Where is She? Becoming The 'Old Terrible'

JP Gaultier, when asked in an interview for Out.com what he thought about turning 60 said, “Ah no longer the ‘enfant terrible’, now I am the ‘old terrible’”.

It’s no secret that those who know me think of me as an ‘enfant terrible’.  A French expression, ‘enfant terrible’ refers to a child who is scandalously honest and terrorizes their parent by saying embarrassing things to them and other adults. My mother tells stories of fearing to walk into an elevator with me because there was no escape and I could always be counted on to say something shocking. When other kids asked “Why?” I would ask “Why not?” The term has come to be applied to adults who are unorthodox, sometimes offensive and rebellious. I am sure there are colleagues who would use those terms to describe my behavior throughout the course of my career. In the creative arts it is someone who challenges the establishment but does so in ways that are innovative and surprising. I think this is how my students, clients and friends would describe me. I have taken the moniker ‘enfant terrible’ as a badge of honor and in fact for years have concealed a small tattoo that marks this, the Japanese kanji for “rebel”. 

Getting older for me is bringing with it a resurgence of rebelliousness; the wish to transgress and to make what is concealed visible, filling me with delicious energy. I love my new role as 'old terrible'. For the last couple of years my clothes are the way these feelings become realized within the constraints of my everyday life. So, I have become interested in designers like JP Gaultier who understand these desires and who were young when I was. 

IF You Are Curious... What JP Would Say About Feathered Boots

One of the few fashion designers who have consistently challenged ideas of who is and who is not beautiful is JP Gaultier. He has always chosen models and presented collections that challenge conventional notions of beauty, gender, age, religion, ethnicity and body type. As a social scientist, I identify with his ethnographic approach to humans and culture. The occasion of his last RTW collection gives me the opportunity to pay homage and to investigate the ways he encourages us to make aging manageable and celebratory.

Last year I attended The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, at the Brooklyn Museum. While stopping in front of a pair of JP’s glorious feathered boots, I overheard a stunning, 6 foot tall, black woman turn to her companion and say, “Do you think I could still pull off those boots?” Stunning to me, first because she looked like Pat Cleveland and second because those boots were probably designed with someone exactly like her in mind. In fact if JP met her, she would be a prime contestant for Miss Vintage rocking those feathered boots down the catwalk last month. Somewhere inside this striking 60 something year old former model’s head is an idea about how an older person should dress and it’s obviously not in feathered boots.

Gaultier has repeatedly stated in interviews that he thinks maturity is very becoming to women, including wrinkles as they are how the world knows who and what you are. He challenges the idea that older woman should dress with discretion and says that it is precisely when you are older that you should experiment with fashion even more. In fact, despite the massive denial of this fact by fashion industry marketing, those are the years when you are more likely to have the time and money to do so. The admonishments to dress in concealing and demure ways makes everyone old look the same and in fact contributes to the invisibility that often comes with aging. It’s all about the attitude that you feel inside, your curiosity and interest in the world around you and the joy you feel. As long as you are still feeling those things according to JP, there is no way you can be old. 

Taking care of your self, but especially not hiding yourself is the advice that JP gives and cites Helen Mirren as an example of someone not afraid to wear a bikini or even posing in the nude if this is something you wish to do. So I think Gaultier would say to my friend at the Brooklyn Museum, “Damn straight you could pull off those boots, even if you had nothing else on!” In fact I imagine he would probably tell me my cover outfit needed a little more edge and would go in his closet and hand me this boot.

The very way that JP celebrated his retirement from one aspect of fashion, RTW, to focus on couture and costumes shows us that for him growing older does not mean endings but provides important opportunities for re-invention and renewal a key function of fashion. One door closing opens another. In every picture taken at his last show he looks ecstatic and happy. He inspires young designers who want to be cool and funny like him. By his own admission, he now wishes and has earned, the time and freedom that is really necessary to innovate, have fresh ideas and to create something that is new. This is the privilege that some of us get later in life…time and resources for grand experiments, so ladies and gentlemen let’s not give it up by being hesitant and demure! There is another privilege that young people get as everyone expects you to be rebellious, experimental and different and even more gives you permission to do so! So let’s not give it up by being a celebrity clone or being anyone other than yourself with your own personal flair and style.