With his cobbled together, conical-shaped falsies, Nana the teddy bear is the touching witness to the creative beginnings of Jean Paul Gaultier who, as a little boy, was fascinated by the old-fashioned charm of corsets, a passion springing from childhood memories. Marie, his maternal grandmother, introduced him at a very young age to women’s fashions and Falbalas, the Jacques Becker film recounting the rise of a young couturier had a profound effect on him. Reworking the early twentieth-century corsets and 1940s waist-cinchers dug out of his grandmother’s closets, he has created new classics, like the cone bra, and underwear as outerwear. In the wardrobes of women today, his corset dresses symbolise power and sensuality.
Brought up by strong women, the couturier does not subscribe to the myth of the weaker sex. With derisive humor, he reinterprets the signs of the imprisoned female body. The hoops or cage crinolines of the nineteenth century symbolically confined women to their roles as wives and mothers, while the corsets of those times served, among other things, to conceal an abdomen swollen by pregnancy—a sight then deemed indecent because of religious considerations. For his part, Jean Paul Gaultier has chosen to instead design a corset that emphasises the fulfillment of the modern expectant mother. By reworking that garment, he has offered the attributes of womanliness to those denied them. The runway show for his Dada collection (spring-summer 1983) showcased the exaggerated breasts of totemic African fertility symbols, an assertion of women’s power. He has also given men the opportunity to once again don corsets, as did the dandies and English military men of the nineteenth century, who wore them to improve their strength and endurance.
Gaultier’s corseted women seemed like the negation of the feminist struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, but in reality the designer prompted a more post-feminist emancipation in terms of appearance. Many stars have worn the various iterations of his corsets with concentrically topstitched bra cups—Madonna topping the list with the iconic designs for the 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour, but also Catherine Ringer of Les Rita Mitsouko, Cindy Sherman, Grace Jones, Dita Von Teese and Kylie Minogue. Far from being an instrument of torture imprisoning women’s bodies, the corset now embodies the new power of the female, as well as shapes its counterpoint of the male jacket, the distant progeny of the knight’s suit of armour.