Jean Paul Gaultier poses with a metre high mohican in the Punk Cancan section of 'The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk' at the Barbican Art Gallery on April 7, 2014 in London, England. Photo: Getty Images
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The exquisite craftsmanship and healthy ridiculousness of Jean Paul Gaultier

A major new retrospective does justice to the shocking elements of Gaultier’s work, yet also celebrates his embrace of bad taste.

The first time Jean Paul Gaultier showed a collection that included men’s skirts, the staff of Vogue walked out, swiftly followed by those of Marie Claire and French Elle. In his notes for the Barbican’s retrospective, Gaultier archly observes: “I was slated by the French press for designing clothes for hairdressers and homosexuals! It took them two years to accept my statement that Prince Charles is not the only real man to wear a skirt!”

That was 1984, three decades ago. And yet the idea that a bloke might wander around wearing an ankle-length garment that is not bifurcated to the crotch would still make many people feel vaguely uneasy; this even though men are clearly gagging to wear skirts. (Have you ever been to a wedding attended by Scottish people or to an undergraduate fancy-dress party? Or watched Mrs Brown’s Boys?)

Because Jean Paul Gaultier likes teasing at exactly these kinds of cultural taboos, it’s easy to regard him simply as fashion’s court jester. He seems to encourage it, hamming up his Frenchness at every possible opportunity. (Exhibit A: a collection entitled “Ze Parisienne”. Exhibit B: a T-shirt in the gift shop with a huge picture of his grinning mug, accompanied by the words “Froggy designer”.) It has long been my suspicion that he can speak English with a perfect, cut-glass RP accent; he just knows the marketing value of cooing about “un adventure marvellous” to the fashion press.

This retrospective, developed in Canada and midway through a global tour, certainly does justice to the shocking elements of Gaultier’s work. There’s a section dedicated to his corsets, with an eerily animated mannequin of him breathlessly recounting how he first made one for his teddy bear. Some pieces are outrageous – Madonna’s pointy effort is here and an even more exaggerated version on a male model – but all are united by an innate sense of proportion (what should be exaggerated – and how – to create the right effect) and exquisite construction. Although Gaultier never had formal training, the designer Pierre Cardin hired him as an assistant when he was aged just 18, after the young JP bombarded him with sketches.

Tucked away in red-light-district-style windows are his S&M-themed clothes: all lace masks, riding crops and peephole cut-outs. Around the corner (and probably more upsetting to an impeccable liberal like you, dear New Statesman reader) are his riffs on the clothes of cultures around the world. There’s a couture wedding dress from 2003 with an alabaster-white-feather Native American headdress and an Inuit-style hooded coat, lined with embroidery and fur. Most astonishingly – I still struggle to believe that this happened – there are pieces from his 1993-94 women’s ready-to-wear collection “Chic Rabbis”. Its inspiration was a group of Hasidic Jews he saw outside the New York Public Library, “with their hats and their huge coats flapping in the wind”. The collection featured jewelled yarmulkes and furry sidelocks. The fashion press, which had thought men in skirts were an abomination a few years earlier, loved it.

There is no other designer today who is quite so gleeful about embracing bad taste. Think how dull, how correct, how orderly a retrospective of, say, Prada’s clothes would be. Even Chanel couldn’t compete – although its current head designer, Karl Lagerfeld, knows a thing or two about hamming up the Zoolander elements of his personality, given that he employs a “soda serf” to follow him around at parties with a Pepsi Max on a silver platter and recently said he would like to marry his cat, a white Siamese called Choupette.

Gaultier’s mischief is infectious. “Oui, ze fashion industry ees bonkers, but ’ow wonderfully so,” these clothes scream. Very few people are rich and thin enough to buy and wear couture, so these designs exist for two reasons: as works of art and as marketing for the designer’s perfume collections. Under these circumstances, spending a hundred hours making a sheer bodysuit with integral beaded merkin begins to make a certain sort of sense.

I have no hesitation in describing these clothes as works of art. Gaultier’s atelier spends up to a thousand hours on a couture piece; if you appreciate the brushwork of a Monet, you should have as much respect for the craftsmanship needed to embroider hundreds upon hundreds of semi-circles of overlapping chiffon to make it look like glittering fish scales. Many of his signatures – Breton stripes, equestrian themes, punk tartan and denim, a particular combination of blush pink and black denoting “sexy” – have trickled down to the high street.

Fashion is routinely derided for its emphasis on conformity – tall, thin, white, unblemished, beautiful – but Gaultier has done more than most to demolish the stereotypes. He was an early champion of the French-Algerian model Farida Khelfa and Sudan’s Alek Wek, at a time when the industry was dominated by Nordic blondes. He cast the androgynous Andrej Pejic as a bride in 2011 and his last show featured an old punk with a grey Mohawk. This retrospective features perhaps the rarest fashion item of all: a couture dress in size 16.

This funny, affectionate and only occa­sionally luvvie-ish show does justice to its subject. You get the sense that Gaultier can’t see a taboo without wanting to charge through it like a rhino – a rhino in an 18th-century periwig, a Breton jumper and an amazing sequinned skirt. Sacré bleu!

“The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier” runs until 25 August (barbican.org.uk)

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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Can we morally justify rape dramas like the BBC’s Three Girls?

Violence against women and girls is often read as “gripping” or “compelling” in both fiction and non-fictional narratives.

Last week, over three consecutive nights, the BBC aired Three Girls: an unflinching drama based on the 2012 Rochdale Grooming Case, which exposed and prosecuted nine men for the trafficking, prostitution and rape of children. It is, of course, a terribly bleak story – one that is important not to shy away from. And yet when I first heard about the docudrama, it made me instinctively uncomfortable. TV has a wider social purpose beyond sheer enjoyment, but is the repeated rape of children appropriate material for primetime entertainment?

Violence against women and girls is often read as “gripping” or “compelling” in both fiction and non-fictional narratives. Child abuse, too, is something our society condemns but has an uncomfortable obsession with reading about in detail - you only need to walk into your local Waterstones to see a true life section crowded with children’s sad faces staring up from bestselling misery memoirs. I’ve written before, at length, about our cultural fixation on murdered, abused and kidnapped women and young girls, and the ethical questions they raise. Do we want to know the specific brutalities of this case because it is important to reckon with the reality of the situation, or because the shock factor fascinates us? Is it inherently unethical to treat the real traumas of children as spectacle? Aside from general distastefulness, what impact does making a drama about these assaults have on the real-word victims? What function does this particular story – with its narrative of the police officers too afraid of being labelled racist to bring the criminals (who were mostly of Pakistani descent) to task – serve in the current political climate?

Andrew Norfolk, the Times journalist who first exposed the Rochdale case and spent years facing its horrors head-on, had concerns over such a topic being turned into television. “When I first heard that the BBC had commissioned a docudrama, my initial shock that the corporation would choose to tackle such a controversial subject was swiftly replaced by wariness,” he explains. But his concerns were not that such a programme would become voyeuristic. “I feared that innate squeamishness would result in a sanitised exercise that shied away from uncomfortable realities.”

“More fool me. Three Girls pulls no punches. It tells a raw, harrowing story in a way that makes for searingly compelling drama,” he goes on, adding that the writers succeeds in turning “such bleak misery into three hours of gripping television drama”.

Norfolk, of course, has first-hand knowledge of the show’s source material, as well as the experience of trying to open the public’s eyes to unspeakable crimes. Viewers will never have this. As someone removed from the reality of the Rochdale case, those familiar words “gripping” and “compelling” make me squirm, especially when paired with such unimaginably damaging experiences for the real life young victims.

The first episode of Three Girls explores the actual abuse at the centre of the Rochdale case. It follows Holly, who meets the headstrong Amber and her vulnerable younger sister Ruby, and starts hanging out with them at a take-away shop, where an older man known only as “Daddy” plies them with free food and vodka to gain their trust. It’s not long before we witness Holly being raped in a grim, long scene. We then see her assaulted again, before watching her perform a “prozzy dance” for her horrified father. It’s unbearably sad watching.

It’s certainly true, then, that Three Girls is “harrowing”, but why is “harrowing” as a concept read as automatically valuable? The Daily Mail called it “spellbinding”; many other outlets saw the first episode’s brutality as “brave”. Some headlines were far more discomfiting: the Huffington Post rounded up the “most disturbing moments” from the drama in a sensational listicle, while the Telegraph and extreme right-wing sites took the opportunity to push their politics with headlines like “How poor white girls were sacrificed on the altar of multiculturalism” and “BBC’s Muslim Rape Gang Drama Skirts Religion Issue”.

But the makers of Three Girls seem more aware than most of the troubling potential for sensationalism a drama about Rochdale might have. In a blog post for the BBC, Head of Drama Hilary Salmon explains how they justified their decision to explore the violence of this particular case due to the story’s capacity for social change.

“There are many true stories that an audience might be interested in reliving through drama but the ones that really resonate and arguably deserve to be made are those which can change an audience’s perception of the victims because, for all the media noise, their true voices haven’t yet been heard.”

“The voices of the children abused and exploited in Rochdale had not been heard,” Salmon continues. “How did they feel while all this was happening to them and how do they feel now?”

She adds that public perception of the young victims was disappointingly regressive:

“[Whistleblowers] worked tirelessly to change the perception of these young girls in the eyes of the authorities just as we have tried to do for audiences through the drama. A perception that the girls were simply displaying a lifestyle choice and didn’t need or want protection. Never mind that they were 13, 14, 15 years old at the time and had such low self-esteem that free chips and alcohol would turn a grubby room at the back of a kebab shop into the equivalent of a clubhouse.”

The first hour of Three Girls asks the audience to confront the realities of the assaults on these young victims. Then it puts its most shocking moments to good use. The following two episodes explore the aftermath of the case: how a culture of disbelief silenced the victims at its centre, and how forcing the children to repeatedly relive the acts, only to be ignored, traumatised them as they became adults. How victim-blaming attitudes saw abused children officially declared criminals, and the babies they bore taken away by child protection services. How it was a culture of demonising working-class teenage girls, rather than the fear of racism, that saw the victims belittled and dismissed again and again.

We see explicit discussions of all these complex problems. The adult moral hearts of the show, NHS sexual health worker Sara and police officer Maggie, constantly condemn the culture of misogyny and classism that allowed this abuse to flourish. There are whole scenes dedicated to exploring how the race of the perpetrators does not reflect Muslim culture as a whole. And, most importantly, the perspectives most frequently and sensitively explored are those of the victims themselves, retrospectively giving them a voice. The script manages to do this without veering into preachy public service announcement territory.

Three Girls a masterclass in how to explore violence against girls without objectifying the victims - an area in which other modern TV series and films are lagging depressingly behind. (I’d still advice viewer discretion in watching the first episode, but the more brutal scenes in the programme serve a specific purpose.) I only hope other writers can hold the same aims. Three Girls shows how you can move beyond just “gripping” and “compelling” to find stories that shift social narratives by changing audience’s beliefs, before they’ve had a chance to look away.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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