Transgressing Couture: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk

ticket courtesy of Shalaco Sching

The fashionable world of Jean Paul Gaultier, currently exhibited at the deYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park, is bold and innovative, and illuminates the juxtapositions of fashion and social critique that propelled a haute revolution.   Intermingling intricate details on garments with light, media and motion effects, this must-see showcase includes his contemporary works ranging from the mid-1970s through to 2010.

Gaining notoriety through the iconic cone-shaped bra for Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour, as well as his famous call for men to wear skirts and kilts, Gaultier’s ouvre is filled with outrageously fashioned characters in which feminine attributes are re-imagined, gender roles shift and bend, beauty regenerates its veneer and cultural enclaves intermingle in unlikely ways.

Horse tail topper flipping the script

Known as the “enfant terrible” of French haute fashion, Jean Paul Gaultier’s designs and choice in models pointedly question standards of beauty,  inspiring arguments and criticism regarding what was appropriate for the elite realm of couture.  He broke away from the staid mold of French models; blonde, thin, and beautiful, and instead chose unconventional models of all colors, cultures and proportions – overweight, elderly, bald, body modifications.  When he did use more traditional beauty, he would mar it in some way, such as with lameness.

Mermaid with Crutches

Yet, if purists argued with his strong sexual vocabulary and street style mashups, no one could contest the exquisite craftsmanship with which Gaultier expressed his world view.

Laced hips

It was his designs referencing bondage and sexuality that perhaps brought the most fame, but what has been equally important to Gaultier’s thesis is the merging of ethnicity and gender, in which visually defining characteristics are broken down.  Inspiration was taken from his Parisian world in which African women immigrants wore men’s overcoats on top of traditional dresses, kids in London shocked light waves with vibrant colored hair and mohawks, and women unabashedly adorned their bodies from head to toe in tattoos.  Gaultier’s fetish is clearly eccentricity.

In contrast to contemporaries, such as John Galliano and his designs of exclusive wealth and fantasy, Gaultier’s refusal to conform to the haute couture since the very beginning sets him apart.  Yet, many of his clothes are a complete contrast to his more shocking work; quiet, subdued, beautifully tailored.

The exhibit includes 140 haute couture designs with several sketches, photographs, and video clips documenting Gaultier’s journey through fashion. What is most notable about this exhibit is how exquisite the clothes and hats are, masterfully sewn and detailed with elements of surprise. It is rare for the public to have such a close look at the hundreds of hours of work that typically goes into an extravagant, entirely hand stitched garment. Gaultier flaunts himself as a supreme craftsman, a force of culture and a contentious creative taboo to be reckoned with.

 Running March 24, 2012 – August 19, 2012 at the de Young museum.

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