JEAN PAUL GAULTIER AND SAME-SEX MARRIAGE IN THE WESTERN BALKANS
From November 2020 until February this year, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade, Serbia (MoCAB) had an unprecedented curatorial choice of bringing Jean Paul Gaultier’s high fashion exhibit “Love is love: the joy of marriage for all”. With 38 high fashion wedding dresses created in the period from 1990 to 2000, this exhibition traveled through 12 metropolises and attracted more than 2 million visitors. A special exclusivity for Serbian audiences was the world premiere of eight Gauthier wedding dresses that were not part of the exhibition before.
In a country that is still very conservative and not easily accepting social differences, this exhibition provoked polarised reactions in the public and professional cultural circles, including the curatorial team of the museum who held their position that garments are not the type of exponents that goes along program politics of the institution. However, the number of visitors exceeded the expectations and at the end, the exhibition was even prolonged.
Behind the stunning design of the dresses, the exhibition was at the same time sending out a strong social message of freedom, tolerance and rights of every person to love and to beloved. This message came across in the right moment when Serbia is in the process of adopting the legislation on same-sex partnerships, while Montenegro and Croatia were the only countries in the Western Balkan which already adopted the law.
From the first infamous Pride Parade (2001) in Belgrade in which there were more police officers than people gathered at the festival, to today, 20 years later, we are speaking about adoption of laws which will acknowledge the essential rights of the community.
According to the latest public opinion poll conducted on key issues related to LGBTI+ rights, over 2/3 of respondents believe peaceful Pride marches should be allowed to take place in Belgrade, while 80% of citizens believe LGBTI+ persons should have at least some rights.
This fight for human rights is still very vivid in the Western Balkans and sensitivity of these topics are usually more freely expressed through mediums of art, subtly trying to raise questions and provoke public debates, Gaultier’s fashion show being one of the examples.
Should fashion find its place in cultural institutions such as museums and can art and fashion impact the change of discriminative narratives in one society, we talked with exhibition expert guide and fashion historian Stefan Žarić.
Interviewer: Vana Filipovski
Hi, Stefan, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. As someone who was at one of your guided tours of the exhibition, I would like to say that for the first time my mind was not running anywhere, you got all my focus.
What are your impressions from guiding such an exclusive exhibition, the first time seen in Serbian public? What were the reactions of the audience?
‘The exhibition of Jean-Paul Gaultier’s fashions was a game-changer for many reasons: it was the first haute couture exhibition in Serbia, the first exhibition of a foreign fashion designer, the first fashion exhibition at the host institution (being the MOCAB), and as well the first exhibition at a national museum to openly celebrate queerness through fashion. While the so called “professional public” majorly composed of art critics and historians of fine arts opposed the exhibition deeming it as unworthy of not just the MOCAB but any museum, the audience, as you saw by attending my tours, was more than eager to be immersed in a fashion exhibition. This doesn’t mean that the exhibition wasn’t consumed with a critical stance by the audience, on the contrary. But as it is something we have never seen in local museums before, there was a thrilling pressure to bridge all the gaps while leaving space for democratic, critical and inclusive dialogues about the exhibition‘
Should fashion find its place in the museum?
‘Fashion, as every other civilizational and cultural product, deserves and has its place in a museum environment, because fashion is never an isolated purely aesthetic narrative, stripped of any other contextual value. We don’t even need to look into the past to understand it. Yellow wests from global protests, masks as the emblem of the pandemic, MAGA hats, pink Pussyhats, Bernie’s mittens are, among many other, fashion narratives already finding its place in museums.
We always communicate our (desired) identity through fashion, and this is what attracts people to fashion exhibitions. The power of identification and escapism, emotional comfort the clothes provide, as well as discriminatory discomfort are all allures of seeing fashion in a museum, and we certainly need more of it in our museums‘
This exhibition had a strong message behind beautiful garments, and that is that love is equal for all, referring to LGBTI community and their rights “to be loved” in the legal framework as well. What are your thoughts on this?
‘As a young and queer museum professional, this exhibition has really resonated with me. The exhibition was initiated and conceptualized honoring the legalization of the same-sex marriage in North America, proving that fashion is always a social response rather than just beautiful clothes. Representation matters. Visibility matters. Both expose “scary” narratives to wider audiences, showing that they aren’t as scary or rather not scary at all. By allowing oppressed or underrepresented phenomena to step out of the shadow, we are giving them voice to speak their truth. In that process, we must learn to accept truths differing from our own and I see no better place for that than a museum. After all, we don’t necessarily need to understand some things in order to respect them which is why I found comments that the exhibition doesn’t belong in a museum or that it should be displayed at the Museum of Applied Art rather blatant‘
In the Western Balkans, there is a long history of violence and discrimination towards LGBTI community. Do you think that culture and art as “soft power” can impact reducing prejudices and making a more positive social change? How can fashion contribute to fighting prejudices and stereotypes?
‘As previously stated, fashion is a powerful tool in identity construction. At the same time, we often base our discriminatory behaviors leading to different forms of violence based on someone’s fashion identity. If you remember, at one of the tours we have discussed the case of a man being beaten up in Belgrade for wearing a purple dog bag, where hooligans assumed he is gay because of it. We create toxic norms in how one should look like. Those occupying liminal spaces are always (violently) reminded to fit in not to alter the norm. Men shouldn’t wear nail polish, wear skirts or pink, women should be feminine yet not provocative as otherwise they asked for it, and examples of discrimination based on various sexual, gender, ethnic, racial, or religious identities are far too numerous to be stated. By institutionalizing diversity, by truly dealing with it rather than reducing it to tokenism of political correctness, we are paving the way for respectful and tolerant behaviors in the society as well which is why it is crucial that legal frameworks operate equally for all of us. Trans, non-binary, Roma, Muslim, rape victims, it doesn’t matter. In that sense, by accepting that someone has a different visual identity and fashion expression than us is a start towards accepting any other diversity embodied in that person‘
Do you have some exciting plans for the near future?
‘As much as it was exciting, working on the first haute couture exhibition in Serbia was draining as well, mostly due to reasons to at the same time comfort and discomfort the public with it. After the Gaultier exhibition, I delivered a lecture on Serbian fashion designer Bernat Klein at the Belgrade Youth Center, was engaged at a lovely exhibition of footwear at the Museum of Vojvodina, and approached by ELLE Serbia to write an essay on the history of Serbian fashion for the May issue, the first of a kind. Since last fall, I am attending PhD studies in English Literature at the University of Novi Sad, where I was lucky enough for professors giving me the freedom to completely deal with fashion history both through exams and the thesis work. Through all of my former and future engagements, I tend to do one thing: teach people to accept diversity through fashion, and not to abuse fashion for discrimination. I want to believe, but you will as audience tell that better, that I am succeeding to a certain extent. After all, I love fashion a bit too much not to succeed in my goals‘
And I am positive you will succeed. Thanks so much for talking to us! We keep on following your work, excitedly waiting for new studies and exhibitions.