A well-worn teddy bear (Nana, circa 1957) with a drawn-on face and pasted on cone-shaped breasts that the five-year old Gaultier constructed out of newsprint greets the visitor in one of the first displays in the new Jean Paul Gaultier retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum. A wardrobe with vintage women’s undergarments, a 1950s black and white television, and a childhood photograph of the designer nestled against his grandmother provide a cinematic mise-en-scene. Text has Gaultier telling a story about watching a program about the Folies-Bergere on his grandmother’s TV set. The next day at school, he sketched the dancers complete with frilly dresses and fishnet stockings, resulting in a rapping on the knuckles from his favorite teacher. But, just as quickly, it transformed him from the sissy who preferred drawing to football into a hero with his peers.
It is a fitting beginning, coming as it does just after a room filled with highlights from Gaultier collections, designs that challenge boundaries of culture, class, gender and sexuality, all the while maintaining a childlike sense of play. Four beautiful gowns from 2008’s “Mermaid” collection feature latex bodysuits accented with fins shaped by sequin embroideries, the bras and corsets made of shimmering cowrie shells. 2007’s “Virgins” collection, inspired by medieval Christian iconography, includes “Immaculata” a stunning crocheted gown with linen appliqués of printed cherubs, and “Apparitions,” which features a bustier of cherubs and flora printed against a sky blue field, an ivory silk overskirt, and a halo-style headdress complete with the Virgin Mother. There are “Pin-Up Boys” (collection, 1996), “Boy-Toys” (collection, 1984), and androgynous sailor-style attire from “Ze Parisienne” (collection, 2002).
Throughout the exhibition, which features 140 ensembles from both his haute couture and pret-á-porter work as well as fashion photographs, video displays of runway shows and television advertisements, and preparatory sketches, Gaultier buoyantly courts controversy and turns convention on its head. At almost every turn, he credits his grandmother for nurturing these impulses. Interviewed by exhibition curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on the evening of the opening in Brooklyn, Gaultier recounted a story of finding corsets in his grandmother’s wardrobe and asking her what they were. “She was very open with me,” he said with wry irony, telling the young boy how women sometimes drank vinegar to induce stomach spasms in order to fit into them. Gaultier’s contribution was to transform this morsel into an insight about the erotic nature of corsets, bras, and bustiers— how to deploy them not as mechanisms of female bodily imprisonment but as symbols of raw feminine sexual emancipation and power.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the whiff of celebrity surrounds Gaultier. There are gowns worn by pop stars Beyoncé and Kylie Minogue and supermodels Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista, high art fashion photographs by the likes of Cindy Sherman and Alix Malka, and even clips from the 1990s of Gaultier hosting the English TV series “Eurotrash.” Madonna’s iconic cone-breasted corsets and armor-like bodices worn on her “Blond Ambition” tour (1989-90), are complemented by Gaultier’s sketchbook designs and a series of Polaroids from the original fittings.
But though Gaultier may enjoy all the attention, he seems hardly bothered by celebrity imprimatur. “Nonconformist designer seeks unusual models,” reads an advert he placed in a French newspaper. “The conventionally pretty need not apply.” He consciously chooses runway models of different ages, races, genders and shapes. His designs embrace clothing that is beyond gender, hypersexualized, sensitive to the creativity of the street. Several collections inspired by the punk movement (displayed in front of spray-painted graffiti) embrace anti-materialism, incorporating recycled elements and fabrics that are enriched and transformed under Gaultier’s creative eye. Gaultier longs to expand our notions of what is beautiful, using the “second skin” of clothing as the sketchbook through which we unmask our inner selves. “Our body, the way we present ourselves— it’s a form of communication,” he exalts. If this retrospective in Brooklyn is a measure of Gaultier’s message, fashion should celebrate our individuality and diversity, embodying the kinetic energy of our global melting pot. Most of all, Gaultier goads us to mimic Cyndi Lauper: he encourages all of us to just want to have fun.
“The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” runs at the Brooklyn Museum (www.brooklynmuseum.org) until 23 February 2014. Admission is $15. The museum is open Wednesday and Friday thru Sunday, 11 am – 6 pm, Thursdays 11 am – 10 pm.
Text: © John Major, 2013