Voyeurs and Flashers at Martin Margiela
July 8, 2011 § Leave a comment
One of the biggest statements of the couture season went unheard. It came from Maison Martin Margiela, who made a clear comment on our gaze of the female body through a collection of transparent looks juxtaposed with black face coverings. It wasn’t your average couture show – there are no Oscar gowns or Royal Wedding numbers here – and it wasn’t a show that appealed to editors or critics. Style.com, the go-to site for runway pictures, neglected to post images from the collection (these are from NYMag), and Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn didn’t even bother to mention it in her reviews of the couture season. I get it – these clothes weren’t made to dazzle in magazine editorials, nor do they carry the grandiosity most people equate with “couture.” They are, however, an incisive comment on the female body and our perception of it.
The Margiela design team introduced the idea of transparency, quite literally, by opening the show with three transparent head-to-toe looks. While these pieces – blazers, pants, long skirts – create a classically conservative silhouette, the transparent fabric reveals the most intimate parts of a woman – her belly, legs, panties – and infuses the looks with a sexual edge. Another look, a transparent trench coat, turned a familiar figure – the flasher – into an object of voyeurism. A draped khaki dress exposing the model’s shoulders, midriff, and legs followed directly after. The look appeared constructed from one large swath of fabric and drew to mind a woman frantically covering herself with a blanket the morning after a one-night stand.
The stockings covering the models’ faces are, at first, jarring. One could read the collection as misogynistic because it reduces women to faceless pieces of flesh. After some thought, however, I realized that the collection transformed the viewers into voyeurs in a raw and uncomfortable way. As fashion admirers, we often play the role of voyeur, turning our gaze towards models in editorials and on runways; we see them, but they can’t see us. The Margiela collection highlighted this practice by preventing us from seeing the models’ faces and even forcing us to look past the clothes and directly at their bodies. The heightened sexuality of this gesture made us more aware of our gaze.
The face coverings reminded me of Junya Watanabe’s F/W 08 RTW show, when he sent models down the runway in knits of various shapes and tones of gray. This collection could have invited a similar accusation of misogyny; however, the opaque stockings, filled with random geometric shapes, emphasized the collection’s focus on draping, cut, and silhouette. Furthermore, for the last 10 looks of his collection, Watanabe sent out models with their faces exposed, wearing the same grey knits, only this time covered in bright, lush floral patterns. The collection sprinted towards a spirit of liberation.
Both the Margiela and Watanabe collections worked with a “shock and awe” tactic. Viewers are initially surprised by the absence of personhood in the faceless looks, but eventually, other questions begin to emerge around silhouette, draping, the female body, and our own gaze.
It’s disappointing that such remarkable works of art and thought like the Margiela collection can pass by so quietly. For me, it’s often not glamour that speaks the loudest in a collection.