How Jean Paul Gaultier changed fashion

Jean Paul Gaultier at NGV

Or, why you should see JPG@NGV before it closes.

The world of Jean Paul Gaultier is one without boundaries. It’s sexy and witty, blending high and low culture, using materials in unpredictable ways to graft together unique statements, often about gender and sexuality. This is a designer who says “why not?”; who approaches his work exuberance and zest, and uses his creative energy to question, provoke, and make people laugh.

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk has been on display at the National Gallery of Victoria since October, and there’s now just a sliver of time left to catch a glimpse before it closes on February 8. And if you haven’t been down there yet, I really think you should.

Jean Paul Gaultier at NGV

Fashion as art/ art as provocation

Even a quick glance around the exhibition space should quell any questions about whether fashion belongs in an art gallery. Gaultier’s craftsmanship is exquisite ­– from glistening mermaid gowns that pool to the floor with effortlessly liquid construction, to a long skirt with mariner stripes made entirely out of tiny feathers, to a striking ‘leopard print’ gown, embroidered with thousands of tiny glass beads, which reportedly took over 1000 hours to create. The sheer theatricality of Gaultier’s runway shows is highlighted through the use of 32 beguiling, custom-designed mannequins, with faces video projected onto them so that they wink, look around, nod knowingly at you, speak and even sing in eerie chorus.

But along with his incredible artistry and vibrant sense of showmanship, Gaultier’s work matters because of the ideas he plays with; the way he uses design to deconstruct conventions, particularly about gender and sexuality. He’s a terrible provocateur, but it’s done with exuberance rather than barb. In a notable point of difference to many other edgy, contemporary designers – like, say, Alexander McQueen, who always wanted to shock and offend – Gaultier brings a healthy dose of humour and joie de vivre to his work. And that makes it pretty fun.

Jean Paul Gaultier at NGV

The fluidity of gender

For Gaultier, the boundaries between men and women’s clothing are mere suggestions, and suggestions are meant to be ignored. This idea was neatly encapsulated as early as his spring/summer 1985 collection, A Wardrobe For Two, where he put men with flowing hair in skirts and women in dapper tailoring – in other words, androgyny before it was cool.

No moment expressed this more clearly than when he cast the iridescent transgender Australian model Andreja Pejic as a bride in his spring/summer 2011 couture show. At the time, Andreja was known as Andrej, a 19-year-old boy from Melbourne just beginning to make a name as an androgynous male model. Gaultier was one of the first major designers to take notice of her and swiftly became besotted, describing her variously as “genius” and a “modern woman-boy of today.” In many ways, it was Gaultier’s joyful obsession with Pejic that paved the way for her whirlwind success. Having her walk the runway in a bridal gown marked an iconic moment in fashion history, a distinct part of a movement towards gender fluidity in fashion.

As part of this penchant for gender blending, traditional ideas of masculinity are necessarily challenged. Gaultier’s men are joyfully feminised, and sexualised in a way that is usually applied only to women. He turns the male gaze – and the female gaze – onto men (just as women are looked at by men and women), dressing them as camped-up sailors in his signature Breton stripes and flowing skirts.

Obviously, men in skirts is very de rigueur in high end fashion these days, but Gaultier was one of the first to do it back in the early 80s – and in those days, it was a big deal. The first time he showed skirts in a men’s collection, the staff of Vogue, French Elle and Marie Claire all walked out of his show. Unperturbed, he took it further, even putting men in corsets, and he was the first high-end designer to release a makeup collection for men.

Jean Paul Gaultier at NGV

The sensuality of the female form

When Gaultier met Madonna in 1987, it was a pivotal moment in both their careers – and in fashion history. It’s impossible now to separate the name Gaultier from the image of the famous cone bra and elaborate corsetry he designed for Madonna’s 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour. Nobody had done underwear as outerwear quite to that extent before, and the exaggerated hourglass curves of the female body became a motif throughout his work, immortalised particularly in his iconic Classique perfume bottle. The image of Madonna onstage in a cone-shaped bra paired with men’s suit trousers with strategic slashes is one of the most enduring of the era; the Blond Ambition Tour was banned in many venues across the globe for its highly provocative, religiously-charged displays of sexuality, and Gaultier’s reputation as fashion’s favourite enfant terrible was cemented.

For Gaultier, the dramatic curves of the corset are representative of the power of female sexuality. As a child, Gaultier was mesmerised by his grandmother’s corsets and what he saw as the wonderful theatricality of women’s dress. The first cone bras he designed weren’t for Madonna, but much earlier, for his teddy bear, Nana (who is on proud, though disheveled, display in a glass cabinet in the exhibition.) “For me, the corset evoked something extraordinary, fascinating and mysterious,” he says. “When I started designing, young women had begun to reassert their femininity. They were reinventing the idea of the female sex object, who became strong and free enough to play with the rules.  It was Madonna who came to perfectly embody this type of woman.”

Of course, not everyone would agree that the corset is an empowering garment, but it’s clear that Gaultier’s intention is to celebrate the female body, not repress it. Female sexuality continues to be a potent theme throughout his work, and many of his designs referencing the sensuality of the flesh and bodily forms in similar ways, through the use of expert construction and sumptuous materials.

Jean Paul Gaultier at NGV

Beauty is in diversity

One of the most common critiques of the fashion industry is that it generally celebrates only a very narrow definition of beauty. Runways are filled with tall, white, androgynous wisps of girls ­– girls with an otherworldly delicacy, to whom only a small fraction of real-world women surely feel much resemblance. But Gaultier has always been bored by this kind of same-sameness, finding it dull and uninspiring. Instead, he seeks out models and muses with strong personalities and unique kinds of beauty – people who really capture his imagination. “To show just one type of girl is a defect – which is the thing I’m always fighting,” he told i-D. “One kind of beauty – NO. I want all types of beauty because I love difference.”

A trademark of his shows is the use of unconventional models, girls of all different ages, ethnicities, shapes and sizes – and often those who are heavily tattooed or pierced. Along with Andreja Pejic, his menagerie of muses has included Sudanese model Alek Wek, Spanish actress Rossy de Palma (who with her sharp, unusual features has been described as “a Picasso come to life”), model Eve Savlais (perhaps the only model to dare to shave her head and flaunt a tattooed skull) and Carmen Dell’Orefice, who at 83, is renowned as fashion’s oldest working model.

He has presented collections inspired by complex anti-beauties like Frida Kahlo and Amy Winehouse, paying delighted homage to their dark, dreamy and eccentric looks. And in a major act of fashion rebellion, he has even put ‘plus-sized’ models on the catwalk, with size 16 Crystal Renn a favourite of his, and Beth Ditto from The Gossip opening his spring/summer ’11 show in a soft chiffon corset decorated with flowers.

And why not? This is a designer after all, who was inspired to create an African tribal-style cuff bracelet while opening a can of food for his cat; who once sent live turkeys as Christmas gifts to fashion’s most influential editors because he thought they were beautiful and he liked the way they naturally strutted like models. He once made a dress out of bread. In the world of Gaultier, beauty is everywhere.

Jean Paul Gaultier at NGV

Transference

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A short story of mine called ‘Transference’ is in Issue 7 of Tincture Journal.

A lovely writer on Twitter described my story as ‘silvery’ and I think that’s just about the nicest thing anyone has ever said about me and my work.

So, I hope you like it! If you do, I’ll finish writing my novel. Otherwise I’ll give up this insane writing caper and pursue my real dream of looking after baby pandas.

Buy Tincture Journal Issue 7 here.

We might be hollow but we’re brave

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I feel like if I could have one wish, it would be that Lorde had been around when I was a witchy, seventeen-year-old weirdo.

Obviously, Lorde is an infinitely cooler, smarter, more talented, more self-possessed witchy seventeen-year-old weirdo than I was. But I see enough of myself in her – or maybe of her in me – that I wonder sometimes, when I’m sitting up at night, listening to Pure Heroine on repeat like a teenager, how different I might have been back then if I’d had someone like dear strange Ella Yelich-O’Connor to look up to. Someone young and weird and creative who was proof that a different kind of coolness and brilliance was possible. Someone who showed that there were different ways of being a girl and killing it – even if you didn’t look or act or feel the way they said you should.

There’s something about Lorde that hits me right in the ribcage every time. Songs like 400 Lux and Ribs and Tennis Court and A World Alone just kill me, because they capture something about being young that is so subtle and so achingly real. It’s hard to even put a finger on what makes it so potent – I mean, it doesn’t make much sense that a line like ‘You buy me orange juice’ could make you feel so overwhelmed with adolescent yearning – but it just does. It conjures up the strangest kind of nostalgia, one that simmers and stays with you. It’s this familiar, stirring blend of intimacy and loneliness, of trying to be brave ‘even when we’re smiling out of fear.’

When she says things like, ‘Don’t you think that it’s boring how people talk?’ you know what she means. When she says, ‘We’ll laugh until our ribs get tough, but that will never be enough’; when she says. ‘Everyone’s competing for a love they won’t receive’; when she describes jovial teenagers with glowing teeth, who ‘love it when the hairpins start to drop’, then admits that she’s really watching this foreign, glossy gang from the outside… you feel all of that wistfulness too. But then she says, ‘When people are talking, let ‘em talk’ – and well, she kind of convinces you she’s right.

When I was a teenager, I only really had male heroes. The music I loved made me feel less alone, less displaced, and there was something about earnest, tattooed boys in eyeliner that I felt a real connection to. I thought, these are my people. And you know what, some of them are (or were) incredible artists and people, and they’ll continue to be important to me, creatively and personally. But I see now how much I was missing out by not having any girl heroes as well.

Back then, I felt like I really just didn’t like girls in general. I think for a lot of girls, that whole claustrophobic high school environment can pretty easily lead to those sorts of feelings, so you develop an instinctive sense of distrust, fear and bitterness towards other girls. It can take a long time to overcome that – but you have to. You really have to. Then when you do, you’ll find the girls you do look up to, who inspire you to be bolder and better. (Even if they are younger than you, which can make you feel a little foolish and inferior. Still, it’s like something Taylor Swift said in this Rolling Stone interview, also referring to Lorde, as it happens: ‘It’s like this blazing bonfire. You can either be afraid of it because it’s so powerful and strong, or you can go stand near it, because it’s fun and it makes you brighter.’)

Someone like Lorde, though, just might have been cool and intriguing enough to get through to me back then. There’s this song from The Love Club EP called Bravado, where she describes being socially anxious, and being anxious about being socially anxious, and she expresses that feeling more honestly than anything else I can think of right now: ‘All my life I’ve been fighting a war; I can’t talk to you or your friends… It’s the closest thing to assault, when all eyes are on you.’ But then she describes finding a kind of confidence she can fake well enough, until she eventually feels like ‘when the lights come on, I’ll be ready for this.’ Then there’s this: ‘I was frightened of every little thing that I thought was out to get me down, to trip me up and laugh at me. But I learned not to want the quiet of a room with no one around to find me out.’

All I’m saying is, this girl is pretty cool.

Swifty on feminism, feelings and not being cool

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Three things Taylor Swift said in this Guardian interview that make me think I’m not completely insane for wanting her to be my best friend:

(Also, I love that she and Lena Dunham became friends because Lena sent her a message on twitter saying “Can we be friends please?” It makes me wish I had an HBO show so that kind of friend-making strategy would work for me.)

(And, yes, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a Taylor Swift fan blog. Yeah, well. #SORRYNOTSORRY)

On feminism:

“As a teenager, I didn’t understand that saying you’re a feminist is just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities. What it seemed to me, the way it was phrased in culture, society, was that you hate men. And now, I think a lot of girls have had a feminist awakening because they understand what the word means. For so long it’s been made to seem like something where you’d picket against the opposite sex, whereas it’s not about that at all. Becoming friends with Lena – without her preaching to me, but just seeing why she believes what she believes, why she says what she says, why she stands for what she stands for – has made me realise that I’ve been taking a feminist stance without actually saying so.”

On art and feelings: 

“I really resent the idea that if a woman writes about her feelings, she has too many feelings. And I really resent the ‘Be careful, buddy, she’s going to write a song about you’ angle, because it trivialises what I do. It makes it seem like creating art is something you do as a cheap weapon rather than an artistic process. They can say whatever they want about my personal life because I know what my personal life is, and it involves a lot of TV and cats and girlfriends. But I don’t like it when they start to make cheap shots at my songwriting.”

On being nice/not being cool:

“It’s always been important to me, that’s always been a priority. Every artist has their set of priorities. Being looked at as sexy? Not really on my radar. But nice? I really hope that that is the impression… I don’t care if that’s not cool, to seem nice. I’m not that focused on being cool and I never have been.”

 

I am inked

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“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart.

I am, I am, I am.”

­–  Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

(Actually, apparently some editions say “bray”… which does kind of sound a little more Plathian I guess. My copy says “brag” though. But whatever.)

Haters gonna hate

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It goes without saying I’m crazy in love with Taylor Swift’s new song. I mean, obviously; in all likelihood I’d find a way to love it no matter what it was like. But I really, really love that she wrote a song like this.

It’s true, I have an affinity with the classic Swifty songs. Yeah, the ones about boys, where she reveals her neuroticism, her longings, her obsessions and temper. I mean, I relate to that kind of craziness. It’s familiar to me, that tension between her hyper-romantic yearnings, and that crushing hurt and frustration when things don’t turn out to be a fairytale. When people turn out to just be disappointing, flawed people. To me, there’s something cool about the way she’s not afraid to be so terribly uncool with all this. It takes a kind of bravery to reveal yourself in all your complete messiness, and I’ve written a lot about this.

But a song like Shake it Off is just pure sass of the sort that has always quietly lurked in everything she does (see: We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together; see: Monologue Song from Saturday Night Live years ago; see: this.). Not that she writes her songs just to make me feel better, I’m sure, but it is really, really useful for me to have those sources of verve in my life. I need girls bolder than me to bolster me up, to remind me to be more resilient, more myself. To remind me that haters gonna hate and you can just let them, because what they say doesn’t matter.

And besides, as they say over at They All Hate Us:

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Nick Cave on moody weather

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Last night I watched this film about Nick Cave called 20,000 Days on Earth, and now all I can think about is his strange, creative mind. You know, that shivery feeling you get when someone reveals something about their thought processes, how the weird little neurons in their brain flash around in strange, frantic networks, and you realise… this person really isn’t normal, at all. There’s something so peculiarly, scarily clever about the way their mind works, and it’s pretty insane; it’s exhausting just to think about. But it’s also really cool.

There’s this moment in the film where he’s looking back over an old journal he kept for a while about the weather. Pages and pages of neat black cursive, all describing the dreary English rain outside his window, the raging swell of the Brighton beach, meandering off into memories of things he’d seen that day, his fears about his impending fatherhood. The bleakness of the weather had been making him increasingly upset, he said, so he thought maybe if he started writing about it, he could wrest some kind of control over it.

And it worked – the more he wrote about the terrible weather, the more he started to see the beautiful nuances of it, the more he came to look forward to the drama of a charcoal sky, the more it started to conform to the narrative he was creating for it. And he described it in a way I love so much it hurts: “I can control the weather with my moods. I just can’t control my moods.”

Love and sequins for Andreja Pejic, and other girl-heroes

Andrej Pejic drawing by Rebecca Howden

I feel like it’s appropriate to write one more essay in admiration of the iridescent Andreja Pejic, formerly known as Andrej. I’ve talked a lot about how cool it is for a man to embrace femininity, and that’s true… but it’s even cooler for a woman to find such a strong sense of self, and the courage to express that to the world without apologies.

I’m thinking of a passage from John Irving’s In One Person, where the narrator is reflecting on the particularly alluring poise of the transgender women he has known: “It’s daunting to be around them; they know themselves so well. Imagine knowing yourself that well. Imagine being that sure about who you are.” I can’t pretend to even begin to know what it’s like to grapple with things like gender and sexual orientation, and I don’t want to compare anything I’ve struggled with to that. But identity is something we all grapple with in our own ways. We’re all at war with ourselves ­– sometimes quietly, sometimes frantically – and it can be lonely, terrifying. For me, seeing someone reach a place of real self-knowledge­, and being serene in that knowledge, is always an uplifting thing.

The world can always use more courageous women – women with grace and moxie, who aren’t afraid to speak up, be themselves and make their mark on the world. Lately I’ve been obsessively listening to a song by Lorde called Bravado, which to me captures that essential thing: “I learned not to want the quiet of a room with no one around to find me out.” It’s something I haven’t learned yet, so it’s those fiery young women, those girls with guts, who keep me going. And I can always use one more girl-hero to inspire me to be that little bit braver, bolder and brighter than I think I am. So Andreja: thanks, girl.

10 things you can do instead of write, while on a writing retreat

 

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  1. Browse baby name sites, because maybe you should change the names of all your characters.
  2. Put on another cardigan. Wrap yourself up in blankets. Turn the heaters up, because how can you be expected to be creative when it’s like the Arctic in here? Gradually become too hot. Unlayer; open the door to let in the ice.
  3. Make another cup of tea. Eat some cookies.
  4. Read and reread that short story you love, the one that perfectly captures everything you’re trying to do with this chapter. Wonder if you can somehow copy it without copying it. Feel miserable because you can’t.
  5. Write yourself little inspirational notes and bluetack them to your desk. Listen to Flawless by Beyonce.
  6. Go antiquing. Remember that you have no checked baggage allowance on your flight home, and cannot buy any antiques. Also, you don’t have a huge rambling house to fill up with junk. Think about buying a ridiculous 1930s beaded shawl to make yourself feel better.
  7. Write inane blog posts about that song you love or that model you think is pretty. Tell yourself: all writing is productive.
  8. Find a musty old record store. Confuse the two record store owners by being 25 and coming into their empty store, interrupting their listening sesh. Buy records to make it less awkward.
  9. Go look at some cliffs. Get inspired by the cliffs. Remember that your novel is set in inner Melbourne, not in the Blue Mountains.
  10. Buy books. You probably need more books.

The psychological benefits of reading

thumbs_marilyn monroe reading, where is the cool

Reading is good for you. Anyone who loves literature will tell you this. For me, it’s one of the only things that slows down my mind; it lulls me into a kind of dream-state where I can become so absorbed in another person’s story that I forget about my own craziness, at least temporarily.

For me, it’s definitely therapeutic, and I knew there had to be some real reasons for that. I wanted to know more about what research has been done about the psychological benefits of reading, and how it can possibly be used as a tool to help improve your mental health. So I wrote an article for WellBeing magazine about just that, and during my research I learned some really interesting things about the emerging field of bibliotherapy.

I had the privilege of speaking with Susan McLaine, a State Library of Victoria project coordinator who is also a PhD candidate in the topic of bibliotherapy. In 2010, Susan ran an incredibly interesting project called the Book Well program, which involved a series of read-aloud reading groups for people in vulnerable situations: the homeless, long-term unemployed, new arrivals to Australia, residents in aged-care facilities and people experiencing mental health problems.

I also talked to clinical psychologist Jacinta Wassell from the Black Dog Institute, who shared some insights about the potential of self-help reading in therapy, and I read about some fascinating neurological studies that have found that reading can improve your mood, reduce stress levels, calm nerves, stimulate creativity, encourage empathy and ease the tension in muscles and the heart.

I loved writing this article, and I’m excited to share what I learned. You can read the full article from WellBeing magazine here, if you like.

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