Look at Her! He’s Wearing a Beautiful Trench Coat — Maison Margiela Autumn-Winter 2019 Co-Ed Show Review
Since its creation in 1988, Maison Margiela has stood as fashion’s odd one out. Many couture houses were created with the intent of being avant-garde, but Margiela is one of the few Maisons that have stood the test of remaining affixed in that framing. Martin Margiela, the house’s founder, made it clear that the parfum of the house was to be a radically experimental approach to fashion. By making the house’s DNA so entwined with the idea of being avant-garde, Martin set the brand on course for becoming something especially unique in the world of fashion.
Today the brand stands as both a couture and ready-to-wear heavyweight, racking in revenues of €135m in 2017 (Ellison 2018). But more importantly, the ideology of the brand has not diluted in the slightest. There is no better example of this point than Maison Margiela’s Autumn-Winter 2019 Co-Ed Show (AW19). AW19 forces its audience to rethink what gender means for clothing, and it takes a radically performative approach to both gender and fashion. Perhaps we can treat AW19 like a meta-parfum, it is the experience which best encapsulates the experience that is Maison Margiela.
Judith Lorber, in her essay Night to His Day remarks, “Masculinity and femininity can be put on and taken off with changes of costume and role” (Lorber 1994). Like characters in a Shakespeare play, the idea of genders is merely the idea of ascriptions. We are all characters awaiting our call to the main stage. To act the role of masculine or feminine, we must give ourselves certain traits that society deems as “manly” or “womanly.” Lorber exposes how Shakespeare creates a fluidity and dynamism between gender and the ontology of his characters. Gender is never something that is firm within the existence of his characters, it is instead something that can be put on and taken off at will, like the roles in the plays themselves. The subtext of this being that satires, dramas, and tragedies are only entertaining because they slice through reality (albeit in different ways). Shakespeare is merely exposing how gender truly is, not just how it is in the context of theatrics. For Lorber, extrapolating this crystalizes into the idea that, “gender… is a human production that depends on everyone constantly “doing gender”” (Lorber 1994). In the end, gender is nothing but a performative act. Dance correctly and nobody questions anything.
Scrutinizing Margiela’s AW19 show through Lorber’s interpretation of gender as performative and costumed, it becomes evident that the house is using the same interpretation of gender when delivering its collection (as to whether or not Mr. Galliano read Lorber for inspiration, that still remains unclear). Before viewing a fashion show (especially a Co-Ed one), a myriad of gendered presuppositions frame your mind from the start. The very nature of fashion, especially couture, positions and objectifies men and women to look a certain way. Clothing and style are constructed only along the strict codes of pure masculinity and femininity. For the world of fashion, gender is existentially bound to your very being as a biological man or woman, and it should never escape from such a position. Galliano, having spent his whole life in the highest echelons of the fashion world, realizes this very well. The avant-garde nature of Margiela has always given Galliano the legroom to play exactly as he wants, and it has become clear he is using this freedom to rebel against the stuffiness that the fashion world forced upon him. Here, as always, Galliano shows us that he has the brilliance necessary to make the most of his freedom at the house. With the AW19 show, he works to puncture the aforementioned suppositions that both his audience and the wider fashion world have.
The show opens into a cold but dazing spectacle which instantly captivates your curiosity and disgusts your most fundamental sensibilities. The models in this show were meticulously crafted, through hair and makeup, to blend together into a gender-fluid ensemble as the men wear makeup and have styled-out long hair, while the women walk with no makeup, and have short cut, natural hair, touched up perfectly to make it look untouched. Galliano’s atelier has worked astonishingly hard to sculpt the men into feminine beings and the women into masculine beings (at least, feminine and masculine in the conventional sense) so that both meet somewhere in the middle and blend together. While watching the show you at first ask yourself, is that a man or a woman I am looking at? But the fast-paced, highly stimulating parade forces you to quickly disregard that question and focus on more exciting ones. Galliano and his team make the show genderless in the sense that the viewer forgets about and disregards gender entirely.
Galliano uses the clothes as another weapon with which to strike at your sensibilities. At one moment you see what you think is a woman wearing a boldly tailored, deconstructed trench coat and you think, “that is a very beautiful, woman’s trench coat.” However, a few looks after, you see a very similar trench coat, but this time on who you think is a man. Although the two trench coats are, by themselves, very similar, now the tailoring seems significantly less bold and more subdued, and the frame seems sharper this time around. You think, “that is a very beautiful, men’s trench coat.” Throughout the 40 looks, Galliano pulls this trick on the audience several times over, and it works horrifyingly well every single time. He shows you (almost banally) similar garments and lets your mind struggle as it desperately wants to reframe each of them into your presuppositional codes of masculine and feminine. Galliano knows that we have a natural inclination to gender style the very moment our eyes come into contact with it, and so he brilliantly toys with our tendency to do so. It is at one moment a masculine coat and at the next, a feminine one, but through it all, it remains the same. It is our perceptions that change.
It is a testament to Galliano that he is able to make gender a nonissue in a Co-Ed collection. More broadly, the show reveals that, for all the hard work that went into making the collection genderless, gender to begin with is nothing more than a performance. In fashion, this performance is enacted through codes of how masculine and feminine style should look. No matter how principle the idea of gender seems, Margiela demonstrates that, if you stop doing its performance, if you stop doing its dance, you can suspend gender. Gender disappears from the show because its codes are disregarded. When the show ends and you are snapped back into reality, you realize that we exist no differently than that show, we are just preforming a different act. In the end, the audience and customers of this show and the Margiela brand are the bougie elite. Critics might be quick to dismiss the show as nothing more than hero worshipping, and as just a ploy to be different. Margiela was never about just being different. It is always about putting exactly what you do not want to see center stage and forcing you to think a little bit harder. Galliano uses Margiela’s spot in the fashion world to smash the very idea of fashion and gender, in whatever little way he can.
Ellison, Jo. Review of Maison Margiela and Dries van Noten — what’s normal anyway?, Financial Times, 26 Sept. 2018, on.ft.com/2NHtvsZ.
Ellison, Jo. Review of Mastery at Maison Margiela, and a riddle at new-look Lanvin: AW19 show reports, Review of Https://Youtu.be/i4NkaKS5J7I How To Spend It, 27 Feb. 2019, on.ft.com/3pAVk3q.
“Paradoxes of Gender.” Paradoxes of Gender, by Judith Lorber, Yale University Press, 1994, pp. 13–36.
Random Studio. Maison Margiela Autumn-Winter 2019 Co-Ed Show. Performance by Jeremy Jeremy Healy, 21 Mar. 2019, youtu.be/i4NkaKS5J7I. Accessed 21 Feb. 2021.