Book Review: Experimental Fashion: Performance Art, Carnival and the Grotesque Body
Francesca Granata, Experimental Fashion: Performance Art, Carnival and the Grotesque Body, I.B. Tauris, $29, 256 pp., December 2016
In Francesca Granata’s new book, Experimental Fashion: Performance Art, Carnival and the Grotesque Body, the reader enters a world of outsider fashion that blurs the lines between performance studies and fashion studies. The beauty of Granata’s work, in part, is that the designers and artists she highlights define an important sub-genre of fashion that is often overlooked in favor of more traditional fashion and the buzz that surrounds it, such as the glitz and glam of a NYFW show or a Vogue spread. While brands like Comme des Garçons may occasionally get a nod in mainstream fashion publications, the average consumer of fashion has little to no familiarity with Rei Kawakubo herself, the founder of the avant garde line who is one of many designers discussed in Granata’s new book.
It is here in Experimental Fashion that Granata outlines the important figures who shaped avant garde fashion from the 1980s through present day, outlining the text by dedicating each chapter to a different designer. While the book is rooted in Bakhtin’s theoretical work on the grotesque, the introduction should be sufficient for most readers who lack an academic background in art history and fashion theory. The chapters all have a theoretical orientation, but are balanced with contemporary descriptions and photos that provide a digestible outline of the avant garde and help the reader understand the ways experimental fashion has made use of the grotesque. In reading about the designers Granata chooses to highlight, it is important to consider Bakhtin’s take on the grotesque as Granata explains it in the volume: “[A] phenomenon of reversal and of unsettling ruptures of borders, in particular bodily borders. The grotesque body is an open, unfinished body, which is never sealed or fully contained, but it is always in the process of becoming.”
The first two chapters share a common thread and examine the grotesque female body, specifically, the pregnant female body, by discussing the work of two influential designers: Georgina Godley and Rei Kawakubo. These chapters are exceptionally strong, as they tie into Granata’s overall themes surrounding not only the grotesque, but also human anatomy and the boundaries of the body itself. Godley and Kawakubo, designing in the 1980s, elected to forego the pervasive trends of shoulder pads and pant suits that women wore to demonstrate power and supposed equality to men. Instead, these designers produced garments that represented a unique juxtaposition by using feminine patterns (Kawakubo’s gingham) or fabrics and silhouettes (Godley’s shear sheath dresses) while adding padded inserts to the stomach, bottom, or hips. These padded inserts exaggerated those parts of the body that are traditionally kept hidden, and most noticeably, evoked the pregnant female body. Since these designs rejected the ideal frame of the 1980s body builders and changed the movement of the wearer, Godley and Kawakubo’s designs both mocked the feminine ideal and attempted to blur the bodily lines of the wearer.
In exploring the boundaries of the pregnant female body, the following chapter examines the fashions and performance art made by the late artist, Leigh Bowery. Bowery, much like Godley and Kawakubo, also explored the boundaries of the pregnant body—and the body itself—by constructing garments and art pieces that, at times, ended in graphic public birthing scenes. Bowery continued to push the envelope on fashion, the body, and gender throughout his career, and created garments and pieces that enabled his body to perform in unnatural and inappropriate ways. Separate from the birthing scene, Bowery also conducted performances that invoked “puking” onto an audience (almost all fluids were not real vomit) and expelling bodily fluids on stage after giving himself an enema. Separate from these larger performance pieces that relied on the body itself, Bowery’s various looks could range from exaggerating his stomach in an obscene manner to clipping and securing parts of his body to create the illusion of female breasts. All of Bowery’s looks and acts demanded the audience’s attention, and fell well outside the realm of acceptable fashion. In reading Granata’s chapter on Bowery, as well as the interview with the late artist’s wife, it is clear that Bowery’s provocative and sometimes obscene performances presaged the experimental ideas of more contemporary fashion designers.
While Bowery used his large physical stature as a focal point of his designs, one of Granata’s other subjects, fashion designer Martin Margiela, explored the sizing of clothing in another way. Margiela chose to disobey traditional sizing practices, creating clothes that rejected basic construction norms (eg. when Margiela extended the length of a shirt by a certain percent, the width was extended the same amount) and emphasized the ridiculous, grotesque proportions that had been created. The transition from Bowery to Margiela does feel a bit stark, and calls into question the structure of the book itself. It makes sense to separate the chapters chronologically and by designer, but at times, it feels as though the chapters are operating too independently of one another. Perhaps the book should be divided into two sections, the first discussing Godley, Kawakubo, and Bowery and the second Margiela and Willhelm. Instead, the reader is left to do a bit of mental heavy lifting to not only tie the designers and their work together, but to also gauge Granata’s larger arguments, which become disjointed from the work as a whole. As Granata sees it, the grotesque has numerous functions in avant garde fashion, specifically in regards to gendering the body, breaking down bodily boundaries, and playing with societal and cultural influences.
Although Granata’s main arguments come through in each of her chapters, the amount of the book dedicated to Martin Margiela’s work is a bit perplexing, as he receives twice the amount of analysis as the other designers. As a result of this editorial decision, the chapters on many of the other subjects feel truncated. Granata’s interview with Godley (included in the appendix) highlights great information not only on Godley’s design practices and inspirations, but also addresses the remarkable similarities between Godley and Kawakubo’s work. It is my opinion that the chapters on these designers could have benefited from this information, and the text on Bowery could have easily been extended to discuss the proliferation of avant garde fashion through present day, specifically paying attention to contemporary queer performance artists and musicians such as Mykki Blanco of House of LaDosha.
Furthermore, the number of pages devoted to Margiela’s work seems redundant given the following chapter on designer Bernhard Willhelm. While Margiela and Willhelm’s work both stand on their own and serve as strong case studies for this topic, the fact that they comprise nearly half of Experimental Fashion means that, for me, the book leans too heavily on these designers. Additionally, the closing chapter on Lady Gaga is summed up in so few pages that the elements of Gaga fashion remain minimally discussed. While Granata concedes that Gaga is no longer as relevant to popular culture and fashion as she was in 2013, this final chapter would have been an appropriate place to discuss the evolution and creative direction of Margiela’s label under John Galliano, or how the grotesque is currently utilized and perhaps commodified in fashion today. Instead, we are left with a final subject who, sadly, is no longer the relevant icon she once was for avant garde fashion, yet no other current designers or muses are discussed.
As experimental fashion manages to ooze into the mainstream in a number of forms, from provocative designers like Rick Owens to newcomer Vetements, it’s important to understand its relationship to the grotesque. Granata’s book does a good job of outlining the more recent history of these trends within fashion and the artists who made a name for experimental fashion. With so little scholarly research on this topic, this book’s analysis promises to remain significant to scholars in fashion theory and performance studies, and it will be exciting to see what direction Granata’s research takes moving ahead. Experimental Fashion: Performance Art, Carnival and the Grotesque Body forces the reader to see a side of fashion they may not otherwise experience, and to consider how Bakhtin’s scholarship may be used to frame and illuminate the work of designers over the past thirty-five years makes me hopeful that Granata and other scholars will continue to push avant garde work to the forefront of our fashion vocabulary.