By  on May 26, 2006

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — From Savile Row to the Serengeti, Andrew Bolton, associate curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, demonstrated his knack for seamless transitions at the Parrish Art Museum here last week.

Fresh off the Met's Union Jack romp "AngloMania: Tra­dition and Transgression in British Fashion," which was unveiled earlier this month, Bolton tackled the subject of traditional African garb and its widely interpreted influence on Western fashion in a talk titled "The Lure of Africa: From Saint Laurent to Gaultier," as part of the exhibition "Power Dressing: Men's Fashion and Prestige in Africa," showing at the Parrish through Sunday.

"It's been quite a switch," mused Bolton of his intercontinental focuses of late. Although the work of British designers John Galliano and Alexander McQueen and milliner Stephen Jones factored heavily in his slide show, it seemed "Africa" and "AngloMania" aren't as disparate as one might think.

Bolton, dressed in a suit and wearing horn-rimmed glasses, began the presentation as he ended it — with looks from Jean Paul Gaultier. The first, a men's silk skirt — critically panned at its debut in the mid-Eighties — referenced traditional robes worn in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Bolton recounted Gaultier's famous defense to the press ("Putting a skirt on a man is not a travesty. Putting a bra on him is"), and used his final slide to wryly point out the designer's subsequent contradiction: the iconic cone bras cribbed from African sculptures and made famous by Madonna, not to mention many of her male dancers, during the singer's "Blond Ambition" tour in the Nineties.

Gaultier's gender-bending and nuanced androgyny aside, Bolton, who came to the Met four years ago from London's Vic­toria & Albert Museum, maintained that designers have most often coopted African fashions for simpler reasons: sex appeal and power. Leopard prints, first used in the West during the imperialist days of the mid-18th century, were particularly fashionable in the Sixties and Seventies.

"They came to be seen as a symbol of sexual liberation, equating women's physical emancipation with the feral nature of the wild cat," said Bolton, also citing Yves Saint Laurent's monumental 1968 safari collection and Tom Ford's more contemporary YSL Rive Gauche collections as loaded fashion statements. "Ford is well known for his portrayal of powerful women, and leopard prints appeal to his notion of female erotic allure."

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