When you visit an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria with two small children you don’t expect to get much of a chance to read the writing on the wall. So it was fortuitous, in a way, when we were at The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk (which finishes in Australia on February 7) that our youngest demanded a breast-feed in front of a glass case of corsets. I sat in front of the relevant Wall Label, lifted my t-shirt.
‘In the wardrobes of women today his corset dresses symbolise power and sensuality...While Gaultier’s corseted women seem to negate feminist struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, in reality the designer prompted a post-feminist emancipation in terms of appearances.’
Emancipation in relation to the corset? I swivelled to take a look. They were no doubt beguiling, with their stream-lined forms and unusual fabrics, crocodile skin, for example. But other than that they did not seem that different from their 19th century sisters, garments which squeezed and constricted the female form, sometimes causing illness and even death. Gaultier’s were said to be inspired by his fascination with the ‘old-fashioned charm’ of his grand-mother’s, who told him that women drank vinegar and tightened the strings when their stomachs contracted.
What was Thierry-Maxine Loriot, curator, thinking when he linked them so unambiguously to women’s freedom and power? Perhaps it was in the context of ‘lipstick’ or ‘stiletto feminism’, which some argue is about reclaiming aspects of femininity previously seen as disempowering. The idea is that wearing stilettos or ‘sexually suggesting clothing’ no longer represents coerced acquiescence to established gender roles and can therefore be embraced. It is partly based on the belief that the successes of second wave feminism have made this possible. The argument is extended to pole-dancing, bondage, and pornography. For example, in December 2014 self-proclaimed ‘lipstick feminists’ protested new laws in the UK prohibiting the production of pornography that shows extreme sex acts. (‘What do we want?’ ‘FACE SITTING!’ ‘When do we want it?’ ‘NOW!’ – tweeted protestor Jim (yes Jim) Waterson on a lipstick feminism web-site). To state the obvious, it’s an argument that’s hardly uncontested.
Feed finished, I buckled my bra and glanced around, hoping I hadn’t offended anyone.
We went through a corridor with the Gaultier quote ‘To conform is to give in’ printed on the wall, to find three year old sister and father sitting on faux red velvet chairs, heads tilted back, watching a parade of female mannequins moving around a pretend cat-walk. One had on a power jacket, but instead of wearing it conventionally it was attached to her still mostly exposed breasts. Another one was covered in skin tight hounds-tooth print, from the top of her head, all over her face, to the tips of her stilettos.
In the many glowing reviews of this exhibition, which started in Montreal in 2011 and has toured internationally, Gaultier is lauded as a designer who prizes ‘equality and diversity’. ‘For me, there is no one type of beauty’, Gaultier is quoted in the San Francisco Star. Or, as our own ABC stated, he was ‘one of the first designers to challenge stereotypes of beauty by including models of different ages, backgrounds, genders and waist sizes’. Transgressing boundaries, integrating sub-cultures and ethnic dress, he is said to have advanced multi-culturalism and ‘alternative’ identities (as well as women’s liberation).
But beyond the odd tribal motif, I was finding it difficult to see a radical politics of multi-culturalism from where I stood. One of the talking mannequins in the exhibition (it had a moving image of Gaultier’s face imposed on its blank surface) says in Gaultier’s voice (insert French accent): ‘I lurve combining the platinum blonde hair with the black skin. I really lurrrrvvve that’, surely more a simplistic aesthetic statement, in the same way one might like black and white tiles in their kitchen, or the navy and white stripes of a ‘signature’ Gaultier top.
Gaultier has certainly used a ‘plus-sized’ model or two on his catwalks, a fifty year old, and a bearded man in a dress, which all apparently scandalized Paris during Fashion Week. But no one even vaguely plus-sized was going to fit into those mermaid gowns on show here. ‘Alternative’ and ‘radical’ in the world of haute couture seemed a long way from the sidewalk indeed.
Perhaps a more interesting claim to a radical politics is what Gaultier has attempted to do with clothes and ideas of masculinity. His skirts and corsets for men, for example, have been argued to encourage the ‘expression of fragility and sensitivity’. He was also one of the first openly gay male fashion designers. Linda Rosier of the New York Times places this aspect of Gaultier’s work in the context of Judith Butler’s ‘Gender Trouble’ (1990) and Donna Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ (1991), seminal texts in post-structural thinking on gender, sexuality, identity and hybridity. In a world where one is hard pressed to find a kid’s bike that’s neither fairy princess pink or super-hero blue, and the opening gambit of most adult interactions with my three year old is a comment on her appearance, a bit of gender bending would be welcome.
But I am not sure I was seeing a lot of that here. Beyond a male mannequin in a skirt, what I was mostly surrounded by were scantily clad tall, white, thin and presumably very rich (to afford these threads) female mannequins. It was a highly skilled, fairly standard - dare I say corseted? – version of a female beauty.
We walked into a room containing female mannequins clad in designs that displayed their entire bodies; another room where mannequins were clad in black leather straps, leads, chains, on all fours.