Jean Paul Gaultier: Provocateur or Uninhibited Creative?
With the Costume Institute’s spring 2018 exhibition “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” quickly approaching, it seems appropriate to take a closer look at one of fashion’s most talked about, controversial, avant-garde designers; Jean Paul Gaultier. He’s infamously known in French as “Enfant Terrible"—or “the Unruly Child”—a nickname that describes Gaultier’s boundary-pushing and unconventional aesthetics.
Gaultier often incorporates religious themes in his designs and collections, however, where is the line drawn between appreciation and sacrilege? Where does inspiration turn into appropriation? Or in what way, regardless of the designer’s intention, can it be rationalized as creativity?
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For his Autumn/Winter collection in 1993, Jean Paul Gaultier showed female models walking down a menorah-lined runway in long black layers, large round hats, and tendril-esque curls hanging down on the sides of their heads. Gaultier had named the collection “Chic Rabbis” and clarified that he found his inspiration on a trip to New York where he witnessed a group of rabbis leaving the public library. He was compelled by their dress—the wide circular fur hats and the heavy and long fabrics in dark hues. The responses to the collection varied greatly, however, many of whom were actually there to witness the show, some of them Jewish, argued that Gaultier treated the subject with great respect and that underneath all that “show” was a beautiful minimalist collection of garments with impeccable tailoring. Yet, as the show inevitably turned into images removed from the mood and context the collection was originally set in, how would they be perceived by the general public? Individuals within the Hasidic community considered it mockery while others were more disturbed by the fact that women walked down the runway in the traditionally male clothing. In a post-show interview, Gaultier argues that he simply wanted to pay homage to the Jewish community and the many people within the fashion industry with Jewish heritage. He believed it was the right time to take a stand as far-right wing ideologies such as racism and anti-semitism were quickly reemerging in Europe at the time. Beyond the more obvious references to Hasidic culture, was Gaultier trying to prove a point about patriarchy and religion by having women model his designs? Or was it simply a creative interpretation of the scene he saw on Fifth Avenue?
Unsurprisingly, Gaultier wasn’t discouraged by the mixed reactions to his “Chic Rabbis” collection. For his Spring/Summer 2007 Haute Couture show he yet again looked to religion for inspiration, however, this time Catholicism was under attack. Models walked down the runway beneath halos, their faces painted pale with an occasional colored tear running down on their cheeks. The couture ranged from long Madonna-blue chiffon gowns and white crochet dresses to dark hooded cloaks. Throughout, fabrics were printed with traditional Christian imagery or decorated with religious symbols such as the cross, roses and the dagger pierced heart known as the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Evidently, the Madonna was Gaultier’s main source of inspiration and he successfully managed to convey the opulence of Christian iconography on the runway. Despite the obvious religious theme, the collection was met with little to no remarks, but what made this collection less intolerable than “Chic Rabbis”? Was the silence simply based on lack of interest amongst the audience? At this point, Gaultier was one of many designers who had drawn inspiration from Christianity, so perhaps viewers were simply bored of this theme? Although it’s difficult to assume someone’s religious belonging, it’s possible that the public assumed Gaultier to be of Christian descent, and consequently earned a prerogative to the matter—but why do we jump to these conclusions? As for the A/W 93 collection, it was safe to presume that Jean Paul Gaultier wasn’t a member of Hasidic Judaism, which might explain the criticism it received for appropriating religion for the sake of feeling inspired, but Gaultier is just as guilty here, too.
For his Spring/Summer 2013 menswear collection, Gaultier tapped into a similar sense of controversial imaginativeness: He sent men down the runway wearing traditional Sikh-turbans alongside streetwear-inspired garments. Similarly to his A/W 1993 collection, most of the criticism surrounding this collection targeted the fact that Gaultier’s models were non-Sikh men in sacred headwear—removing a religious symbol from its original context and reintroducing it as a fashion accessory. Even if he believed this collection to be an act of celebration, as he did in his Autumn/Winter 1993 collection, his exploration feels shallow and underwhelming—if he was truly intrigued by Sikh culture, he should have explored deeper than just a headdress.
Alessandro Michele, who just this past week presented white models wearing Sikh turbans as a part of Gucci’s Autumn/Winter 2018 collection, clearly did not learn from Gaultier’s mistake. Five years later and the similar headlines are circulating media—are designers simply ignoring the past or legitimately celebrating alternative cultures? Is privilege so deeply instituted that we lack the ability to care about the effects of our decisions? Why are some designers still not using their privilege for change, and instead, choosing to strengthen cultural stigmas through their designs?
The line is fine between influence and disrespect, especially when it comes to the use of visual social and religious cues. Jean Paul Gaultier may be inspired by controversial topics (and tends to focus on the most literal visual representations of these subjects), but it is fascinating that he has the ability to detect such enchanting qualities in the most traditional objects and ways of living. Gaultier not only appreciates common aspects of life—like heavy black fabrics clapping in the New York wind—but he has the ability to translate his daily sensations into new shapes, moods, and garments. Gaultier’s agenda may partly still be to cause a stir, to provoke and to induce a reaction, but perhaps that is because in our oversaturated world reaction is so rare to come by.