A presentation given by Dr Philipa Rothfield at
The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: from the Sidewalk to the
exhibition in November 2014
Is skin deep? Or is it shallow?
Is skin who and what we are beneath it all, under our underclothes? Is
the naked body a truth? Do we undress to reveal the truth? Or is the
truth much closer to the surface?
Perhaps there are only surfaces, multiple skins, which merge with their
This room is a theatre, of the surface, of inversion, play, a theatre that
shows us the illusory nature of biological depth, which shows us that
the truth is… skin deep.
Curtains are primed to suggest a REVEAL, as if there were an innate
truth awaiting revelation, but the frame, if clothing is the frame, is itself
a mode of production.
Gaultier's theatre creates. His clothing appears to lie on the surface,
but its magic is to penetrate, to work itself into the depths, to suggest a
depth which may not have been there in the first place, but becomes
so, from the outside in.
Remember the projected faces on the surface of the models in the
French blue stripe section? How real did they seem? How difficult was
it not to see them as real people, to keep the projected surface as a
surface, rather than allow it to penetrate to a core—an animating self-which doesn’t even exist.
I begin with a thought then, one which poses skin as surface.
The French philosopher, Michel Foucault, is one of the great
philosophers of the surface.
According to Foucault, the surface is a means of constructing "inner
Let's take a look:
- (woman on the chair): what would you say about this little lady, who
technically, isn't even here? Do you feel you know something about
her, from this play of surfaces, the clichés of bondage, genitals in
your face, except, wait a minute: Where are they? The gesture is one
of genital display, but what exactly is on display? It's the gesture
- (figures on the dais) How about these, inversions of depth and
surface: (i) does this one wear her heart on her sleeve? (ii) are we
really, deep down made of bone?
Gaultier plays with these notions of surface and depth. Whether it's
simple inversion: the BONE outfit, the HEART on the sleeve or
something a little more complicated. His field of play is the surface.
But, it's not that he adds another layer, a mere external element that
remains exterior.
Gaultier's work transforms. It creates depth. It burrows, suggests,
implies, interpolates, plunges into the interiority of the sexual subject,
supposing an interiority which may not have been there in the first
I want to look at two French philosophers, who treat skin as a kind of
depth, a social depth, a cultural depth, the depth of sexual identity, the
interiority of the self - all workings of skin, forming a social and cultural
surface to create an inside.
The body for Michel Foucault provides a surface, a site of inscription,
where culture can write itself. In so doing, a depth is created. Such
that we feel that surface to be our very insides, our thoughts, our
desires, our feelings.
First they were outside, then they folded inwards. A pleat, a pin, a tuck,
a fold, Gaultier, master of the fold.
The notion that social and cultural forces can turn inwards to form our
very insides – our sexual identity, the way we think of ourselves, our
feelings and sensations - is a mode of skin-deep, of skin becoming
The boudoir is deep inside the house, the bedroom, the dungeon, the
theatre, the interior self, hidden from view. And yet, its very production
of interiority creates a space of theatrical possibility, which stages the
secret, perhaps produces secrets.
Foucault traced a time when people began to think of themselves as
having an inside, an inner self, privy to ourselves, which others can
only glimpse.
Move to …..centre
The Panopticon was a 19th century prison design, where all the cells
were placed in a circle around a central watchtower. Being in the
middle, the all-seeing eye of Sauron, the warder, could see all the
prisoners in their individual cells.
Foucault's genius was to say that the visibility of the individual cells
creates a certain kind of identity, of the prisoner who can be identified,
regulated, punished and reformed; that the panopticon was not just a
means of surveillance, it was also a technology that created
individuals, initially prisoners, but adapted into all kinds of sphere, the
schoolroom, the factory, the workplace. We could say that digital
technology enables certain kinds of information surveillance, the
construction of consumer preferences. The cookie sees us but do we
see the cookie?
Looking around HERE though, surely WE are the ones being watched.
I would say this room is a kind of reverse Panopticon. The centre of the
room is not a means to watch the individualized cells or inmates. The
room is watching us. We are its subject, free to wander but also under
the spell of these phantoms, simulacra, phantasmagoric productions,
whose playful creation and sexual variation suggests that our identity
is not so stable, but is more open-ended perhaps, like the undisclosed
space of the unopened curtain.
Move to: the man in the bustier.
People say that sexual identity is instinct, biology, genetic, hormonal,
belonging to the body well before culture arrived. But Gaultier wants to
play sexuality on the surface, in an alchemy of display, displacement,
decentering the so-called truths of biology, to suggest a much more
mobile, queer, set of transformative possibilities.
The French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray's term for this is
morphology, a melding and merger of culture and biology, so that we
can no longer say which is which.
Gaultier quipped that there are only two sexually differentiated
elements of the corset: the bra and the codpiece. Two icons of sexual
difference, two options, male and female, bound together in a
heterosexual duo – like batman and robin.
And yet, nothing is so queer as the heterosexual couple. David Lynch
eat your heart out – we’ve got Tony Abbott, Bob Catter, Clive Palmer,
Bronwyn Bishop.
Gaultier’s sexual imagery is beyond binary dualism’s male and female.
He can take the bra, the bustier, the corset, the codpiece and
reconstruct sexual difference from the outside in.
If truth is skin deep, he plays the truth like a fiddle, maybe he fiddles
the truth or maybe he just fiddles….