Gaultier and the Rajasthani Gypsies, @Mark O’Connell 2015, no reproduction without permission
“It’s about the Indian gypsies,” said Jean Paul Gaultier, “the real ones from Rajasthan.” (Bowles, 2013) As a way of explaining the inspiration for his Spring 2013 Haute Couture Show. And with that statement casued some red flags to be raised. With the ongoing debates around cultural mis-appropriation, the inclusion of cultural references that are not one’s own are potentially problematic.
Fashion is about creative exploration and to proactively censor all elements that are not from one’s own culture is reductive and can block cross cultural learning and expresson. However, where does inspiration cross over into the exoticisation of a subject or culture? Peter Mason explores this process in Infelicities: Representations of the Exotic: “As a construct, the exotic is always up for renegotiation; as an invention, it is always open to reinvention; as a field of forces in which Self and Other constitute one another in a lopsided relation, it is always open to contestation” (Mason, 1998: 2). Where does Self end and Other begin within a fashion context?
I would put forth the argument that Gaultier’s specifity of inspiration would counter an assertion that his designs exocticise his inspirational source since “exoticist representation is indifferent to ethnographic or geographic precision and tends to serve imaginative rather than concretely political ends” (1998, 3). Gaultier did his homework and made an effort to learn about the culture that he was borrowing from. And if “the act of discovery produces the exotic as such” and “that the exotic is the product of exoticization” (3). Than Gaultier may in fact be de-exoticizing his subject matter by clearly defining his inspirational sources. In fact, according to Hamish Bowles, Gaultier even subverted French fashion tropes when he presented a: “a print that looked like a traditional French toile de Jouy but that represented Indian gods and fauna”(Bowles, 2013).
Regarding the creation of the “exotic”, Mason states that: “The exotic is produced by a process of decontextualization: taken from a setting elsewhere (it is this “elsewhere” which renders it exotic), it is transferred to a different setting, or recontextualized” (Mason, 1998: 3). The iconography Gaultier is using is certainly being recontextualized as it is being shown on a Parisian runway, but if an “exoticist representation is indifferent to ethnographic or geographic precision…”(1998: 3). I would argue that Gaultier is very precise on the origins of his designs. Gaultier has always been inspired by other cultures, however his representation has been respectful and provided a voice for his subjects and not fetishized them. The visual research is apparent and his collections were never painted with a heavy brush of generic “ethnicity”, they are culturally specific and not gratuitous.
Autonomous expression versus creative misappropriation is at the core of this discussion, and this is complicated by the fact that: “this assumption of a uniformity of interpretative procedures is precisely what cannot be assumed when we are dealing with different persuasive definitions which operate performatively in their attempt to authenticate, often in implicit opposition to one another, each vying for its own claim to authenticity”(8). There are obvious transgressions in the fashion world that are inexcusable (O’Connell 2015). Yet Gaultier has not caused public outcry in spite of his frequent transcultural inspirations and explorations. Perhaps the respect Gaultier has consistently shown his subject matter is what has allowed him to avoid these conflagrations.
My two questions arising from viewing this collection would be:
When does inspiration cross over into appropriation?
And what is the significance of the kids beneath the bride’s skirt during the finale?
Mason, Peter. Infelicities: representations of the exotic. JHU Press, 1998.
O’Connell, Mark. “Face Value: Fashion Racism and Cultural (In)appropriation. http://www.academia.edu/11638191/Face_Value_Fashion_Racism_and_Cultural_In_Appropriation