how it really does look best on a figure with some curves (and ones that are not artificial or exaggerated). Renn and Gaultier have had a lengthy relationship, and of all things, it’s Renn’s fluctuations in size that make her subversive, rather than any socio-cultural stance. Long the industry’s most famous plus-sized model, she lost a significant amount of weight in 2010, a fact which first came to the public’s attention when she starred in Gaultier’s Fall campaign. Interestingly (and someone please correct me if this is wrong), Gaultier seems to have ceased working with Renn. Could it be that, no longer plus-sized, she is no longer “different eeez fab-oo-luss”?