Models wearing designs from John Galliano's Fall 2008 Mens collection looked as if they’d stepped out of Abu Ghraib prison and onto Paris runways. Do the designs fetishize torture?
RISD professor Kathleen McDermott says Galliano is following in a long tradition of designers who use couture to make shocking political commentary.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the 2001 film Zoolander, Ben Stiller plays clueless male model Derek Zoolander who’s manipulated by the evil designer Mugatu, played by Will Ferrell. Here, Mugatu explains the inspiration behind his latest collection. [CLIP] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] MUGATU: Let me show you the future of fashion. Let me show you Derelict. It is a fashion, a way of life inspired by the very homeless, the vagrants, the, the crack whores that make this wonderful city so unique. And I want you, Derek. [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: The film is hilarious and ridiculous but not entirely fictional. British designer John Galliano used clothing worn by the destitute as an inspiration for a line in 2000, a hobo chic look.
This year, Galliano’s making a different statement. His designs seem to be inspired by – torture. Galliano’s fall 2008 men’s collection features young men painted to look bloody and bruised, wearing hoods and ropes around their necks and not much else besides underwear. More specifically, they look like they came from Abu Ghraib.
Designers like Galliano have made political commentary of their clothing for years. Kathleen McDermott teaches fashion history at the Rhode Island School of Design. She says these designs are meant to shock. KATHLEEN McDERMOTT: I think they look they look frightening and disturbing and distressing and I think that’s exactly what he was trying to do. BROOKE GLADSTONE: It doesn't seem exploitative to you, an attempt if not to commodify horror than at least to fetishize it? KATHLEEN McDERMOTT: I see it as a profound effort to use a bully pulpit to deal with issues that ordinarily you wouldn't think of as fashion issues. BROOKE GLADSTONE: What kind of a designer is John Galliano? KATHLEEN McDERMOTT: One thing I've personally always noted about him is that he’s somebody who is very interested in many different eras but always with a twist. For example, he might do something taking on the clothing of the Ancien Regime, the period just before the French Revolution. Okay? But he would show you little bloody slashes across the neck where the guillotine would be, with blood dripping down.
So he’s always a guy who makes beautiful, beautiful, beautiful things but there is a very strong edge. I feel like he uses his enormous intelligence and knowledge of the history of fashion to provoke the viewer and have them ask questions. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tell me about some other designers, currently, who are using their collections to make shocking political statements. KATHLEEN McDERMOTT: One that comes to mind most vividly is a designer by the name of Hussein Chalayan, who created a collection around the chador. It started out at the traditional length so the woman was completely covered. All you could see were the little holes for the eyes. But the actual garment kept getting shorter and shorter and shorter until her whole genital area was exposed.
And so there is another example where somebody is using the opportunity that they have to engage the public in a dialogue. Is that garment a political garment? Is it used to exploit women or protect them? BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was the reaction to his collection? KATHLEEN McDERMOTT: It ran the gamut from outrage, hostility, laughter, you know, approval. It was exactly the reaction that somebody would want to have. BROOKE GLADSTONE: When did designers start using their designs as political commentary? KATHLEEN McDERMOTT: Probably the most important period is the 19-teens and twenties. And the place I would start would be the revolutionary artists of the Bolshevik period in Russia who were very interested in casting off what they thought were idle aesthetic types of forms and designs. And they used abstraction and geometry to create what they called political clothing and clothing that could be used and efficiently created in the first worker factories.
And so these were artists as political revolutionaries trying to create clothing that had a message both built into it and visually apparent. BROOKE GLADSTONE: It seems as if these designs reflected what was going on in visual art at the time, and architecture. KATHLEEN McDERMOTT: Very much so. BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do Coco Chanel’s early designs fit into all of this? KATHLEEN McDERMOTT: Well, hers were profoundly political in a very different way in that as a young woman at the turn of the century her background – illegitimate, in poverty – there was such a stigma attached to the kind of origins that she had, she developed clothing that was deliberately classless; that is, the little black dress.
Except for the extreme fine points of fabric and cut, you could not tell a duchess from a cleaning lady. That was very, very important to her, as was her costume jewelry, because for her, being able to pass at any level was profoundly important and profoundly political. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why did all this start in the '20s? Was it all a reaction to the First World War? KATHLEEN McDERMOTT: Well, if you think about it, the '20s was a time of tremendous ferment by youth. The people who were reacting against the carnage of World War I were the young people. Also it was a time of great ferment for women, much like the period that we'll come to later in the 1960s. Those are sort of sister decades in the 20th century. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let's talk about this sister decade. Then fashion was ruled by the youth culture as in the '20s, and it was rejecting the war. Did we ever see the war depicted on the runway? KATHLEEN McDERMOTT: You never saw it on the runway. And that’s a very interesting question, and I'll explain why. But what you now take for granted, that is, that people can express their political views in their clothing, was born out of the protest culture of the '60s. It happened in the street.
People took back fashion, if you will, away from designers. And let me say that people wear $120 pairs of jeans and think, oh, well, jeans are jeans. Well, in the 1960s, jeans were one of the most revolutionary and profoundly political things you could wear!
When Woody Guthrie wore jeans, when Bob Dylan wore jeans in the early part of the 1960s, they were saying, we are in political solidarity with the poorest and hardest-working people in America –– coalminers and farmers. So while designers weren't protesting the war, people were. BROOKE GLADSTONE: On the other hand, the miniskirt was invented on the runway. This was something that was commodified and churned out. KATHLEEN McDERMOTT: Mm, mm, mm. Mary Quant invented the miniskirt, and she couldn't be more clear about the reasons why. She did not want to look like the old fogies of her mother’s generation. These were not commodified pieces; they were pieces coming out of a revolutionary, rebellious spirit. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now let's go back to the beginning and talk about that line launched by John Galliano for Christian Dior back in 2000. That’s the one inspired by homeless people that was parodied in Zoolander, hobo chic - KATHLEEN McDERMOTT: Yeah. BROOKE GLADSTONE: - so to speak. Do you remember that line? KATHLEEN McDERMOTT: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE].
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What did you think of it? KATHLEEN McDERMOTT: Well, to me, it’s the same. He is engaging the public. What’s the connection between rich and poor? What’s the connection between the person on the street and the person who buys couture clothes? To me he’s using his pulpit in a responsible way. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kathleen, thank you very much. KATHLEEN McDERMOTT: Okay. You’re welcome. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kathleen McDermott teaches fashion history at the Rhode Island School of Design.