The best fashion isn’t marked by understatement, but here’s one: It’s been a strange time for the industry and Jews. Earlier this year, John Galliano, the celebrated head designer of Christian Dior, was swiftly fired from the billion-dollar haute-couture brand after he was filmed making anti-Semitic remarks at a bar in Paris. In September, the designer was formally charged with “public insults for reasons of religion, race or ethnicity”—less than a month after Hal Vaughn released the book Sleeping With the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War, which by many accounts provided convincing evidence that the fashion legend was also a Nazi intelligence operative and an anti-Semite. Is it bad timing or good that the Dallas Museum of Art will open next week—and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts hosted earlier in the fall—an exhibition that looks back at one of the most Semitically provocative sartorial moments of the past century?
“The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” features approximately 140 designs created between the early 1970s and 2010, in what amounts to the French couturier’s first international exhibition. While Gaultier’s “fusion couture” designs stand on their own, the designer has achieved an impressively high-profile status through collaborations with Madonna (inventing the infamous cone bra), Lady Gaga, Kylie Minogue, and various other figures of celebrity and political royalty. But he is still best remembered in certain circles for “Chic Rabbis,” his 1993 collection of urban wear, heavily inspired by Jewish Orthodox apparel.
In “Urban Jungle,” one of six themed rooms in this exhibition—others have titles like “Punk Cancan” and “Skin Deep”—Gaultier and curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot display three looks from the “Chic Rabbis” collection. When the line debuted in the fall of 1993, the designer aimed to highlight the beauty of urban Orthodox Jewish apparel, and the collection was criticized for looking like “dress-up,” causing particular offense by sending women down the runway in rabbis’ clothing, in a “charged” atmosphere. But Gaultier defended his collection. “The catalyst for the Chic Rabbis collection was a trip to New York in the early 1990s,” he writes of his inspiration on a placard at the exhibition. “I saw a group of rabbis leaving the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. I found them very beautiful, very elegant, with their hats and their huge coats flapping in the wind. It was a fantastic scene.”
Indeed, not only is this inclusion noteworthy for its function in the show—planted in the corner of a room devoted to the synthesis of city-wear and runway avant-garde—but also for its significant place in the career of Gaultier and the history of Judaism and fashion.
It can be argued that the arts have increasingly conditioned us to appreciate the quirks of Jewish culture, but not exactly the statutes of the religion; through comedic portrayals in various media, society is encouraged to openly embrace the stereotypical characteristics of a Jew but leave behind the observant practices associated with the religion. Clichéd Jewish traits can easily be conveyed and exaggerated through comedy and writing, whereas in the world of fashion, emphasis is placed on visual representation. Can we portray an anxious, nebbishy, food-loving, money-hoarding, stereotypical Jewish character through a line of fashion? Probably, but I doubt anyone would want to send it down a Bryant Park runway.
Instead, designers wishing to flaunt theological influences can most effectively turn to religious iconography. It’s is a risky move to make. Even before “Chic Rabbis,” Gaultier had been known to controversially experiment with iconic images of Christianity in his work. After recently publishing a lengthy New Yorker article on the designer, Susan Orlean commented in an online chat about Gaultier’s use of religion in his work: “It fits with his interest in tradition and iconic imagery, as well as the fact that he’s treating somewhat irreverently something that maybe people wouldn’t dare play with. It almost sums up his philosophy in one fell swoop.”
In “Chic Rabbis,” he did this with a tradition not his own. Gaultier was able to cultivate and harness inspiration from Jewish culture in a way that no Jewish designer had ever managed to do. Rather than taking offense to the aesthetic exploitation of Hasidic apparel, we should be flattered that Gaultier found Jewish images stimulating enough to inspire an entire line of couture designs. He set an unprecendented milestone for the integration of Judaism and fashion, and he’s not even a member of the tribe.
The rumor that New Jersey Jew Marc Jacobs might fill Galliano’s empty seat at Dior is a fun twist, but not quite a consolation. Even after Gaultier dusted the 1990s grime off of his “Chic Rabbi” pieces, the designs still retain their element of surprise to an increasingly secularized nation. One wonders if the up-and-coming Jewish fashionistas have an opinion in this matter. Perhaps the next generation of designers will develop an innovative method for incorporating Jewish culture into high fashion. For now, we have only Gaultier to reference until another couturier has the chutzpah to send a yarmulke down the runway.