Fashion and Politics – Jean Paul Gaultier at the Dallas Museum of Art


To say that I love fashion is an understatement. When museums decide to deviate from their traditional concept of art and allow the catwalk to invade their marble halls I am always delighted. I look forward to a display of clothes that I will never fit in, clothes I have no place to wear to, and clothes that I can never afford. Call it an adult fairy tale or simply masochism, I try to see one show per year that focuses on fashion. The choice this year? No doubt about it: Jean Paul Gaultier at the Dallas Museum of Art.

This show, the DMA’s first exhibition focused on fashion, is another example of how museums across the board are integrating different types of  objects into shows in the hopes that they can attract new visitors and patrons. For the purists, shows like this muddy notions of art and seem sensationalistic when compared with a show on Rembrandt, for instance. But either way, shows like this usually work and The Metropolitan Museum of Art is an excellent example. The Costume Institute at the Met presents one major show per year and that show consistently brings in some of the institution’s highest revenues. In fact, the 2011 Alexander McQueen show had sold-out weekends and was extended in order to accommodate the demand for tickets.

For me, Jean Paul Gaultier was probably my first introduction to haute couture. How could a young girl not be inspired by Madonna and the Blonde Ambition tour where she touted cone bras? A mixture of Hollywood glamour, domination, and femininity, JPG’s designs taught me to question: what are clothes and why do I have to look like everyone else. More importantly, looking back, Jean Paul Gaultier’s designs were effortlessly and sublimely subversive, able to tell a truth more like a whisper than a protest. The “Express Yourself” costume is my favorite and is a perfect illustration of JPG’s methodology. Madonna, platinum headed and red lipped, wore a monocle, carried a cane, and wore a two piece suit while she sang, “second best is never enough” an obvious allusion to women being forced to dress like men in the workforce in order to be taken seriously. The jacket was slit so when she arched her back, the nude, satin cones of her bustier ripped through the fabric and the garters, normally hidden from view, flapped around on top of her trousers as she danced. It seemed that Jean Paul Gaultier and Madonna were trying to tell the world that even if they tried, women could not deny their sex, even dressed in men’s clothes.

But is the fashion industry really  trying to really make a political/cultural statement as I allude above or is it simply trying to be flashy and  dangerous and some of us just look too much into things? Anyone who flips through Vogue would scoff at the idea that they are creating a publication rooted in cultural consciousness, and most editors agree that their pages are more for fantasy than reality. In fact, fashion has consistently tried to deny it’s possible political influence especially when it is involved in notions of  female self-image.

I contend, however,  that one of contemporary fashion’s worst mistakes has been to not be overtly political. When in the early 20th century fashion moved in time with the women’s liberation and suffrage movements (think Coco Chanel and the abandonment of the corset),  most collections now have chosen to focus on art over political statements. (think Alexander McQueen and Christian LaCroix) That notwithstanding, it is impossible to deny that fashion equals politics because what we wear demonstrates who we are, how much money we have, and where we are from. When fashion forgets this, it is in trouble (think Kate Moss backlash over her image’s encouragement of anorexia and John Galliano whose negative public statements about Jews caused him to lose his post as the head of Dior)

It never fails – no matter how you try, art is politics. And if fashion is art, as curatorial trends seem to tell us, fashion is politics, as well.

And this is why I think that JPG is truly talented and why his work is a perfect collection to be shown”From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” as the DMA’s exhibition name suggests. Though his pieces are equal parts craft, beauty, and imagination, they are also commentary on gender, sexuality, globalism, voyeurism, and stereotypes. Multi-layered and decadent, JPG is what we want an artist to be – someone who takes us to another place to only remind us that the answers we seek are in our own backyard.

The show itself is comprised of six thematic sections which includes clothing on mannequins (worn both on the runway and on the red carpet), photographs from magazine spreads (including some from Mario Testino), and videos (including movie clips from some of his works for Pedro Almodovar). A series of video animated mannequins guide you through the show.

The Boudoir room, which I loved, focused on his de/reconstructed corsets, made infamous, of course, by Madonna. The room, peach and dark, has a central case which holds the shiny humanesque structures and, like a child sneaking into her mother’s drawers, the intimacy of the architecture and the pieces themselves remind us that what lies beneath is almost never what we expect, particularly when it is a sexy corset in the shape of a pregnant woman.

Another room, Skin Deep, held titillating pieces, including his famous silk screened dress designed to fool us into thinking that the woman wearing it isn’t wearing anything at all. The space, constructed like a type of multi-story, peep-show theatre, revealed and concealed pieces from the viewer at every direction.

My favorite room was Metropolis and this section focused on his influences from around the world. Those represented? Native Americans via a wedding dress and the Hasidic Jews via street wear.

But even with the pieces from the collection that clearly demonstrate JPG’s sense of humor, the political element is still there. Here’s one I loved — the can can skirt which tells us that what lies on the under the skirt is more about illusion than reality.

And a full body suit in black and white houndstooth which reminds us that a burqa is a burqa, no matter what it’s made of.

This particular exhibit was a treat because I went with co-workers who even further reminded me of the political element of fashion. The group was mixed and consisted of those who had never heard of JPG, those who were not sure what in the world they were getting into, and those who were looking for inspiration. Background, experience, and age all contributed to the different viewpoints on the show in the same way that those same factors influence the outcome of any election. Their video commentary can be found below.

Despite the controversy around the notion of “fashion as art,” it is important for institutions to continue to find ways to excite people about worlds they have never experienced, be it the runway, the studio, or the city streets. This exhibit is a great example. More importantly, they must find ways to make older art more relevant. If you think that JPG is decadent, look at the paintings of Marie Antoinette and her outfits. Whoa.

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk at the Dallas Museum of Art is open until 12 February. The first Tuesday is always free and Thursdays from 5 – 9 are free for students and educators.  Museum is closed on Mondays. Admission: $10.

Video commentary on the show:

3 thoughts

  1. Fantastic! Wish I’d gotten to see it; that looks like it must have been SO much fun. Also, really neat to see some of our friends to the north! (Hi, Rachel!)

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