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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.”
Bolton also examined bold intersections of fashion and African customs that make spots seem rather tame in comparison. Body painting and lip plates, typical of the Surma tribe’s mating and marriage rituals, have appeared in McQueen’s collections in the form of a leather catsuit and jewelry, respectively. Galliano gleaned inspiration from the Masai’s skeleton-deforming neck rings — the effects of which Bolton illuminated with an X ray — and beading for his 1997 collection for Christian Dior. Galliano also commissioned Jones’ rendering of Afro wigs for his 2002 collection. Even the all-American Ralph Lauren loosely riffed on the Congolese process of scarification for some of his body-cleaving evening gowns in spring 1997.
“Ralph Lauren, who you very much associated with a much more Twenties and Thirties Gatsby-esque aesthetic, has often flirted with the idea of African fashions,” said Bolton. “Anna Sui and Marc Jacobs have done it, too.”
While Africa’s reach continues to extend toward Western fashion — most recently in Gaultier’s spring 2005 couture collection — Bolton conceded that these days, Western culture’s grip has tightened considerably on the local aesthetic, both here and abroad. “Traditional garments are becoming much less apparent across the globe,” he said. “The idea of jeans and T-shirts are becoming the global uniform. I mean, it’s sad, but one can’t stop the wheels of modernity.”