The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier - review

An extraordinary exhibition goes that far beyond the cone bra.

He needs no introduction. But he certainly deserves your attention. He’s the clothier credited with the cone bra and the man skirt, with radicalizing the looks of Madonna and Kylie Minogue, with putting street style on the catwalk, with making neoprene sexy. And from 2011 to 2013, the renowned French fashion designer has his first retrospective exhibition traveling the globe from Canada to the Netherlands. Originating at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, I managed to catch up with the show in San Francisco last week, where the de Young Museum plays third host to the couture circus.

The designer has been dubbed the fashion world’s “enfant terrible” since his catwalk debut in 1976, and The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk is a fitting hurly burly bonanza of extraordinary garments:  140 ensembles from the past 35 years of his couture and ready-to-wear collections. It’s a well-orchestrated free-for-all of pointy breasts and sci-fi silhouettes, plus a healthy lashing of showstoppers: Madonna’s cone-bra bustier worn on her Blonde Ambition tour in 1990, a black-diamond skeleton corset worn by Dita Von Teese in 2010.

The exhibition also features state-of-the-art digital content, including “living mannequins” - 3D holographic faces projected onto dressforms, defying the inherently static quality that pervades most fashion showrooms. Mannequins directly address and even sing for the audience. It’s both amusing and unnerving - the sort of combination Gaultier adores. One gets the sense they're a small part of a big joke.

Raucous and experimental both in form and content, I’m likely to call this the most blithely divine fashion show you’ll catch in the near future. But then I’m incredibly biased. Let me explain.

I first encountered Jean Paul on a boat ride to Dieppe when I was nine years old. It was summer, 1997, and my family had made the annual pilgrimage from our home in San Francisco to my grandparents’ in Sussex. My parents decided my sister and I had reached an age of maturity that meant we could nip across the channel to see what they called “the French way of life”. We had not reached the age of maturity that meant we could sit still for what was then a seven-hour ferry journey. My father, delegated with finding suitable distractions, announced we would be attending the vessel’s onboard cinema, little more than a few folding chairs facing a pull-down screen. Showing was a new sci-fi film with a gawp-worthy PG-13 rating. But the sweet promise of childcare relief must have usurped my father’s moral gripes, and in we went to see Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, a film for which – I later learned - Jean Paul Gaultier had designed and produced over 900 costumes.

It would only be slight hyperbole to say my life was changed that day. After having my tender mind blown by this two hour glam-punk sexed-up space-fest (mainly involving flying car chase scenes and Gary Oldman losing his cool), I came away with a few hard facts. First, Bruce Willis will always be the baddest man in the room, even in a backless tank-top. Second, orange hair and matching jockstrap are not mutually exclusive to sexiness. Third, the right man can wear a leopard print jumpsuit and still seduce. I gave Gaultier all the credit. Outlandish, impractical, and utterly provocative, his costumes spun a visual narrative that stuck in the mind better than any action sequence or nuanced dialogue. In short he proved – more decisively than any, I argue – that it’s clothes which take a individual from memorable to legendary.

So you’ve been warned – I’m a devotee upon arrival. Walking through this show a decade and a half after my formative encounter, I find myself wondering if childhood was perhaps the best time to fall for Gaultier, seeing as it’s his playful design ethos and irreverence for sartorial authority that have made his work so appealing and enduring.

It’s this youthful spirit that Sidewalk to Catwalk grabs by the throat. Arranged chronologically, its six thematic sections are a bold, episodic recount of a mature designer who, like a perpetual teenager, has continually fought tooth and nail against the grain of normative fashion.

Gaultier never studied design in an academic context. Rather, after a fervent adolescent interest in fashion, he came under the tutelage of legendary avant-garde dressmaker Pierre Cardin. The exhibition’s opening room – dubbed "The Odyssey of Jean Paul Gaultier" – is an exploration of early motifs which were to become signature styles: Breton stripes, theatrical materials and kinky, androgynous cuts. His years as an assistant in the Cardin studio, famed for its quirky silhouettes and exquisite tailoring, are apparent in Gaultier’s own early attempts at subversion. Though crude (his solution for making the classic sailor sweater more “sexy” was simply to cut out the back) each piece retains the kind of singular vision that makes for sophistication.  His “Lascer” dress, a nautical columnar gown with a base of stretchy blue/white knit and elaborate feather appliqués on the skirt (it took 160 hours to hand sew), was worn by Princess Caroline of Monaco in 2000. It’s the sort of ultimate testament to his tireless gift for fusing the unconventional and the refined.

Gaultier has made a career of shaking up societal preconceptions of dress and of the fashion industry itself. He’s a man who states his personal work themes as “equality, diversity, and perversity”. His early catwalk shows earned attention for their use of nudity, cross-dressing and atypical models (he famously ran an ad in the classifieds that read: “Non-conformist designer seeks unusual models – the conventionally pretty need not apply”). His most recent collection for Paris Fashion Week, an homage to the late Amy Winehouse, was declared by some to be “in bad taste”. But Gaultier is the sort of designer who would rather take risks – and risk causing offence – than play it safe.

Sidewalk to Catwalk embraces all of this transgression. Rooms two and three – titled "The Boudoir" and "Skin Deep" – explore a fluid vision of sexuality through exquisitely constructed corsetry for both men and women. Cone bras abound, while a talking male mannequin wearing crystal-studded dress shoes and a lace jumpsuit faces a mirror, questioning his simultaneous desire/fear to dress extravagantly.

The following "Urban Jungle" is a clash of multicultural influences, highlighting thirty years of Gaultier’s collections named for the civilization that inspired it. The Hussars Collection, The Samurai Collection, The Spain Collection, The Russia Collection, The China Collection, The Africa Collection, The Chic Rabbi Collection (no joke) – each playfully engage with well known tropes of dress (Russian furs, African masks, Japanese kimono) while subverting them with inventive materials (life-like animal skin constructed from beads, raffia placemats turned into crop-tops). Once again it’s a vertiginous, extravagant aesthetic that pulses throughout. One could call it over-the-top, if it were not so skillful. Gaultier’s expertise as a couture dress maker is undeniable. Catherine Deneuve, a longtime fan, once put it well: “He can allow himself many flights of fancy because the basic structure of the garment is always impeccable. No one comes closer to the chic modernity of Chanel and St. Laurent.”

It’s a quick stop at the full-sized moving catwalk before I round the bend to the eagerly awaited "Metropolis", the final room which explores Gaultier’s work with film directors Luc Besson and Pedro Almodovar. His costumes (and some behind-the-scenes screen tests) from The Fifth Element make their due appearance and I’m embarrassingly giddy. The child in me longs to reach out and touch. But here at the exhibition’s conclusion, amongst such a showing from such a brilliant oeuvre, the garments' status as costume becomes more ambiguous. This amalgamation of Gaultier’s brilliance proves that all dress is a form of costume; whether for the screen, for the catwalk, for the street, for life. Sidewalk to Caltwalk declares clothing an extension of the self: our sexuality, our opinions; a means to invite power, responses, revolutions, laughter. It’s this ballsy proclamation which makes Gaultier not just memorable, but legendary.

  • The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From Sidewalk to Catwalk is at the de Young Museum in San Francisco until 15 August. The show will then travel to  Fundación Mapfre — Instituto de Cultura, Madrid (26 September – 18 November, 2012), followed by Kunsthal Rotterdam, the Netherlands (9 February – 12 May, 2013)
Haute couture designs of Jean Paul Gaultier. Photo credit: Andrew Fox

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

FRED TOMASELLI/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Show Hide image

How nature created consciousness – and our brains became minds

In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Daniel C Dennett investigates the evolution of consciousness.

In the preface to his new book, the ­philosopher Daniel Dennett announces proudly that what we are about to read is “the sketch, the backbone, of the best scientific theory to date of how our minds came into existence”. By the end, the reader may consider it more scribble than spine – at least as far as an account of the origins of human consciousness goes. But this is still a superb book about evolution, engineering, information and design. It ranges from neuroscience to nesting birds, from computing theory to jazz, and there is something fascinating on every page.

The term “design” has a bad reputation in biology because it has been co-opted by creationists disguised as theorists of “intelligent design”. Nature is the blind watchmaker (in Richard Dawkins’s phrase), dumbly building remarkable structures through a process of random accretion and winnowing over vast spans of time. Nonetheless, Dennett argues stylishly, asking “design” questions about evolution shouldn’t be ­taboo, because “biology is reverse engin­eering”: asking what some phenomenon or structure is for is an excellent way to understand how it might have arisen.

Just as in nature there is design without a designer, so in many natural phenomena we can observe what Dennett calls “competence without comprehension”. Evolution does not understand nightingales, but it builds them; your immune system does not understand disease. Termites do not build their mounds according to blueprints, and yet the results are remarkably complex: reminiscent in one case, as Dennett notes, of Gaudí’s church the Sagrada Família. In general, evolution and its living products are saturated with competence without comprehension, with “unintelligent design”.

The question, therefore, is twofold. Why did “intelligent design” of the kind human beings exhibit – by building robotic cars or writing books – come about at all, if unintelligent design yields such impressive results? And how did the unintelligent-design process of evolution ever build intelligent designers like us in the first place? In sum, how did nature get from bacteria to Bach?

Dennett’s answer depends on memes – self-replicating units of cultural evolution, metaphorical viruses of the mind. Today we mostly use “meme” to mean something that is shared on social media, but in Richard Dawkins’s original formulation of the idea, a meme can be anything that is culturally transmitted and undergoes change: melodies, ideas, clothing fashions, ways of building pots, and so forth. Some might say that the only good example of a meme is the very idea of a meme, given that it has replicated efficiently over the years despite being of no use whatsoever to its hosts. (The biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for one, didn’t believe in memes.) But Dennett thinks that memes add something important to discussions of “cultural evolution” (a contested idea in its own right) that is not captured by established disciplines such as history or sociology.

The memes Dennett has in mind here are words: after all, they reproduce, with variation, in a changing environment (the mind of a host). Somehow, early vocalisations in our species became standardised as words. They acquired usefulness and meaning, and so, gradually, their use spread. Eventually, words became the tools that enabled our brains to reflect on what they were ­doing, thus bootstrapping themselves into full consciousness. The “meme invasion”, as Dennett puts it, “turned our brains into minds”. The idea that language had a critical role to play in the development of human consciousness is very plausible and not, in broad outline, new. The question is how much Dennett’s version leaves to explain.

Before the reader arrives at that crux, there are many useful philosophical interludes: on different senses of “why” (why as in “how come?” against why as in “what for?”), or in the “strange inversions of reasoning” offered by Darwin (the notion that competence does not require comprehension), Alan Turing (that a perfect computing machine need not know what arithmetic is) and David Hume (that causation is a projection of our minds and not something we perceive directly). Dennett suggests that the era of intelligent design may be coming to an end; after all, our best AIs, such as the ­AlphaGo program (which beat the human European champion of the boardgame Go 5-0 in a 2015 match), are these days created as learning systems that will teach themselves what to do. But our sunny and convivial host is not as worried as some about an imminent takeover by intelligent machines; the more pressing problem, he argues persuasively, is that we usually trust computerised systems to an extent they don’t deserve. His final call for critical thinking tools to be made widely available is timely and admirable. What remains puzzlingly vague to the end, however, is whether Dennett actually thinks human consciousness – the entire book’s explanandum – is real; and even what exactly he means by the term.

Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, seemed to some people to deny the existence of consciousness at all, so waggish critics retitled it Consciousness Explained Away. Yet it was never quite clear just what Dennett was claiming didn’t exist. In this new book, confusion persists, owing to his reluctance to define his terms. When he says “consciousness” he appears to mean reflective self-consciousness (I am aware that I am aware), whereas many other philosophers use “consciousness” to mean ordinary awareness, or experience. There ensues much sparring with straw men, as when he ridicules thinkers who assume that gorillas, say, have consciousness. They almost certainly don’t in his sense, and they almost certainly do in his opponents’ sense. (A gorilla, we may be pretty confident, has experience in the way that a volcano or a cloud does not.)

More unnecessary confusion, in which one begins to suspect Dennett takes a polemical delight, arises from his continued use of the term “illusion”. Consciousness, he has long said, is an illusion: we think we have it, but we don’t. But what is it that we are fooled into believing in? It can’t be experience itself: as the philosopher Galen Strawson has pointed out, the claim that I only seem to have experience presupposes that I really am having experience – the experience of there seeming to be something. And throughout this book, Dennett’s language implies that he thinks consciousness is real: he refers to “conscious thinking in H[omo] sapiens”, to people’s “private thoughts and experiences”, to our “proper minds, enculturated minds full of thinking tools”, and to “a ‘rich mental life’ in the sense of a conscious life like ours”.

The way in which this conscious life is allegedly illusory is finally explained in terms of a “user illusion”, such as the desktop on a computer operating system. We move files around on our screen desktop, but the way the computer works under the hood bears no relation to these pictorial metaphors. Similarly, Dennett writes, we think we are consistent “selves”, able to perceive the world as it is directly, and acting for rational reasons. But by far the bulk of what is going on in the brain is unconscious, ­low-level processing by neurons, to which we have no access. Therefore we are stuck at an ­“illusory” level, incapable of experiencing how our brains work.

This picture of our conscious mind is rather like Freud’s ego, precariously balan­ced atop a seething unconscious with an entirely different agenda. Dennett explains wonderfully what we now know, or at least compellingly theorise, about how much unconscious guessing, prediction and logical inference is done by our brains to produce even a very simple experience such as seeing a table. Still, to call our normal experience of things an “illusion” is, arguably, to privilege one level of explanation arbitrarily over another. If you ask me what is happening on my computer at the moment, I shall reply that I am writing a book review on a word processor. If I embarked instead on a description of electrical impulses running through the CPU, you would think I was being sarcastically obtuse. The normal answer is perfectly true. It’s also true that I am currently seeing my laptop screen even as this experience depends on innumerable neural processes of guessing and reconstruction.

The upshot is that, by the end of this brilliant book, the one thing that hasn’t been explained is consciousness. How does first-person experience – the experience you are having now, reading these words – arise from the electrochemical interactions of neurons? No one has even the beginnings of a plausible theory, which is why the question has been called the “Hard Problem”. Dennett’s story is that human consciousness arose because our brains were colonised by word-memes; but how did that do the trick? No explanation is forthcoming. Dennett likes to say the Hard Problem just doesn’t exist, but ignoring it won’t make it go away – even if, as his own book demonstrates, you can ignore it and still do a lot of deep and fascinating thinking about human beings and our place in nature.

Steven Poole’s books include “Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas” (Random House Books)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times