‘Grotesque...’ In common parlance this expression, marked by disdain, refers to a reality perceived as ridiculous and outrageous. For the arts, the grotesque originally referred to the complex ancient ornaments, assemblages of chimeric animals, plants and other strange motifs, which were discovered with astonishment during the excavations of Emperor Nero’s house in the Renaissance. Since then, the grotesque has been ‘the great other’ for literature and the history of objects in general, with its deviant, shifting, poly even heteromorphic underside: an obscene monster, filled with laughter and terror.
©Office magazine, SS 19, photo: Renell Medrano
Is there a grotesque fashion body? Very likely, judging by the fashion press of the last few months, where images of the grotesque are being exported as far as China as the theme of the magazine Rouge Fashion Book. In the pages, you can find bodies with an unusual multiplicity of limbs, bodies that disappear under gleaming full bodysuits, bodies more opulent than usual; masked faces and skin painted in different colours playing to disrupt gender norms; spider women, bird men, pregnant men. The clothing itself cultivates excess with out-of-scale proportions, accumulations of volume, plethoric superimpositions of materials and effects; the padding and protrusions counteract the conventional silhouette design to better transform the silhouette.
the padding and protrusions counteract the conventional silhouette design to better transform the silhouette
And what about Dazed… Harley Weir and Robbie Spencer bring the diva Björk ever closer to a post-human future through image and style. Giant balloon sleeves eat the singer’s bust, her hair becoming saturated with a fiery red texture. Her make-up is worthy of a drag queen, the eyes exaggeratedly enlarged to appear almost prosthetic. Growths disorient the main features of her puffy face while pearl-shaped pupils appear to bulge out of their sockets, gold antennae on nose and mouth, a face with a vulva. Further on, a series of photographs by Paul Kooiker depicts a young woman with a large, overflowing body perched on high platforms in theatrical black and white. And of course it’s worth mentioning numerous editorials in the French magazine Novembre led by Florence Tétier.
Rouge Fashion Book, #5
In 2016, Francesca Granata, a professor at the Parsons School of Design in New York, published a book entitled Experimental Fashion–Performance Art, Carnival and the Grotesque Body* in which she draws on Mikhail Bakhtin’s theories on the grotesque body and carnival culture to analyse a part of contemporary fashion. In the 1930s, the Russian intellectual analysed the texts of François Rabelais and updated the concept of a grotesque body, which finds its expression in the truly overwhelming phenomenon of carnival. According to Bakhtin, the grotesque body is collective, open, unfinished and always capable of engendering another body. It is constantly in the process of becoming, and exists in opposition to the sealed and individualized classical body that arises from Renaissance modernity. Bakhtin notes that it would be interesting to retrace this struggle between the grotesque body and the classical body inherent in Western culture within the history of clothing and fashion. In fact, we know that fashion is strongly driven by antagonisms, with the clothed body being both circumscribed and transcended, denied and highlighted.
Isiah is an improbable mother figure surrounded by children, young boys with marcel curls, strippers, men, women and everyone in-between. He stands as the centrepiece, the head of the family adorned in garments printed with cash
The games of sewing, the masquerade of forms and artifices unfold the utopian part that always works on us as dressed, desiring, social, gendered subjects. Granata therefore adopts the working hypothesis raised by Bakhtin to interpret the contrasting panorama of fashion from the 1980s to the turn of the millennium. These eras in particular defined Western society’s neo-liberal mutation when empowerment, individualism and entrepreneurial self-culture became implacable values, and when the catwalks of major fashion labels exult the sculptural allures of the aptly named ‘power dressing.’ According to Granata, it is in reaction to this hyperclassicism that a whole group of designers, supported by the alternative press, have rediscovered the subversive virtues of the aesthetic scandal carried by the grotesque and the carnivalesque: Rei Kawakubo’s deliberately deformed silhouettes displayed in human roundness and bulge in her 1997 collection entitled ‘Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body,’ Martin Margiela’s work played with proportion and disproportion, Bernhard Willhelm and his burlesque folklore...
©Dazed, W 19, Björk by Harley Weir
Even the performances of Leigh Bowery left a lasting mark on the London creative scene, the artist inventing integral costumes and anatomical fantasies to disguise himself and defy categorization. In contrast to the normal bodily ideals and the conservative policies that have stigmatized the practices of the homosexual community during the AIDS epidemic, these designers opposed the representations of a maternal body that was seen as porous, labile, indeterminate, disobedient, and almost mutant. Granata ends her thesis by evoking an expansion of this grotesque culture from the margins to the mainstream via the apparitions of Lady Gaga.
©Dazed, W 19, photo: Paul Kooiker
In 2020, Rick Owens is without a doubt the purest illustration of this experimental fashion evoked by Granata, illustrated by his shadow of gothicism, his creatures and his autarchy. But it is significant that the two houses promoted by today’s great luxury empires and considered the most influential are Balenciaga by Demna Gvasalia and Gucci by Alessandro Michele, who are themselves grotesque in many ways. The first develops the XXL volumes and rethinks couture through popular clichés and strident parody, the second cultivates a stylistic eclecticism that blends temporalities while a decadent and disenchanted irony pervades most of its campaigns. To what extent has the grotesque been absorbed by the contemporary field? Is it a parallel outlet or a truly transformative agent? Is the much-praised concept of inclusiveness in grotesque fashion a soothing, even angelic symbol?
bodies with an unusual multiplicity of limbs, bodies that disappear under gleaming full bodysuits, bodies more opulent than usual
Summer 2019: in the land of Donald Trump, minorities, or those considered as such, rise to the challenge with rare virulence. On the cover of New York’s Office Magazine, R&B singer Ian Isiah, muse of the labels Hood by Air and Telfar, poses with a half-naked bust, brown and tattooed, wearing a tall blonde wig that could be that of a French aristocrat of the old regime hybridised with the voluminous curved and lacquered hairstyles of the 1960s.
# ©Office magazine, SS 19, photo: Renell Medrano
Isiah’s eyes are pale blue with two eyebrows stacked above each one. His smile is charming or mocking depending on interpretation, his teeth clad in gold and jewels. On his knee sits a tiny child in diapers looking towards us, scared and incredulous despite the tulle and pastel ribbons that adorn the Haitian armchair in which Isiah is enthroned. We too are in disbelief, for to complete this perplexing atmosphere, Isiah appears pregnant. Though the viewer may comprehend the outlandish editorial by Renell Medrano featured on the cover of the magazine, the mystery remains frighteningly palpable, and for good reason: we search for a clue that his pregnant belly really is only a simulation. Isiah is an improbable mother figure surrounded by children, young boys with marcel curls, strippers, men, women and everyone in-between. He stands as the centrepiece, the head of the family adorned in garments printed with cash. The creatives behind New York’s Office Magazine are therefore practising a blatant kind of grotesque: there is no poetic transposition or poetry of artifice, even if the latter would be disturbing. Here, the madness of reality is almost enough, which speaks well of the violence in today’s world. Violence, of which the contemporary system of fashion, from hyper luxury to mass production, from the exclusive to the second hand, from the celebrity on the red carpet to the Dacca worker, are also in the end one of the symptoms.
- Experimental Fashion, Francesca Granata, Ed. Bloomsbury & I.B. Tauris Editions.