The Fashion World of John Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, De Young Museum

Today we review The Fashion World of John Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk currently on display at the de Young Museum. This is currently one of the more celebrated exhibitions happening in San Francisco, and one that seems to suit the city well and capture its attention. As such, there has already been a lot written about it. In this article, I aim to provide a more personal view through my focus on geometry, architecture and the urban environment while still presenting the major themes of fashion, gender and playfulness from the show.

The exhibition is not a typical fashion retrospective, but rather a unified multimedia art installation and a creative work in its own right. As such, it is even “signed” by Gaultier.

The signature sets the tone for the playfulness and whimsy that permeates Gaultier’s designs and the overall exhibition. There is also a quality of otherworldliness to the pieces and the installation, nowhere more apparent than in the opening room, where beneath blue light the dressed mannequins are animated with eerily realistic video faces that talk and sing.

Simplicity does not seem to be part of Gaultier’s vocabulary. His creations are, to say the least, complex and intricate, even a bit overwhelming at first. But there are still things for those of us who focus on patterns and geometric forms in art, such as the simple flowing lines in the dresses in the image above, or his repeated use of the blue-and-white-striped sailor shirt in different guises.

[Photo by Maw Shein Win.]

The use of the traditionally masculine sailor theme in the above dress-and-hood combination is just one of the many examples throughout the exhibition where Gaultier plays with gender expectations. There are examples of traditionally feminine dress forms that have been recast for male bodies and somehow take on a masculine quality. Conversely, the stereotypical appearance of Hassidic men has been recast into a garment for women. In other cases, gender was more ambiguous. Even the piece that opens the show has an androgynous quality, at once graceful but also very slim and strong.

As in the above example, there was a very architectural quality to many of the pieces, with the interior girder structure visible. This was most apparent in a risqué garment composed of straps that included a long train as well as a geometric headdress. Technological and architectural inspiration was also apparent in some of his film-costume designs.

[Photo by Maw Shein Win.]

The city and the urban environment were major themes of the exhibition with one room titled “Urban Jungle” and arrayed with variety of haute couture in different styles and materials, set against a night-time skyline of San Francisco. My favorite, not surprisingly, was this cat-themed piece:

On closer inspection, one can see that the “cat print” is actually composed of countless beads, making it an incredible work of craftsmanship as well as a fun design.

The urban environment was also explored in a section that contrasted sleek and modern styles one might see in a high-end city boutique with fashion inspired by street art and the London punk scene.

The two fashions depicted above might seem far apart socially, but to me they work together. I could see the punk-inpired gold dress in a high-end store wonder, and would love to see the red-and-block outfit posed in front of graffiti.

One item that stood quite apart from the rest of the show, but was quite endearing and memorable, was the inclusion of Gaultier’s childhood teddy bear, perhaps his first model.

Overall it was a fun and well-executed exhibition, and quite creatively inspiring. Fashion has long been on the periphery of my artistic vision, but seeing it like this is in invitation to bring it more front and center.

[Photo by Maw Shein Win.]

The show will be on display at the de Young in San Francisco through August 19. I recommend checking it out if you can.