PRINT December 1996


the Prosthetic Aesthetic

KIM NOVAK’S PROTUBERANCES in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Godzilla pores, pus flowering on top of pimples, nineteenth-century bustles and false fronts, Veronica Cartwright’s bug-eyed expression of horror in Ridley Scott’s Alien, prosthetic cocks or a “real” erect one, cellulite and diagrams on how to combat it, the male/female character in Silence of the Lambs regarding his image in the mirror, dick tucked between his legs—all these tabulae non rasae sprang to mind as I watched models garbed in Rei Kawakubo’s Spring/Summer ’97 collection walk down the runway this fall, their backs, shoulders, and hips made ecstatically, imagistically associative by the down humps planted in Kawakubo’s wool, polyurethane, and organdy gowns.

In a season characterized by a turn to “democracy”—Calvin “Just Be” Klein and innumerable ad campaigns that have mined, in ways too vulgar and injudicious to recount here, photographer Corinne Day’s rethinking of fashion photography in terms the press has called “realistic”Kawakubo’s engorged garments for Comme des Garçons stand apart from her contemporaries’ race to embrace the fiction of an empirical real as “new.” This “fashion” is a smoke screen; in actual fact, fashion, as practiced by any designer but Kawakubo, does not exist, especially if the practice of making clothes can be defined as an idea that has been given form—the configuration of a thought, or several.

Kawakubo does not design clothes but events in which people appear. On the videotape of the collection shown in Paris this past fall, the audience’s verbal reactions to the work functioned as the soundtrack; there was no music accompanying the models as they—one at a time—walked down the short white runway, their skirts rustling beneath their funereal faces, lips bleak, eyes greasy. The first outfit exhibited a woman in a white skirt, its hemline gathered in a bunch just beneath her knees. She also wore white stockings, flat white shoes, and a transparent white stretch top with white ribbed sleeves. The pods, also white, were attached to her back, beneath the nylon, polyurethane, stretch tulle top; her breasts (the frontal view) corresponded to the pod shapes. Further along, another girl: rainbow-colored polyester, polyurethane, and organdy stretch top, a slight opening at the chest, and a right shoulder of Quasimodo-like proportions, a shoulder stuffed with pods. (The beauty of the fabric will further confuse potential customers. These bumps are hard not to like. At any rate, it is hard not to find Kawakubo’s imagination attractive, given that it is somewhat invidious.) Yet another girl sported a pod placed directly on her stomach; when she stood in profile, she looked as if she had been defeated by pregnancy, or was simply disinterested in the effect her cosmetic pregnancy had on us. In these clothes, people exist for better or for worse. The exact opposite of “fashion,” which does not demand that its wearer infuse clothing with individual style, but takes the short, ugly view: that women do not know what they look like at all, so they might as well look like Everywoman. Versace, whose fashions-as-fantasy subscribe to this thesis, has made a great deal of money banking on the fact that women see themselves as men see them, which is to say as whores in repose, mouths in motion. His fiendishly bright colors are not as Mediterranean as one might think. Could they be the palette in which men paint a woman’s interior self—violent, aggressive, “bitchin’”? Buffalo Bill, the evil tailor in Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs bitches because he is unable to distinguish between what he is and what he would like to be: if not exactly the bleak-lipped, greasy-eyed woman held captive in a blood-stained pit, then some kind of woman. But before becoming the woman he envisions himself as, he must wear her body like fashion: he stitches a bodysuit together from the skins of his victims—complete with breasts, fuller hips, larger thighs. The complicated emotional charge of this male/female’s way of being lies in his nonresolution. Like many men who consider themselves female-identified, he relegates maleness to metaphysics: his corporeal self is incorporeal because no definitions, least of all as they pertain to the body and what constitutes the “natural,” apply. Like the moth and butterfly larvae he so carefully tends in his basement garden, this man/woman will never metamorphose into a full-blown woman, will remain frozen somewhere between reality and desire, just as Kawakubo’s designs exist somewhere between our acceptance of them and horror at having marshaled “acceptance” or “rejection” as the criteria for looking at anything. If Kawakubo is asking us anything, it is to see. A dick is a bump, a fact the female-identified male viewer may (again) realize with grotesque glee when looking at Kawakubo’s bumps. He/she may also ask, What kind of man am I to love the way women would look in Kawakubo’s bumps? And, What kind of thinking woman would I be if I did not eventually wear these bumps myself?

These questions do not demand a response since the questions (and the added strain of trying to determine how one resembles Buffalo Bill) are enough to place one close to the heart of the bumps’ essence, an essence very few men, or even women, will understand—a sartorial, gynecological, emotional freak-out.

The chrysalides Buffalo Bill cherishes bear more than a passing resemblance to Kawakubo’s bumps or pods. While watching the collection on video, it was difficult not to be pulled into the vortex of isolation each of the models wore, like the weight of make-up—an isolation that raised questions beyond the banal or expected. What would I look like in these clothes? What does my body mean to me? Knowing that what constitutes most social interaction or conversation is self-criticism (“I’m miserable!”) and criticism of others (“They’re miserable!”), Kawakubo, a most astute social and political reporter, provides metaphors made of fabric that represent how “awful” we assume we look: large bumps or pods that have very little relationship to the body even as it comments on its incongruities. A head is a bump, an ass two even bigger bumps. Would anyone want either if, in their misery, they were not occasionally deemed “cute” by someone we assume is distant from our various selves? The validation we seek from others is often the first and only attempt we make to gain perspective on who we are—but just for a moment. That moment is subsumed by our wish to be part of the social world, and that demands self-hatred.

Once a woman decides to be, on some level, fashionable, she submits to the strictures of fashion editors, generally female, who above all want to ensure that no woman ever look “lonely,” or in a pucker, or too isolated by power—in short like themselves. “Lonely” is a favorite fashion-world adjective these days. Fashion editorials fight against this perilous state of mind by creating photographic spreads in which women are encouraged to be anything but lonely, hence the grueling omnipresence of images in which women luxuriate in atmospheres of elegance, their faces ghoulishly frozen by their relaxed and pretty lifestyles. Kawakubo offers the buyers of her work no options whatsoever except clothes open to interpretation, which at least calls for some level of self-awareness.

The surreal component in Kawakubo’s current work only looks surreal if the eye doesn’t work with the bumps or, to put it another way, does not trace in those broken lines the emotionalism of girls approving or disapproving of their bodies: I’m too fat; I stick out; My body is too weird; I look awful. Such confessions amount to bumps in the conversation that cannot be smoothed away with reassurances, least of all from men who identify not with the issues at hand but with images. The installation of bumps in Kawakubo’s gowns may find a different locus for this internalized feeling of weirdness; a Kawakubo dress wearer may get to exist in the actual, finally edge toward the actual, as in, Actually, in this dress I do look weird, I do stick out, but that’s the intention, it is not me, I cannot confuse it with the natural.

Kawakubo remains the only designer who deploys the surrealism inherent in photographic practice: selection, composition, showing one bump to connote many others. Buffalo Bill wanted to wear something to disguise the mess between his legs, to be, in effect, someone other than himself, the woman of his dreams, which fashionable people still consider a realistic possibility.

Hilton Als