Fashion Friday: Gaultier, and the Blend of Discipline and Frivolity


Gaultier striped hooded capeIngrid 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:

Joy.

Gaultier’s work is full of joy.

Gaultier sailor suit dressThat’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.

Gaultier striped cape with hood

Gaultier sailor suit dress

Gaultier sailor suit dress

Other Gaultier sailor suit dress

Gaultier head to foot houndstooth outfit

Gaultier body suits with blood vessels and muscles

Gaultier menswear with bustle

Gaultier metal corset

Gaultier pony play tableaux

Gaultier corset with "tattoo" stockings

Gaultier boudoir collection

Gaultier black gown over white with white fuzzy hat

Gaultier crocheted dress

Gaultier crocheted dress

Gaultier gown with headdress

Gaultier gown with halo

Gaultier gown with halo

Gaultier dresses with colored ropes

Comments

  1. says

    “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.”

    This is brilliant. I’ve never been much of a fashion person, and I will never be a serious participant in the way that you are–it’s just not how I choose to spend my time or money. But it’s a testament to your skill as a thinker and writer that I quickly learned to not disregard your posts just when they happen to address a subject that isn’t within my usual set of interests. You manage to take everything you write about and bring it to a different level, sharing the lessons that transcend subject area. It’s awesome, and I’m grateful for it.

  2. Dan Covill says

    For some colorful examples of the ‘Joy’ effect, take a look at Zandra Rhoades work.
    http://www.zandrarhodes.com

    I’m not really interested in fashion, but I went to an exhibit of her work here in San Diego, and was blown away by the sheer inventiveness and use of color. Take a look.

  3. geocatherder says

    When I was taking art classes as a way to stay sane, one of my teachers liked to talk about the process of making art as “sacred play”. It’s play that pulls the inside out of you and expresses bits of you that there is no other way to express. You can clearly see that going on when you look at these pieces.

  4. scott says

    In his runway shows, in defiance of the “scowl and pout” industry standard, many of his models smile and laugh and dance and cavort

    The standard po-faced model has always seemed weird to me; I’d think that “I’m happy because these awesome clothes make me happy” would be a better sell. Maybe that’s one reason I like when Project Runway uses ‘real person’ challenges- unless the poor sap is wearing something particularly awful, they always look like they’re having a good time.

  5. Leo says

    Stupid question ahoy!

    How do designer clothes (if that’s even the correct term) work? Most people don’t walk around wearing anything like that, I’m not sure anyone does. I expect they’d be ridiculed for it, and the clothes are massively inconvenient anyway. So what do you do with them? Do they just stay exhibited for people to look at them, and people buy them for their art collection?

  6. machintelligence says

    Leo @ 9

    Most people don’t walk around wearing anything like that, I’m not sure anyone does.

    Maybe you can get away with it if you are Bjork (remember the swan dress?)
    Actually Bjork does some interesting things: she ordered a custom plexiglass encased stereo music box to play at her concerts before she appears on stage. The Porter Music Box Company made a second copy, which I saw in their museum.

  7. Nurse Ingrid says

    Leo:

    A fair number of these Galutier gowns actually have been worn. Princess Caroline of Monaco wore the striped one with the feathers to a ball. Kylie Montague wore the pewter “sacred heart” dress for an art photograph, and the one with the white lace covering her entire face was a costume for a music video. People wear them for fashion spreads in magazines, publicity shoots, red carpet events, charity galas, that sort of thing.

    But also, sometimes the runway show is the end in itself. The most over the top looks are there to express the designer’s aesthetic, to dazzle and excite people, to create a mood. Then there are the more “wearable” clothes in the collection that people are now eager to buy, to recapture a little of that mood.

    The clothes themselves end up in the designer’s studio, or museums, or private collections, or get auctioned off for charity.

  8. says

    I wish it was socially acceptable (or, well, common anyways) for people to wear stuff like this.

    Well, not the ones covering their faces. At least not while driving. But some of the stuff- particularly the last two dresses and the two black and white striped dresses- Are just so neat. The black and white striped dress with the low back looks fantastically… severe, for lack of better words.

    Off topic from this post, but on topic to fashion friday- Damn you, you evil manipulative woman! I went shopping today and followed your advice of “if it catches your eye, try it on” and now I have a dress, a skirt and alligator print jeans! And tomorrow I’m going to go find interesting tights to experiment with wearing due to your post on them!

    Who’s paying you?!

    (But in all seriousness my wardrobe just got 100% better, and it’s thanks to you and your ability to write fashion posts that don’t fill me with revulsion)

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