The last word you’d think to associate with designer Jean Paul Gaultier is “mainstream.” Yet on the first floor of San Francisco’s De Young museum during Gaulterize Yourself, as six-year-olds and their mothers walked by decked out in feathers and wild makeup, it was easy to forget that the celebration was all in homage to the same man who brought us Madonna’s cone bras and a body suit with sequined pubic hair. This free public event put on by the San Francisco Fashion and Merchants Alliance as part of Friday Nights at the De Young, featured not only the newly-opened exhibition The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk but also makeup artists and local designers transforming ordinary citizens into Gaultier model lookalikes.
Descending into the lower level, the true Gaultier aesthetic quickly revealed itself. It made sense, after all, to stick this exhibit in the basement: where else do you put S&M burlesque dancers, punk rock outcasts and a semi-topless warrior bride? And though seeing so many of the designer’s famous (and less famous) creations in one exhibit would have been thrilling enough on its own, this would not be a Gaultier event if there was not a new and unexpected twist.
Only Jean Paul Gaultier could take something as basic to fashion as a mannequin and turn it into something fresh and intriguing, if not also slightly creepy and unsettling. Or as one woman described it, plain “scary.” But by projecting moving faces onto the blank, nosed masks of mannequins, Gaultier did just that. Wearing his creations were models that, while not technically alive, came a little too close for comfort to the real thing. And like the gut reactions we feel to many of his designs (picture a metal codpiece for men or a garbage dress for women à la Mugatu) the exhibit’s models straddle the line between feminine and masculine, traditional and modern, beautiful and grotesque. The digital display didn’t stop there: visitors will also find a moving runway and forty video screens. But it is the speaking, watching, emoting mannequins that are the exhibit’s most provocative technological element, and therefore its most quintessentially Gaultier.
And of course, there are the clothes. Each piece is a testament to the unparalleled creativity of a man challenging every fashion definition we know, forcing us to contemplate them, not allowing us to just move past them mindlessly like we do with so much we see in museums. Coupled with one of his most exquisitely feminine creations – a purple velvet dress adorned with his trademark cones – is the seductive 1992 photograph of the piece being worn by male model and Gaultier muse, Tanel Bedrossiantz. Whether in military-inspired camouflage, head-to-toe herringbone, or his oft-imitated sailor stripes motif, Gaultier isn’t just playing with gender norms, he is thrusting them into the public conversation, transforming the personal and private into the political and powerful.
Gaultier gives us revolution through fashion. He transformed the corset from a form of female oppression into a symbol of sexual prowess and dominance. He made a long skirt, put it on a man, and called it sexy. He showed us that the line between what is sublime and what is horrifying is largely subjective, and in this exhibit, dares us to join him in this warped reality, one that, despite being “scary,” is also unnervingly inviting.
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Photography by Deena Shanker
Deena Shanker is a San Francisco writer who blogs and blogs and, uh, blogs. In fact, she has three blogs. You’ll find them and more about her online at www.deenashanker.com.