When I was younger, I never gave much thought to womens’ undergarments or how they evolved over the centuries. In the past, undergarments have been uncomfortable and confining. The ’20’s brought a revolution in women’s fashion and underpinnings were drastically relaxed and loosened. More recently, undergarments have become sexual fashion statements that empower women behind closed doors and in public.
In the 80’s, bras and lingerie were thrust into the limelight by the punk movement and by singer-style icon, Madonna. She introduced corsets and lace bras as fashion statements and was imitated worldwide. This trend gave women the latitude in redefining how undergarments are worn.
No other designer created controversy by redefining lingerie and corsetry on the fashion runways than French designer, Jean Paul Gaultier.
Gaultier, born and raised in France, designed many diverse fashion collections over the decades. The Brooklyn Museum is paying tribute in a new exhibit called “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk“, focusing on his work spanning from the 1970s to present.
I have always been in love with his irreverent sense of humor, audacity, playfulness, open-mindedness and non-conformism in the haute couture world of fashion. Gaultier was one of the first openly gay designers who celebrated diversity by not subscribing to the fashion industry’s unyielding standard of beauty and body proportions. He said “you can find beauty in everyone and everything” and “if you like yourself, people will love you.”
The exhibit is divided into 7 sections based on themes rather than in chronological order. I entered the first room, The Odyssey, which included religious themes in “The Virgins” collection followed by sailor and mermaid themes. This serene blue hued room reminded me of a space in a windowless aquarium with low recessed lighting. The mannequins were beautifully draped in gowns with impeccable couture detail. Overhead projectors displayed high definition interactive visuals on the mannequins’ custom designed faces. I almost jumped out of my seat when I leaned in closely to examine the detail in one of the gowns, only to be spoken to and winked at by the mannequin.
In this same room was the “Sailor” section which illustrated Gaultier’s reverence of the classic French maritime stripe boat neck sailor top. He once said, “I’ve always loved the graphic detail and architectural aspects of stripes. My mother dressed me in sailor-striped sweaters. They go with everything, never go out of style, and probably never will…”
The last section in this room is the “Mermaids” collection where my favorite design had me burst out laughing and shout “No way, a disabled mermaid! Now that is not only hilarious, but playful and sexy.”
Do I have another word to describe Gaultier? Yes. Masochist. Look at the detail in this design. All his couture work takes anywhere between 150-300 hours to complete per garment. Where does he even find the people to complete this level of sophisticated intricate work?
The next room, Boudoir, examines the origins of his fascination for corsets and bras. His parents would not allow him to play with dolls which he wanted, so they gave him a teddy bear instead. He was very close to his open-minded grandma who allowed him to study her bras and undergarments, which led him to construct a newspaper coned bra for his teddy, “Nana.”
Years later, his fascination with corsetry was his source of inspiration for his collections in the 1980s and for this gown from the “Black Swan” collection from his haute couture show in 2011-2012.
The quilted, seductive satin-walled “Boudoir” room became his signature backdrop for his most recognizable works–framed illustrations and costumes for Madonna ‘s 1990 “Blonde Ambition” tour.
By the end of this section I grew weary from all the visual satin detailed stimulation. I looked at my friend and muttered: “All right already, how many corsets and coned titties can one see in a day?” I was “titillated” beyond my limit and needed a respite. Even my own undergarments cried “I hope you are going to toss our elastic withered, distressed, discolored selves into the trash where we belong.”
The next room, “Punk Cancun” transported me back to my visit in May to the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art’s “Punk Chaos to Couture” exhibit, which highlighted punk’s influence on fashion throughout the decades. I loved that exhibit, so I was thrilled to see so many ensembles highlighting Gaultier’s contribution to punk fashion.
At the center of this room his punk influences were broken up by staging a runway of revolving male and female mannequins outfitted in couture. On the other side of the room were his prêt-à-porter punk influenced ensembles.
Gaultier is one of a few main stream designers in the 1980s to redefine society’s conventional view of gender roles, androgyny and bondage. In the next room, Skin Deep, he is mesmerized by the complexity of the human body, including veins and bones. Here he created pieces with the illusion of a second skin, with layers of exposed veins, heart and bones intricately layered with sequins black diamonds and tulle.
The final section of Skin Deep brought me into the naughty, hyper-sexed world of the Peep Show. This was my favorite staged room in the exhibit, and one where I became a voyeur in Amsterdam’s “Red Light District”, which has been transformed into a salacious fashion show. Here Gaultier explores sexual themes like role play and domination. The most recognizable costume is of Madonna dominating one of her dancer’s in her 2006 “Confessions Tour.”
The next to last room “Metropolis” was inspired by film makers, pop stars and science fiction.
The final room, “Urban Jungle” pays tribute to world cultures and motifs. Gaultier was inspired by “a new Paris” and one where he saw “a melting pot of peoples, and this intermixing this splendid vibrancy.” Highly imaginative, he sought inspiration from China, Flamenco, Russia, Spain and even created the Orthodox Jewish inspired 1993 collection,”Chic Rabbis“.
By the end of this exhibit I was exhausted. I couldn’t believe one man could create so many diverse and subversive collections within a 35 year career span. It is difficult to outdo any of the fashion exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. But the Gaultier show did surpass this year’s Met punk show. If the Brooklyn Museum intends to compete with the Met, then the exhibits will need tighter editing and better curation. There were too many themes and pieces in the Gaultier show. The exhibit should have been streamlined to increase the impact. Nevertheless, this is one of the best fashion exhibits I have seen in years and I came close to experiencing Stendahl Syndrome. By the time I got home, shed my unworthy unfashionable undergarments (vowed never to wear again), I slept for 10 hours. The next morning I felt as though I had been out drinking all night and jet-lagged. Can fashion make you feel hung over?
According to Gaultier, “You can change your life by the way you wear your clothes.” Do yourself a favor and see this inspiring exhibit which closes February 23rd, 2014. Just make sure to be well rested the night before, bring some Valium and get ready to toss out your disgraceful, old undergarments the minute you get home. Corsets, coned boobs, lace and satin never looked so good.
View more photos of the Gaultier exhibit in my slideshow. All photos by Magdalena of PrettyCripple.com ®