Visiting the De Young’s current exhibit, The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, is like falling down a rabbit hole to a world where high fashion and street fashion, Victorian and 21st century mix freely, where gender is fluid, and where the word “overdressed” is not in the vocabulary. Walking out, the visitor is left pondering one’s suddenly rather bleak-seeming wardrobe, but also the potential drabness of his or her personality – “Would you dare wear these clothes, given the chance?” the exhibit seems to ask. The Gaultier show, in contrast to previous, more traditional fashion retrospectives at the De Young for Balenciaga and Yves St. Laurent, transcends haute couture to playfully comment on gender, sexuality, multiculturalism, pop culture and the very definition of beauty.
Setting the tone, one of Gaultier’s classified ads is quoted near the entrance of the exhibit: “Non-conformist designer seeks unusual models — the conventionally pretty need not apply.” It quickly becomes clear that Gaultier’s clothing is for personalities, not models, and, appropriately enough, the mannequins in this exhibit are no staid dummies: through projection and hidden microphones, they literally speak to the audience – and whistle, sing, complain in English, French, Spanish, and Russian. One look in the first room distills Gaultier’s nonconformist ethos perfectly: a mermaid wedding gown modeled by a mannequin on crutches. “Mermaid” is taken literally – the cone bra is made of polished seashells, and the gown ends in a tail at her ankles. A nautical tattoo of a sailor girl adorns her calf. The crutches themselves are integral to the outfit, all coral and pearly seashells – the disability is unique, worthy of being accentuated and beautified.
Although he achieved some level of notoriety with his bondage-inspired collections, Gaultier is not out to cause controversy for its own sake, but rather to re-examine gender roles through his designs – as one of the mannequins says, quoting the designer, “Garments don’t have gender.” Perhaps the most famous example is Gaultier’s costume design for Madonna’s Blond Ambition tour, the one with the memorably pointy cone bustiers contrasted with masculine pinstripe suits. A couple of these bustiers are featured in the show, as well as sketches showing the male backup dancers’ corset-inspired outfits. In the very next room, the theme is again addressed whimsically by a male mannequin conversing with his reflection. He wears an extravagant feather-adorned corset over a crisp white shirt with a long black skirt. “Men also have the right to wear haute couture. Express yourself,” the reflection encourages. “Your image is a game, an illusion. Play with it like a work of art, be free.”
The show surveys many of Gaultier’s favorite visual themes, from mermaids and religious imagery, to global ethnic elements, to punk culture. The clothing is meticulously and skillfully constructed but often tongue in cheek, such as a womenswear look echoing a Hasidic fur hat, from the irreverently titled “Chic Rabbis” collection. Here is a punk-inspired outfit – set against a San Francisco-referencing graffiti wall specifically commissioned for the exhibit – which on closer inspection is made of a silvery plastic bag, jauntily accessorized with a mesh tea infuser, steel wool pads and tin-can bracelets. Here, an outfit topped by a mini top hat made of human hair; a camo-patterned ball gown; a jean corset. Some looks are both impeccable and subversively impractical, such as Gaultier’s maternity corset.
So, who would wear these clothes? Globetrotters, rock stars, envelope-pushers of all stripes. As Gaultier says in an interview about the show, “There is no one type of beauty.” Beyond looks, to Gaultier beauty is a combination of individuality, vibrant personality, and confidence, with a heaping dose of sass and humor. The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier is a perfect fit for a city where freak flags are flown proudly. It will be showing at the De Young through August 19th.
Kseniya Tuchinskaya is an overthinker, urban meanderer, photo-taker and science fangirl. Her biggest challenge is finding enough hours in a day to fit in all the reading she wants to do.