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CULTURE : The Shock(ing) Value at Fashion's Cutting Edge

February 19, 1995|Richard Martin | Richard Martin is the curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

NEW YORK — Fashion claimed more victims this season. Six million. The European Jewish Congress rebuked fashion designer Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons for showing striped gray pajamas in her menswear collection last month--on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. They called the clothing "deeply disturbing" and the runway presentation, on a thin model with a shaved head, "particularly shocking."

Ten days later, Comme des Garcons, acting on the entreaty of the Jewish group, withdrew the pajamas and their fabric from the collection and from sale, stating "Comme des Garcons acknowledges now that, however unwittingly, it has caused some people to remember the terrible events of World War II. This misinterpretation has caused Rei Kawakubo much sadness and she has expressed her sincere regret."

Thus, an incident passes. All concerned pull back from the brink of hysteria and name-calling. But fashion remains on the edge. While Kawakubo's avowal is that she had no idea anyone would read Auschwitz into striped pajamas--which had numbers printed above the breast pockets and boot prints painted on them--shown on an emaciated model with cropped hair, it is hard not to associate the clothing with the concentration camps. If no "witting" allusion was being made, fashion nonetheless proceeded to walk its provocative, culturally combustible walk on the runway.

Serge Cwajgenbaum of the European Jewish Congress lamented that the clothing might be a "banalization" of Holocaust sufferings. He was mistaken. Fashion, as this incident reveals, is seldom banal. Rather, the representation of cultural politics on the living body is always a matter of fierce feelings and often of vehement denials contending that fashion is meaningless or otherwise so meaningful that it cannot be taken at face value.

In 1994, designer Karl Lagerfeld included in his dresses for Chanel Arabic words from the Koran. Not only were the inscriptions embroidered on clothing, but they appeared on one notably low-cut bodice, worn on the runway by buxom model Claudia Schiffer. On Muslim protest, Chanel apologized and destroyed the dresses. One wonders if the fashion gambit is not to offend--and then to offer an apology: dress and redress.

Fashion seems to vacillate between outrage and decorum--but the outrage is too frequent to go ignored, either by fashion's advocates or its censors. The politics of the runway are unabashedly confrontational, whether Jean-Paul Gaultier's faux Hasidim or men in skirts or Lagerfeld's audacious and up-front (literally) Koran. The Futurists may have had their manifestoes and the Surrealists their symposiums, but fashion designers have the media of the world in attendance for their declarations.

Just days ago, menswear designer John Bartlett gave each guest at his fashion show a pamphlet, "What is the ultimate definition of masculinity?" with the designer's thoughts on the subject. Among other things, he wrote, "In a 'cut-'n'-paste' culture that celebrates John Wayne Bobbitt as a symbol of male heroism, where does the self-aware, expressive, comfortably insane individual find a fit?" Even so, Bartlett's most persuasive statement was his 40 minutes of clothing on the runway, with all media observing.

Fashion and fashion advertising have long been on the knife's edge of cultural challenge. Are Oliviero Toscani's AIDS-sensitive images, multicultural children, and strife of war the instruments for enchanting the fashion imagination to buy Benetton sportswear? Recently, a number of Benetton franchises in Germany seceded, expelling Benetton merchandise in protest against the company's social advertizing and shocking images.

Ever since Brooke Shields averred that nothing came between her and her Calvins in 1980, Calvin Klein has pushed jeans, underwear and fragrance advertising to the limits of body and sexuality in public places and in magazine advertising. Propriety and provocation are carefully, even deliberately, balanced in an image of excitement: Klein piques and perturbs--but seldom does he alienate. Gianni Versace presses the liberal cultural agenda, as if a contract for Kennedy Democrats the world over, in bondage-inspired clothing (1992) and advanced advertising with Madonna and Sylvester Stallone. It is as if he were representing the ACLU--not the other way round. In a time when funding for the arts is uncertain, art may be timorous, whereas commercial fashion--which pays its own bills--is bold.

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