Jean Paul Gaultier, ‘From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk ’

Linda Rosier for The New York Times

Jean Paul Gaultier — well, a mannequin with a projection of his face — greets visitors at the exhibition of his work in Brooklyn.

Published: November 7, 2013

Jean Paul Gaultier ’s contribution to late-20th-century fashion might be summed up in two garments: the corset and the men’s skirt. Stepping back a bit, however, Mr. Gaultier accomplished much more than that. He was one of the first openly gay designers, and in an era ruled by street fashion, he made being a high-fashion designer seem cool. The army of pop stars who followed in his wake, becoming designers themselves, is evidence of this, as well as the popularity of television shows like “Project Runway” and the smaller contingent of artists who have used fashion collections and runway shows as models for performance-based art works. (Just this week, Rainer Ganahl’s “Comme des Marxists,” an obvious play on Comme des Garçons, appeared at White Columns as part of Performa 13 .)

But first, the corset and the skirt. Quoted in the colossus of a catalog accompanying the exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum , the fashion historian Valerie Steele, who has written a book on the history of the corset, says that it was traditionally viewed as “an instrument of female oppression and a cause of ill health, even death,” but that Mr. Gaultier transformed it into an emblem of women’s “liberation” and “sexual power.” Although, as Ms. Steele points out, one particular woman helped Mr. Gaultier achieve this feat: Madonna.

Mr. Gaultier began working with the Material Girl in the 1980s and has designed costumes for several of her tours — pieces of which are on view here — including as recently as 2011. But the ones he created for her “Blond Ambition” tour in 1990 became a cultural milestone.

Gaultier’s corset was created during the AIDS crisis, the culture wars and the heyday of postfeminist theory, with Judith Butler describing “Gender Trouble” in her book of that name in 1990 and Donna Haraway’s writing “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1991) about hybrid, posthuman bodies. Madonna’s male dancers wearing Gaultier bras with large, conical breasts onstage were a radical pop illustration. (Lady Gaga as heir to both Madonna and Gaultier is mentioned frequently throughout the catalog.)

Regarding the male skirt, which he introduced in 1983, Mr. Gaultier has argued that they have been worn by men throughout history: think Scottish kilts, or the skirts worn by Japanese samurai, or the Parisian bistro waiter’s long aprons. A mannequin at the current show, with Mr. Gaultier’s face projected onto it like a Tony Oursler artwork and offering a somewhat unsettling soundtrack greeting, is clad in a long skirt, suggesting that this is Mr. Gaultier’s most personal and signature contribution.

The exhibition is divided primarily by collection and period, but sometimes these are mixed up. There are collections influenced by art, like “Dada” (1983), “The Surrealists” (2006-07), “Constructivist (Russian)” (1986-87) and “Tribute to Frida Kahlo” (1998); and more tongue-in-check art-themed ones like “Japanese Tourists at the Louvre” (1999) and “Good-Time Gauguin” (2000).

What is emphasized early in the show, organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and Jean Paul Gaultier (with the Brooklyn edition organized by Lisa Small, a curator at that museum), is that Mr. Gaultier came of age witnessing the rise of punk, New Wave and cultural and identity politics, and watching television. (“TV was my Bible,” he says in the catalog.) Pieces from his first collection, “Punks” (1977), combine bustier tops with biker-style jackets. For decades Mr. Gaultier sported a spiky dyed-blond hairstyle that made him look like a member of an ’80s New Wave band. And following in the repurposing nature of street-punk fashion, many garments here are made from nonfashion materials: garbage bags, neoprene used for wetsuits, distressed denim or humble wool knits.

In terms of “alternative” identities (that is, alternative to the fashion world), Mr. Gaultier has made clothing for women in sizes that deviate from the matchstick-thin supermodel. He has also held unusual posts — he worked for Pierre Cardin in the Philippines, where he dressed Imelda Marcos, whom he calls a “horror” — and created collections inspired by Africa, India and the Black Power movement (with varying degrees of success).

“Chic Rabbis” (1993-94) was inspired by Mr. Gaultier seeing a bunch of dapper clerics leaving the New York Public Library on 42nd Street. Kurt Cobain even wore one of these garments in a music video, and seeing photographs of him in Gaultier garb is both kind of sweet and sad. (Cobain, who was punk in the original sense — that is, resistant to mass culture and commercialization — committed suicide not long after.)

What becomes clear throughout this show, however, is that Mr. Gaultier is very, very French. Lurking behind every garment is the rigorous history of French couture — in addition to working for Mr. Cardin, Mr. Gaultier cites Yves Saint Laurent and Courrèges as major influences — but also French clichés, like his numerous plays on the striped French sailors’ sweater that his mother dressed him in as a boy, or the Folies-Bergère, another early inspiration. There are even nods to French philosophy in collections like “The Existentialists” and a sound recording accompanying a mannequin in a camouflage-effect ruffled tulle gown (worn by Sarah Jessica Parker at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2000) that quotes Roland Barthes’s structuralist text “The Fashion System” (1967).

Perhaps this is why Mr. Gaultier’s description of Madonna in a wall text is so interesting: “Madonna represents the essence of the American dream, American professionalism, American perfection, American obsession, and American business ambition. But she’s open to the whole world.”

Mr. Gaultier is the consummate Frenchman — what could be more Gallic than a fashion designer? But he too is open to the whole world, even if, like Madonna, Mr. Gaultier’s relevance has waned since the 1990s.

This exhibition follows the blockbuster Alexander McQueen show at the Metropolitan Museum and seems designed to accommodate the same volume of crowds, although it is not as mesmerizing as the McQueen exhibition; not as persuasive in illustrating how everything from accessories to runway shows can be turned into art. Nonetheless, Mr. Gaultier has contributed a great deal not only to democratizing fashion but to promoting ideas of beauty, gender, race and class that challenged mainstream mores. For this reason, it is particularly nice to encounter his subversively but exquisitely crafted objects in an art museum.

“The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” runs through Feb. 23 at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, at Prospect Park; 718-638-5000,

Author: Camara Dia Holloway

I am an art historian specializing in early twentieth century American art with particular focus on the history of photography, race and representation, and transatlantic modernist networks. I earned my PhD at Yale University in the History of Art Department. Besides my leadership role as the Founding Co-Director of the Association for Critical Race Art History (ACRAH), I am recognized for my expertise on African American Art, particularly African American Photography, and as a seasoned consultant for exhibitions, museum collections, and symposia/lectures planning.

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