Twenty years ago in New York City, as the wind tossed wrappers about in the street, the French fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier spied a group of Hasidic rabbis walking in unison. They had the distinctive traits of Hasidism — the long payot side curls, the wide-brimmed hats, the elaborate coats that fell to the knees — and when their locks and clothing swirled in the bristly weather, Gaultier was transfixed. A short time later, he appropriated these “costumes” for a clothing line he called “Chic Rabbis,” which debuted at a flashy indoor fashion show where sexy models in phony payot paraded to wild applause.
Is there anything wrong here? Not to Gaultier, who thrives on co-opting cultures for his own artistic vision. Gaultier's smorgasbordian approach is on full display at the de Young Museum's “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier,” where the “Chic Rabbis” line is tucked amid more famous creations like the cone bras that once adorned Madonna's bosom. It's the rabbinic items — including fur hat, leather coat, and, yes, faux payot — that truly stink of artistic colonialism. It's not just Orthodox Jews who Gautier raids, but also Muslims of North Africa, whose scarves and robes he borrows for a fantastical ensemble. In fact, the mannequin with the “Berber” and “harem” draping stands right next to the Jewish-looking mannequins, thus uniting — for the sake of trendy fashion — two peoples who've often clashed in real life.
Gaultier's multicultural sponging isn't the great artistic offense of our era, but it is emblematic of a bigger issue: privileged artists who Orientalize other cultures for play and profit. These artists exoticize people they've had no real connection with. Gaultier transforms a superficial attraction into haute couture that costs beaucoup d'argent and is meant for an elite clientele.
Reviewing the exhibit when it debuted last year in Montreal, Amanda Walgrove wrote for the Jewish magazine Tablet, “Rather than taking offense to the aesthetic exploitation of Hasidic apparel, we should be flattered that Gaultier found Jewish images stimulating enough to inspire an entire line of couture designs. He set an unprecendented milestone for the integration of Judaism and fashion.” There's a fine line, though, between “integration” and “exploitation,” and for a more dignified amalgamation, we can look to “The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860-1900,” on view at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco's other institution, the Legion of Honor.
There, the first work visitors see is that of Owen Jones, the British architect and designer who, like Gaultier, reimagined Semitic culture for a wider audience. Best known for his book, The Grammar of Ornament, Jones traveled to Egypt in 1832 to study Islamic architecture and then, for six months, settled in Granada, Spain, to document the Europe's greatest Islamic edifice: the Alhambra. Jones' subsequent tomes, Plans, Elevations, Sections and Details of the Alhambra, and The Grammar of Ornament, detailed the building's exquisite star shapes and other architectural patterns that owe their origins to Islamic geometry and religious ideals. For English-speaking audiences, Jones' drawings and writings helped popularize and contextualize the Alhambra, even explaining the Islamic calligraphy ornamenting it.
The calligraphy is its own art, of course, and at “The Cult of Beauty,” a reverential portrait by Henry Wyndham Phillips has Jones standing against a backdrop of Islamic star patterns and writing. “Allah” is prominent throughout the portrait — a commingling of East and West that sets the tone for the entire exhibit. Among the highlights is a British-Japanese folding screen by William Eden Nesfield, populated by birds resting on blossom branches straight from the Japanese countryside. Britain's Victorian era was awash with people like Nesfield, Phillips, and Jones who expanded ideas of what art could be and, in the words of the exhibit's curators, “celebrated Beauty as the subject of greatest significance. These Aesthetes, as they became known, in fact deified beauty.”
That description could also apply to Gaultier, who is exalted for taking fashion to dizzying heights by adopting everything from punk looks to crocodile skin into his runway art. Gaultier is an equal-opportunity co-opter, though even he has limits. About 15 years ago, after the Taliban came to power and imposed their medieval philosophy on Afghans, requiring women to wear the netted burka, Gaultier considered reshaping the garment into men's wear for Westerners. Gaultier nixed himself, he told an interviewer, “because it was just too sensitive an issue.”
Overall, “The World of Jean Paul Gaultier” is a bedazzling retrospective — a juggernaut of talking mannequins, video screens, and over-the-top fashion that makes you feel like you've walked onto the set of a Fellini film. Male mannequins wear bustiers and dresses with trains. Women mannequins dress in replica animal carcasses. The talking, blinking, smiling mannequins (one of them is a Gaultier double who speaks his very words) are ingenious. Fun and frivolity are the order of the day — except when Gaultier crosses the line.
Gaultier is idolized by the fashion press, but after seeing Gaultier up close for the first time, I see the flaws that Gaultier's groupies either ignore or don't consider in the first place. His clothes entertain like TV or the opera. They're definitely art. And the “Chic Rabbis” line definitely belongs in a museum — just not worn on the street, where it might cause real offense.