Friday, August 19, 2011

L'Enfant Terrible

It's easy to see why Jean-Paul Gaultier was dubbed l'enfant terrible by the fashion world. His sense of fashion is simultaneously twisted and childishly whimsical. Walking through the designers fashions is like taking a trip through his mind. And the trip is delightfully imaginative.

The exhibit started out with a welcome from the designer as well as a display of Gaultier's Virgins collection. A subversion of classic religious images of the Virgin Mary, the collection is both sacrilegious and a genuflection to the womanly wiles of Mary. In short, awesome. It's hard to imagine wearing these garments outside of a theatrical context but each piece is a clear statement.

Next to the Virgins collection were classic sailor striped pieces retooled into gowns and leather suits. My favorite part of this was the coy mannequin who spoke to the audience as well as her fellow mannequins. She was beguiling and funny (hard to do when you're an inanimate object). Throughout the exhibit particular mannequins had faces projected onto them to lend a sense of realism to the pieces. It also served to make the exhibit a full experience. It wasn't just about the clothes but the feeling that the clothes were supposed to invoke. I also fell in love with the back of this gown to the right. The draping is beautiful and since I adore my back, I think this would look great on me.

The next room was a boudoir-themed shrine to Madonna. It focused on Gaultier's love of the corset and Madonna's iconic Blonde Ambition tour. His obsession with the bustier and women's undergarments came from his grandmother. A hairdresser and tarot card reader, she was his original feminist influence and an source of eclecticism. An oddball at a young age, he would often skip school and spend time with her listening to ladies gossip and designing imaginary collections. You can see his desire to show of the shape of a woman's body in his bustier designs. My particular favorite was a corset for a pregnant woman. Gaultier said the corset was "considered ... anti-freedom, but when I put them on the runway in the early 1980s, it was to express the power of femininity. It was supposed to be hidden, but making it apparent made people rediscover it. I love the fact that a woman or man wearing one feels strong and powerful."And it's true. In the hands of Gaultier, the corset straddles the line between sex and strength.

Speaking of sex, the next room definitely could have had Rihanna's "S&M" playing in the background. It was a cross between a dominatrix den and a gender-bending surreality. This room showcased Gaultier's playfulness with gender and sexual norms. Everything from the dress suit for men to the dresses air brushed with nude women's bodies showed some whimsy and fun with conventions. My favorite was a beaded dress that was featured in the movie Bad Education, one of my favorite films
by Pedro Almodavar.

The next room was all about Gaultier's love of his native France. There were dresses airbrushed with night scenes of old Paris as well as an amazing can-can skirt airbrushed with kicking legs. All of these pieces were showcased on a rotating runway.

After that room, the pieces were focused around nature and global themes. Giant tortoise shell bags as well as Coming to America-like feathered and animal print pieces led into Mongol-inspired bodysuits and dresses.

The final room showed the many multimedia collaborations Gaultier has had and was a nod to modernity. It showcased the use of modern fabrics such as neoprene. One of my favorites was a dress made out of film. There were also lots of clips of shows and films that featured the designers clothing, particularly the French version of AbFab.

Overall, the exhibit was a highlight of my visit to Montreal. I love a good fashion exhibit and I find it refreshing that many museums are starting to view fashion as a fine art. Due to the fact that it's worn, fashion has always straddled a weird line between art and practicality so it's good to see it sitting firmly on the "art" side of the line.

For more in the designer's own words, check out his interview with Lady Gaga, September 12th on the CW.

*Bonus*: Lady Gaga's handicapped mermaid dress and the black and gold version of Marion Cotillard's Oscar dress.

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