SALEM — Paris spring collections, 1983: Karl Lagerfeld made his Chanel debut, burrowing into Coco’s archives for lady-like suits and crisp white blouses. Thierry Mulger presented powerful women with shoulder pads sewn into fitted suits. Jean Paul Gaultier’s runway was a parade of models seducing the audience in pale peach satin evening gowns complete with sweetheart necklines.
Which could be why the fashion press scratched its head and sharpened its claws over Rei Kawakubo’s 1983 collection for her label Comme des Garcons. Torn blouses paired with ragged and unhemmed dresses were devoid of color. Bodies were obscured in billows of fabric. The aesthetic was dismissed by critics as fashion for beggars and bag ladies.
And this is where “Future Beauty: Avant-Garde Japanese Fashion” at the Peabody Essex Museum begins. You are swiftly dropped into the pivotal moment when Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto drained color, hid curves, and ignored Western power dressing in their 1983 collections. Thirty years later, those once divisive collections are seen as a shift, the moment when Tokyo tapped on Paris’s shoulder, and the Paris fashion establishment had no choice but to turn around and pay attention.
Like Kawakubo, Yamamoto enveloped his models in white shapeless dresses in 1983. In an affair with imperfection, he perforated his pieces and snubbed symmetry. The cumulative effect of those designs is still ghostly.
Museum fashion exhibitions have a tendency to tilt toward the extravagant. Volume, texture, and color speak to the eye. “Future Beauty” doesn’t speak, it screams. It is nothing short of enthralling as it shows how Japan’s top names — from Issey Miyake to Junya Watanabe — twist Western sartorial perspectives.
Co-organized by the Kyoto Costume Institute and the Barbican Art Gallery in London, the exhibit is beautifully dark and sinister. With few exceptions, dresses are sexually charged in unconventional ways. We’re left guessing what lies beneath clothing that is either blousy and amorphous or padded and exaggerated in extreme ways.
You’re first greeted by Koji Tatsuno’s nylon net dress, which circles the mannequin like a menacing swirl of smog. Once your eye is finished absorbing the explosion of color in Watanabe’s honeycomb organdy jacket and skirt, it jumps to the candy-colored streetwear styles of Lolita fashion and the eroticized pinafores and frills of the maid look. As Diana Vreeland famously said, the eye has to travel, and even in the museum’s newly expanded 10,000-square-foot gallery space, it’s difficult not be distracted by the next stunner that waits in the distance.
“Future Beauty” begins austerely with a grouping called “In Praise of Shadows,” a reference to Juni’chiro Tanizaki’s essay on aesthetics of the Japanese. In it he writes, “If light is scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty.”
Yamamoto’s black wool serge dress, with intricate folds that cascade from the shoulders and then again from the gathered waist, offers those shadows. The dress updates the Japanese tradition of fashioning a kimono from an uncut length of fabric. This is where the Japanese diverge from their Western counterparts. Many times fabric is manipulated to hang loosely, creating the unstructured shapes.
The idea of hiding or protecting the body runs throughout. Wantanabe’s oversize white ruff collar from his Fall 2000-01 collection looks more like an invasive species of jellyfish choking its wearer and threatening to sting those who approach rather than a throwback to the Elizabethan past.
Hiroaki Ohya’s “cape,” which is actually a multilayered honeycomb wrap, shields its wearer from the world with volume. A 1994 piece from Final Home/Kosuke Tsumura is a clear nylon coat covered in pockets. It’s accompanied by the instruction manual “How to Use Your Final Home.” It suggests stuffing the coat with newspapers for additional warmth, or cushions for sitting. But it also disquietingly offers “For use in emergencies, pockets can be used to hold food and medicine; cushions can be inserted in the head and shoulder pockets.” It’s clothing as disaster shelter.
Even Miyake’s lovely pleated monofilament gowns look as if they could serve as shelter. But it’s the subtlety of danger that is most thrilling in “Future Beauty.” Jun Takahashi’s scarlet organdy shift resembles a thick bed of silk rose petals playfully arranged on a dress as if it were a Rose Bowl parade float. Look closer, and those petals are actually hundreds of skulls and crossbones. Next to that is a Watanabe-designed sleeveless mini dress covered in small plastic spikes.
Kawakubo’s 1997 collection “Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body” (more commonly known as “lumps and bumps”) is the most jarring moment of the exhibition. Pads were sewn into the dresses, giving the wearer the illusion of having a hunched back, uneven protruding hips, dropped breasts, or a swollen shoulder. It’s about embracing imperfections to an extreme.
In a break from high design, “Future Beauty” offers a look at street fashion, such as those Harajuku girls made famous in the US by Gwen Stefani. But even here, there is creepiness lurking in the cool. Grown women wearing the clothes of little girls, crowned by Goldilocks curls, carry disturbing sexual connotations.
This is why the Peabody Essex has become a valuable new player in fashion exhibitions. It stages shows that challenge and provoke, beginning with 2009’s “Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel.”
“Future Beauty” is in the eye of the beholder. This show can be absorbed as fashion eye candy or viewed as 30-plus years of innovative Japanese fashion history. But spend time with it, and messages of whimsy or darkness start revealing themselves in thrilling ways.Christopher Muther can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.