It’s a reasonable assumption to make that a man who was dubbed the enfant terrible of fashion early on in his career forges styles with shock value at the forefront. Though his collections always warrant a raised over-waxed eyebrow from show attendees, Jean Paul Gaultier’s work, much like fashion at large, can at times only be superficially consumed rather than analyzed on a deeper level. Sailor stripes, corsets, and men’s skirts are not just the cheeky trademarks of a brilliant designer, but tools for a deeper excavation of culture. Seeing it all curated together, the breadth of his work can quixotically be described as evincing a utopian vision — not just of fashion, but of society.
The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From Sidewalk to Catwalk, known thus far as that exhibition with the talking mannequins, finally has its New York premiere at the Brooklyn Museum. That distracting spectacle aside, the show is one of the most richly comprehensive retrospectives to hit New York in quite some time; the knee-jerk comparison, of course, is the 2011 Alexander McQueen show at the Met. The most profound effect of seeing collections upon collections from Gaultier’s archives, compared to McQueen, is the risk, experimentation and vast inspiration the French designer has taken over the years. McQueen, as avant-garde as he was, tended to stick more loyally to a narrow aesthetic than Gaultier, whose clothes frequently expand beyond expectations.
Each season Gaultier has crafted culturally significant lines traversing muses from mermaids to Catholic iconography to films like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, while always shoving something new and unbelievable in front of our eyes. Pieces 20 years old and steeped in tradition, like the high fashion looks from his Rabbi Chic collection inspired by Hassidic Jews, offer an alternative, never-before-seen style of dress that few have dared, especially on the ready-to-wear level. Through his designs, Gaultier obfuscates the mainstream view of social mores and suggests a liberated outlook of a utopian ideal we all can — and in some ways, already are — striving towards.
His excavation of global cultures, as embodied particularly in a wedding gown infused with Eurocentric tradition and Amerindian flair, reads not as appropriation or exploitation but rather as evoking that global mélange of genetics and culture we’re all inevitably hurtling to.
He barrels further, flitting from ethnographic designs to demolishing the barrier between men’s and womenswear. Always cheekily subverting sexual roles throughout his career, he’s sent many women’s looks down the runway inspired by masculine aesthetics. The “Passe-Passe” dress from his Buttons collection — a gown constructed from a grey wool plaid, boasting a bodice forged in the style of a men’s suit jacket, but flattened and tailored to a woman’s frame — suggests a semiotic reading of gendered garments.
On the men’s front, Gaultier pushes the boundaries in more formal ways, dressing them in pink corsets and flowing skirts, but also utilizing a peacock approach to style, draping them in decadent textiles like fur and satin that are typically reserved in modern times to feminine apparel.
This juxtaposition promotes an ideal that’s simultaneously communal and individualistic. He envisions a future where all genders, races and body types can wear the same thing, but in doing so liberates the public to wear whatever they desire.
The weak point of the exhibition, and Gaultier’s work in general, is the exploration of class. The fashion industry generally promulgates this kind of sartorial experimentation to the very wealthy. Though a selection from his High-Tech collection suggests a cheap DIY design of trash bag dresses and tin can jewelry, the bulk of the show promotes a luxe lifestyle unattainable by the lower classes.
We seem to be heading towards Gaultier’s vision of the future as a culture, even on a global scale, one where we melt together and banish boundaries in pursuit of a free utopia. And perhaps it all begins with a few simple sailor stripes.
The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk is on view at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Pkwy, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn) through February 23, 2014.
Subscribe to the Hyperallergic newsletter!