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,

“Africa Calling: Plumes and Prints” from The New York Times

Enduring Afrochic! I am investigating the historical origins of the fashion trend that had powerful currency throughout the 20th century. And it seems that “exotic” Africa will continue to inspire in the 21st century. Love and Theft! Love and Theft!

Africa Calling: Plumes and Prints 

Louis Vuitton, by Marc Jacobs, spring/summer 2014, in Paris.
October 2, 2013 

PARIS — The news of the departure of Marc Jacobs from Louis Vuitton overshadowed the final day of the Paris summer 2014 collections. But people in the audience were reminded of the designer’s exceptional skill at creating great fashion moments by this presentation, all in black, of showgirl clothes.

The models, with their giant Folies Bergère feather headdresses and jet-embroidered chiffon, looked dramatic. But they gave the impression that the party performance was over, not least because bluejeans were often worn under the finery as if the dancers were making their way home.

Continue reading ““Africa Calling: Plumes and Prints” from The New York Times”

Review | “Miss Anne in Harlem” by Carla Kaplan

Published: September 20, 2013 

Time hasn’t been kind to the white women who participated in the Harlem Renaissance. As philanthropists and activists, authors and patrons, they sought a place for themselves in that remarkable outpouring of African-American art during the 1920s and ’30s. Some, constrained by social expectations, effaced the records of their work. Others made it difficult for historians to treat them with much seriousness. What, after all, can we do with someone like Nancy Cunard, a British steamship heiress raised on a remote English estate, who felt no shame in proclaiming “I speak as if I were a Negro myself”?

The British shipping heiress Nancy Cunard, circa 1932, with John Banting, left, a painter, and Taylor Gordon, a writer.
The British shipping heiress Nancy Cunard, circa 1932, with John Banting, left, a painter, and Taylor Gordon, a writer.

“Miss Anne” — the dismissive collective name given to white women — makes bit appearances in the literature of the era as a dilettante or imperious patron; later, she’s depicted as a thrill-seeking “slummer.” Always, she lurks in the shadows of her male counterparts in scholarly studies of the movement. But she was there, encouraging writers, underwriting cultural institutions, supporting progressive political causes. And many leading Harlem Renaissance figures — including Langston Hughes, Alain Locke and Nella Larsen — had reason to be grateful to her. At least for a while. Like everything else about Miss Anne, those relationships got complicated.

In this remarkable work of historical recovery, Carla Kaplan, author of “Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters,” does well by a group of women who got so much wrong. She resurrects Miss Anne as a cultural figure and explores the messy contradictions of her life, moving her from the periphery of a story about white patronage and boundary-testing interracial liaisons to the center. With a focus on six of the roughly 60 white women active in the Harlem Renaissance, Kaplan delineates Miss Anne as a counterpart to the better known flapper or “new woman” of the Roaring Twenties. But this is really a collection of individual stories, a group biography that lets the idiosyncrasies of the individual women shine through. “Negrotarians,” as the writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston called Harlem’s white patrons, were a diverse crew, full of good intentions, startling blind spots and astonishing self-confidence.

Continue reading “Review | “Miss Anne in Harlem” by Carla Kaplan”

NYT: In search of a gay aesthetic

NYT: In search of a gay aesthetic

Guy Trebay’s review of “A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk” exhibition at FIT.

The New Speed of Fashion

Suzy Menkes discusses the current state of the fashion industry:

Sign of the Times | The New Speed of Fashion
The industry is broken in more ways than one: runway shows don’t match retail expectations; designers can’t keep up with demand; and customers can’t buy a coat in winter. So who’s to blame?

Channeling the Flapper Girl | The New York Times

May 15, 2013

A tableau from the ’20s, when women dressed in a classic style that was at ease with the era, and took advantage of the freedom offered by having their own cars.Paul Popper/Time Life Pictures, via Getty ImagesA tableau from the ’20s, when women dressed in a classic style that was at ease with the era, and took advantage of the freedom offered by having their own cars.


That’s the best thing you can say about the style of Baz Luhrmann’s “Great Gatsby.” It has the sleekness of an Art Deco skyscraper, a fast car or, as Cecil Beaton reminded me, Daisy Fellowes’s head.

I actually loathed the movie and its schizoid fashion: the Prada dresses better suited to today’s bodies, the lackluster fabrics, the French bobs with ears sticking out. But I love the ’20s, or rather, the years between 1919 and 1923, when a generation of young people was experiencing the commingled pleasures of cars, cheap alcohol and shortened skirts. In an essay published in 1931, F. Scott Fitzgerald said of those early years of the Jazz Age, “Who could tell us any longer what was fashionable and what was fun?”

Yes, indeed: who?

Not Vogue and The New York Times, whose fashion mavens were preoccupied with Paris couture and Newport society and whether Biarritz had eclipsed Deauville as the preferred European playground. In a 1917 article entitled “The Extreme Adolescence of America,” Vogue introduced its readers to the flapper: “She is a fantastic grotesque, pretty in the modern manner, which is a wild mixture of Paris, futurism, the primitives, and a little rouge … She is feverishly interested in two things, herself and her clothes.”

A tableau from the 1930s.H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile, via Getty ImagesA tableau from the 1930s.

Yet, despite the early acknowledgment (The Times does not mention flappers until 1922), Vogue remained on the whole indifferent to this American wild child and what her self-obsession foretold. Looking through Vogue in the early ’20s, as well as the Seeberger Brothers’ photographs of “grandes elegantes,” at places like Chantilly, one sees skirts well below the knees, with all kinds of drapes and entanglements.

This was curious, considering what was happening among the young people in America. In fact, it was not until late 1924 that you began to see the type of short, narrow, low-back dress associated with Chanel and the ’20s. And within a year the style was everywhere, with the fashionable head, as The Times noted, now “a speck on the silhouette.”

There is much in Mr. Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” that is missing, like the sporty knitwear created by Patou and Chanel that became an emblem of the modern, unfettered woman, and much that is simply wrong, like the notion of a lady golfer in pants, or the fib of having a character remark that Daisy is pretty enough to be on the cover of Vogue — when Vogue still put illustrations on its covers.

Clearly with a contemporary audience in mind, Mr. Luhrmann and his wife, the costume and set designer Catherine Martin, chose to focus on a harder, cooler view of the ’20s, and not strictly a lily-white view. For me, somehow, it was reading Beaton’s description of the look of the French-American socialite Daisy Fellowes, her “unparalleled air of sleekness,” that put the film’s style into perspective.

And yet I can’t help thinking that despite Mr. Luhrmann’s research, despite his collaborations with Miuccia Prada and Brooks Brothers, and his chats with his friend Anna Wintour, that he missed something quite elemental about the ’20s — namely, the flapper.

I don’t mean the corrosive creatures hopping around in the movie’s party scenes. They’re no more real than Hollywood’s versions in the ’20s. In Fitzgerald’s opinion, no picture “mirrored even faintly the younger generation” until 1923, when “Flaming Youth” came out, and then Hollywood drove the theme into the ground. Bruce Bliven, in an article in The New Republic called “Flapper Jane,” published in 1925, got the essence of her wardrobe when he wrote: “Jane isn’t wearing much, this summer. If you’d like to know exactly, it is: one dress, one step-in, two stockings, two shoes.” But by then she was no longer news.

The more I looked at snapshots of anonymous girls in loose cotton dresses, including one with cropped hair, her bare legs dangling over the side of a Model T, the more I understood the significance of something Fitzgerald wrote: “Isolated during the European War, we had begun combing the unknown South and West for folkways and pastimes, and there were more ready to hand.”

And: “As far back as 1915, the unchaperoned young people of the smaller cities had discovered the mobile privacy of that automobile given to young Bill at 16 to make him ‘self-reliant.’ ” And a good deal less prudish.

Maybe the flapper wasn’t urban, or anyway a New Yorker, after all. Maybe she was a purer manifestation of the women’s movement, its hatred of chauvinism, and the freedom offered by cars. That’s just a guess. Her style was certainly modern, in its ease and carelessness and connection to youth; it was also deeply American, at a time when New York houses were trying to be less dependent on French fashion. But in the class system of the ’20s, you can see why the flapper was already a lost cause. Lacking taste, she attracted more scorn than curiosity from the fashion press.

As Valerie Steele noted in her cultural history “Paris Fashion,” the years between the wars saw a host of dazzling women, among them Fellowes, rise to the top of the social pyramid by dictating what was fashionable. But at the start of the ’20s, France may have been impeding freedom.

In 1921, The Times ran a remarkable article by its ace diplomatic reporter, Anne O’Hare McCormick, in which she described the secret efforts by the French government to persuade couturiers to drop hems and add side panels and other garniture. It was all at the behest of fabric and trim manufacturers, who complained that the new, simpler styles used less material and therefore hurt their businesses. The article explains why Paris fashion remained long and fussy through the early ’20s.

It also makes you wonder about those teenage prophets of the Jazz Age, and what would have happened if, as Fitzgerald hoped, the older people had stepped aside “and let the world be run by those saw things as they were …”

A version of this article appeared in print on 05/16/2013, on page E2 of the NewYork edition with the headline: Channeling the Flapper Girl.
%d bloggers like this: