Ingrid and I were at the Gaultier exhibit at the de Young a couple of weeks ago — many pics at the end of the piece — and I’ve been wanting to write about it ever since. The exhibit had my brain spinning with dozens of ideas: about the intersection of fashion and fine art, about the influence of street and fetish wear on high fashion, about the complex and screwed-up relationship between fashion and money. But the idea that’s really stuck with me from the show has to do with the blend of discipline and frivolity.
There is no doubt that Gaultier is a rigorously disciplined artist. His pieces take hundreds of hours to create, and are designed and executed painstakingly, meticulously, with extraordinary technical skill. And that’s not to mention the professional discipline required to flourish in the highly competitive world of fashion design. Professional success as any sort of artist is tremendously difficult: it takes a thick skin, a willingness to make sacrifices, confidence verging on arrogance — and, above all, patience and stamina and endurance. (Well, okay, not above all. Talent is above all. But you get the idea.) You don’t make the kind of work Gaultier makes — or get to where you need to be to be able to make the kind of work he makes — without taking your work totally fucking seriously, and pursuing it with rigor and determination.
Yet at the same time, there is this silly, goofy frivolity to Gaultier’s work. The sense of humor, the playfulness, the exuberance, the unabashed sensuality and sexuality, the gender games, the body-conscious menswear, the enthusiastic embrace of punk and fetish and queer and boudoir styles, the pure love of the human body and its possibilities — all of this shows a willingness to laugh at both himself and the industry, and a refusal to take either one very seriously. In his runway shows, in defiance of the “scowl and pout” industry standard, many of his models smile and laugh and dance and cavort. In fact, many of his models aren’t models: they’re drag queens, circus performers, theater people. “Defiance” is an excellent word to describe much of his work — except it’s not an angry defiance, or a mocking defiance. It’s a defiance that says, “Of course I’m going to ignore convention and do what I think is interesting — why would I even consider doing something else?” He himself scoffs as the idea that his work is “art”: I disagree, as do thousands of others, as do the curators at the de Young. But I have to admire the self-deprecating refusal to be put on a pedestal — and the rejection of the expectations that come with that pedestal.
Ingrid and I were sitting in the video room, watching the runway shows with the laughing and dancing models in exuberantly beautiful outfits bordering on the ridiculous (and frequently crossing that border). We were pondering what it meant that Gaultier was both serious and not-serious, how it could be that he took his work seriously as a heart attack and at the same time didn’t take it seriously at all.
And the word hit me:
Gaultier’s work is full of joy.
That’s the place where discipline and frivolity connect. The willingness to devote hundreds of hours to a single gown whose design is based on sailor suits? That’s joy. It’s the willingness to see life as absurd — and to throw yourself into it headfirst, and participate in it as thoroughly as you can. Not just in defiance of its absurdity… but in a passionate, delighted embrace of it.
It was exquisite. It was inspiring. It made me laugh out loud — something that doesn’t happen too often in art galleries. And it’s going to stay with me for a long, long time.
The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk. At the de Young museum in San Francisco, through August 19.