A Taste for the Quixotic

A corset on its own is kind of a damning thing. Its literal and figurative rigidity smells of constraint and stuffiness. It’s so two centuries ago, even for the truest fetish connoisseurs. But a corset plus Jean Paul Gaultier is a sublime charge that ignites the mind like a firework bursts the sky. Its dimensionality and unabashed whimsy shift paradigms for both the wearer and the observer. It’s the collision of art and fashion.

When we were young and bashful, Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour stormed into our lives in one way or another and at the center of it all were a pair of beauties: Gaultier’s exceptional cones or gems or mind’s eyes or whatever other analogy applies here. His iconic corset will be on display along with 130 haute couture and prêt-a-porter ensembles and other goodies this October when The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk opens at the Brooklyn Museum. The retrospective promises to be an intimate examination of one man’s fierce yet playful artistic vision and his preoccupation with blurring and transforming preconceived notions of beauty and sexuality.

In Gaultier’s universe, gender roles are joyously tossed around in mind-blowing juggling acts and the staid ruins of conventional power and play are excavated for glorious new bones. This is his incredibly far-reaching and, if you’ve seen his work, not-in-the-least-bit-understated accomplishment. We were too young to get it with Madonna, too distracted with Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element and perhaps, too dismissive when his name came up next to Andy Warhol’s in conversations about how fashion is a commentary on culture. In truth, fashion has always been a commentary on culture. It’s made by those who dare to be bold and courageous enough to actually go there and truly, ironically even, reveal their lovely and unique selves.

The fact that Gaultier’s retrospective is coming to Brooklyn and not Manhattan, with its long history of avant-garde art, expensive tastes and theatrical couture, is a bit of commentary in its own right. “I am proud and honored that my exhibition will be presented in Brooklyn, where the true spirit of NY lives on,” he said. And we’re left considering if that decision itself is not rightly another in the long line of the designer’s gems that really push outward, blowing down the walls of high art so that its innards spill out into to the street where the quixotic is needed most. What a wild and imaginative sidewalk that would be.

photo: Jean Paul Gaultier (French, b. 1952). Corset-style body suit with garters, 1990, Duchess satin. Worn by Madonna during the “Metropolis” (“Express Yourself”) sequence of the Blond Ambition World Tour (1990). Collection of Madonna, New York.

alan semerdjian

Alan Semerdjian is a writer, musician, English teacher, and occasional visual artist. Besides LI Pulse, his work has appeared in Newsday, Adbusters, Chain, The Lyric Review and numerous other print and online publications, anthologies, and chapbooks. His first full-length book of poetry is In the Architecture of Bone (Genpop Books 2009). You can visit him digitally at alanarts.com and find out about his music at alansemerdjian.com.