You know that tune from Moulin Rouge – "Spectacular, Spectacular" – that’s what plays in my head every time I think about The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition currently on at the Barbican. The show has got all of his greatest hits, from striped sailors to conical bras, and a star-studded cast list. It’s got talking mannequins and Spitting Image puppets. It’s even got its own Can-Can dancer.
Needless to say, the show is brilliant fun. The mannequins – who pout and babble incomprehensible little French nothings thanks to some clever projection work – the mechanised mannequin parade and the footage, taken from films and pop videos, as well as JPG’s extravagant catwalk shows make for an all-together theatrical experience. It’s impossible not to get caught up with its energy, to believe that, yes, a tin can necklace is a wonderful thing, and that bondage outfit would be just the thing to wear to the office Christmas party.
Much of is made of Gaultier’s inclusive idea of beauty and unconventional approach to high fashion, partly influenced by the time he spent in the creative clubland of London in the 1980s. He goes for less conventional-looking models or feisty pop starlets such as Beth Ditto or Madonna. Likewise, his happy mix of ‘high’ and ‘low’ means Eurotrash's place in this exhibition is as justified as the most immaculately crafted piece of haute couture. And, unlike other designers, whose ideas often don’t translate further than the fashion market, he seems to have achieved a wider social appreciation: this is the first fashion exhibition I have been to in the UK where more than 20% of the audience were male (small steps!).
You become so seduced by Gaultier’s charm and his madly creative world, that it’s easy to forget the world beyond the exhibition space. You believe, that when he puts a woman or a man in a corset, it’s a positive thing, a symbol of someone in complete control of their own sexuality. Taken out of context, put on a different person, and it becomes just another starlet desperately wanting to appear sexy in a corset. Once out in the mainstream, whatever Gaultier may want us to believe, it’s impossible for the outfit to retain its original intentions.
The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier is a brilliant show. It will make you laugh, it will make you clap, it will leave you wanting more. It’s just that he’s such a showman, and this is such a show-stopping feat, you start wondering if – like the Duke of the Moulin Rouge – you’ve been the victim of your own Spectacular, Spectacular deception. No matter how good, with these exhibition monographs of living artists that are shown without an accompanying level of critical interpretation, there’s a sneaky suspicion you might not be being told the true and full story. But Monsieur Gaultier wouldn’t ever want to deceive his English chums, non?