The Genteel
March 3, 2021


Art is Fashion, Fashion is Art: Jean Paul Gaultier's World of Fashion

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Jean Paul Gaultier's installation: Skin Deep Theme

The origins of fashion have a long and complex history. Over the centuries, individuals, groups and societies have used clothing to adorn their bodies and to connote various aspects of cultural significance including traditions, social hierarchies and gender norms etc. Historically, although clothing was used by individuals of all classes, the concept of fashion and being in fashion, was strictly reserved for the elite. It wasn't until the dawn of the industrial revolution that fashion began to "trickle-down" to the masses and was made available for mass consumption. Similarly, prior to the 19th century, producers of fashion such as dressmakers and tailors were traditionally regarded as "blue collar" textile workers, more associated with mechanical arts and crafts rather than artists with a vision. However, by the mid-19th century, particularly in France, the status of the clothing designer was elevated to that of "artists of luxury, poets, aesthetes and arbiters of elegance" (Finkelstein, 1998). Fashion, in other words, became the material manifestation of the artistic expression of haute courtiers - design artists and geniuses. In the 21st century, although the manufacture of clothing and the consumption practices of fashion have changed significantly, the notion of fashion designers as "artists, sculptors or fabric architects" who beautify the body via material means, still prevails. It seems that even with the advent of ready-to-wear consumable fashion brands and designer-discount department stores, the couturiers' importance in the fashion world has not diminished. The idea of the fashion designer as an artist was exemplified at the recent Jean Paul Gaultier exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA).

Fashion designers can be considered the creators and producers not only of the garments that we wear but also the discourses that such garments invariably inspire.

The clothes that make up fashion enable us to understand numerous cultural phenomena and social relationships. Fashion theorist Joanne Entwistle claims that, "fashion and dress articulate the body in culture: fashion produces discourses on the body and how to adorn it, while dress is the translation of fashion into everyday practice". Therefore, dress is the functional and material product of the artistic and ideological endeavor that is fashion. In turn, fashion designers can be considered the creators and producers not only of the garments that we wear but also the discourses that such garments invariably inspire. Dubbed by the press as the "enfant terrible", Jean Paul Gaultier has become famous (or infamous) for producing fashion that reflects not only cultural issues and the preoccupations of a specific time, but also clothes that inherently mirror the Zeitgeist of a particular era. Born in 1952, Jean Paul Gaultier did not receive formal training in fashion design. Rather, he began his career by sending out sketches to famous couturiers at an early age. So impressive were his ideas and talent that French designer Pierre Cardin hired him as an assistant in 1970. After his work with Cardin, Gaultier served as the creative director for the luxury brand Hermès and also designed costumes for various Hollywood and French film productions, including the 1997 hit movie, The Fifth Element. After launching his first self-titled collection in 1976, it became evident that Jean Paul Gaultier's eclectic, playful and outrageous designs along with his irreverent fashion styles were far more than mere costumery; instead, Gaultier's "daring inventiveness and humanist vision" established him as one of the "most important fashion designers of recent decades," according to the MMFA.

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Jean Paul Gaultier's Urban Jungle Theme

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: from the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, is a celebration of the 35th anniversary of the designer's label and an exploration of Jean Paul Gaultier's talent and artistry. Featuring 140 ensembles, various documents, photographs and never-before-seen footage and sketches, the MMFA has dubbed this endeavor a "contemporary installation" rather than a "fashion retrospective". The subtlety of the language in the MMFA description, in and of itself, is an indication of Gaultier's status as artist. Walking through the exhibition further reiterates this point. The 140 ensembles are derived mainly from the designer's haute couture collections, with some pieces from his prêt-a-porter line. Most have never been exhibited and span four decades of Gaultier's work  (between 1970’s until 2010). The space in which the ensembles are showcased is organized according to several themes including: The Odyssey of Jean Paul Gaultier, The Boudoir, Skin Deep, Punk Cancan, Urban Jungle, and Metropolis. Each theme depicts the various stages of the designer's development as an artist, his immaculate attention to detail as well as his talent for creating playful cultural commentary through fashion.

In the Odyssey of Jean Paul Gaultier, each visitor is greeted by a slew of animated mannequins including a replica of the designer himself. The ensembles on display reflect some of Gaultier's most celebrated fashions including his Sailors, Mermaids and Virgins collections. The detail and playfulness of the work is both impressive and spectacular. For example, one Mermaid is showcased on crutches that are designed to look as if they have been constructed from coral, giving way to the humour that is so intrinsic to many of Gaultier's designs. The Virgin mannequins, while singing church hymns, are adorned in elaborate and ornate gowns with religious iconography woven throughout. However, the Sailors, dressed in simple stereotypical sailor uniforms, stand in juxtaposition to the ornate gowns of both the Virgins and the Mermaids. This concurrence between the ornate and the simple reflect Gaultier's ability to be at once an artist and a textile worker, which further blurs the already fine line between fashion and art.

We have an intimate relationship with fashion. Clothes adorn our bodies and are at the same time both public and private. The Boudoir and Skin Deep showcase this dichotomy of fashion and bring what is traditionally associated with the private and intimate into the public domain. Particularly, this space puts into focus one of Gaultier's most famous relationships, between himself and singer Madonna. As both individuals are artists in their own right, it is not surprising that both were attracted to each other's provocative aesthetic. The infamous cone-shaped bra and various bustiers and corsets, which were worn by the singer as part of her Blond Ambition Tour (two pieces in the exhibit were loaned to MMFA by the singer herself) stand alongside other boudoir-inspired pieces, sketches and photographs. Traditionally, artists such as poets, painters and sculptures, are credited with bringing forth alternative ways of thinking or visualizing the world. Painters depict the ways in which the world can be seen apart from the status quo, poets articulate the beauty and sorrow of the world through words, while sculptors shape the nuances of everyday life into rare forms. What is common for each, however, is the fact that all artists shed light on some unique and intimate aspect of the world. Gaultier manages to accomplish this with both his Boudoir and Skin Deep collections. What is conventionally seen as ultimately personal and secretive, he manages to bring forth into the spotlight without seeming the least bit vulgar, perverse or offensive. Rather the collection, although at times "naughty", enables the visitor to experience a sense of shared intimacy with the designer.

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Jean Paul Gaultier's Boudoir Theme

Gaultier has cited street style, pop culture and the "everyday" as the main inspiration behind his collections, which is evident from walking through the exhibition. Punk Cancan and Urban Jungle, for example, reflect Gaultier's "keen interest in all the world's cultures and countercultures," in the words of MMFA. In particular, the ornate, punk-inspired clothing of Punk Cancan showcases his ability to look within his own "backyard" and turn an anti-fashion into something highly coveted, not to mention fashionable. On the other hand, Urban Jungle reflects a different kind of sentiment, which is Gaultier's talent to erase the material boundaries between cultures. A fully-beaded leopard dress stands alongside a white Native-American inspired wedding dress which also shares the spotlight with a Nepalese-style ensemble. Although different in style, texture and shape, all of the clothes in this exhibit convey Gaultier's ability to break free from societal and aesthetic codes and re-work the norm into a creation of couture art with an element of social commentary. However, while the designer's notoriety and success is largely attributed to his unique aesthetic and blurring of cultural and gender boundaries, such as his use of unconventional models, full-figured women, pierced and heavily tattooed models, The World of Fashion places the focus the designer's artistry rather than his notoriety.  

Andy Warhol once reflected, "I think the way people dress today is a form of artistic expression (…) Art lies in the way the whole outfit is put together. Take Jean Paul Gaultier. What he does is really art" (Mondo Uomo, 1984). Artists of any genre do not simply reflect reality instead, as Raymond Williams (1977) claims, artists reveal "the social and material character of artistic activity." Although fashion has come a long way since the mid-19th century, Jean Paul Gaultier's creations demonstrate William's point and further reiterate the importance of creativity, skill and artistic character of time-honored haute couturiers in the 21st century.



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