McQueen and Gaultier at the museum – looking back

We are very excited to see the Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty exhibition come to London this spring, at the V&A Museum, after having seen the wonders of Jean Paul Gautier’s last summer. It has brought us right back to the words of our colleague Priscilla McGeehon, publisher for Fairchild Books, who had the opportunity to visit them both – check out her thoughts on corseted men, curation and display choices, and drama in museums.

I was lucky enough to see the inaugural installation of the touring Jean Paul Gaultier exhibit at the Montreal Art Museum in summer 2011, and again in Brooklyn in February 2014. Although I was familiar with Gaultier’s work (check my closet as evidence), the MAM show was revelatory. The sheer volume and diversity of Gaultier’s work, in gallery after gallery after gallery, was a mind-bending, gender-bending delight. Men in skirts – and corsets! Women in corsets – and power suits! Many fashion designers are interested in sexuality, but no one runs the gamut from extreme masculinity to extreme femininity, and all the shades in between, the way Gaultier does.

The curation and display were as delightful as the clothing. Weeks earlier, I had seen the Metropolitan Museum’s Alexander McQueen exhibit in New York. It is perhaps unfair to compare the two designers: Gaultier has been designing for 40 years, whereas McQueen’s career spanned just 15. Both are iconoclasts, hailed as geniuses and enfants terrible, and both used plaid to great effect – but are bumster pants any more provocative than extremely conical bras? Who can judge?

It is easier to compare the two exhibits. The Met’s Savage Beauty was underlit and relied on melodramatic music and an emphasis on McQueen’s Goth-inspired designs — unfortunate since his suicide was still a fresh memory. The Costume Institute’s cramped galleries contributed to an oppressive atmosphere of gloom. The Gaultier show sang in comparison, lifted by capacious, well-lit galleries, technological innovation (talking mannequins! a conveyor belt display!), and above all, humor.

Everyone talks about the Tony Oursler-style video mannequins, but to my mind the most inspired innovation was the conveyor belt. At most fashion exhibits you only get the front view. Why not install a mirror behind the mannequins for a glimpse of the backside? (Of course, since you need a flashlight to get through the poorly-lit shows that fashion curators seem to favor, mirrors might reveal very little.) At the Gaultier show, a dozen or more costumes revolve and rotate on a conveyor belt, so that all aspects are visible – and, thanks to a slight wobble, you even get a sense of the clothing’s movement! Sheer genius!

But back to the clothes…from fetishistic, cross-dressing, S&M-style outfits to completely wearable ensembles (I kept thinking “I could wear that to work….”), everywhere I turned there was another eye-popping costume. Mesmerizing clips from movies featuring Gaultier-designed costumes enhanced the experience – I still don’t know whether the woman (or was it a man?) in the Almodovar film was beautiful or ugly, but I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

To my taste, the Brooklyn show was weighted too much toward recent celebrity collaborations to the detriment of the Gaultier’s mainstays (aka “classiques.”) After all, a man in a well-designed skirt is – let’s be honest – sexy. I’m not talking about guys at a costume party (and I’m always struck by how many men enjoy cross-dressing given half a chance). I’m talking about manly men (think Tom of Finland) wearing leather kilts or sailor-pants-style full-length skirts – as the Gaultier mannequin himself is sporting in the opening gallery.

So, those of you who find yourselves in Australia, you still have a chance to catch the Gaultier exhibit at the National Gallery of Victoria before it closes on 8th February. And, for those lucky enough to be in London this summer, Savage Beauty awaits!


The fabulous Priscilla, besides her role at Bloomsbury as Publisher for Fairchild Books, also runs her own blog, where you can find her thoughts on publishing work, advice for editors, and bold fashion choices.

9781472527660… and if you are curious to learn more about fashion curating, well – we wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t have a book for you.

Check out Fashion and Museums and you won’t be disappointed!