IN THE FIRST INSTALLMENT OF JEAN COCTEAU'S ORPHIC TRILOGY, Blood of a Poet, a card game ends with a suicide when the poet shoots himself to the applause of an onscreen audience that includes a Chanel—clad transvestite, the performer known as Barbette the Enigma. Cocteau had become obsessed with this “jazz—age Botticelli”: She appears in his drawings, and in 1926 he wrote an essay, “The Barbette Number,” for which he brought in Man Ray to photograph her. He describes her act as a “box of tricks where truth does not have any more course, where the naturalness does not have any more value.” Barbette, born Van der Clyde Broodway at the turn of the last century in Round Rock, Texas, joined the circus as an equilibrist/aerialist, and went to Paris in 1923.
In his book Les Folies du Music—Hall, Jacques Damase describes exactly what the trickery of Barbette entailed: “On stage, against black velvet curtains appeared a young woman in a silvery—gold wig topped with plumes and feathers, with a train of rich lamé and silver lace, undressing on a couch of rich Oriental carpets. The woman then rose, naked except for the gems on her breast and belly, and began walking a steel tightrope. Her eyes shaded green, like some mysterious Asiatic jewel, she walked backwards and forwards along the tightrope, dispensed with her balancing—pole, and contorted her thin, nervous body as the entire audience held its breath. Then Barbette leapt down on to the stage, gave a bow, tore off her wig and revealed a bony Anglo—Saxon acrobat's head . . . gasps from the astonished audience, shattered by the sudden brutality of the action.”
It's this tension between reality and illusion that informs USC's “Fashion and Transgression” exhibit, which features an array of illustration, photography and mannequin displays that deliberately play with the blurry line that separates the fashionable from the faux pas. Nancy J. Troy, who co—curated the show, which covers Europe and the U.S. from 1900 through 1950, notes: “Fashion walks a fine line. It involves both the acceptance and violation of established norms.” Sem, a caricaturist who provided public commentary on the trends of the day, drew that fine line in his 1914 album Le vrai et le faux chic. He lampooned the exotifilia of Orientalist fashions made popular by couturier Paul Poiret and Leon Bakst (costume designer for Ballets Russes) in illustrations for various magazines. His satirical take on outlandish hats — he depicted one old dear wearing a cowboy boot as headgear — became reality 25 years later when Salvador Dali designed an oversize high heel “Shoe Hat” for Elsa Schiaparelli, which became all the rage in the late '30s (and reappeared almost 50 years later in the form of spectacle on Katherine Helmond's head in Terry Gilliam's cult film Brazil). It's a clever demonstration of how the faux pas becomes fashionable.
The show's thesis of measured transgression in high fashion — it's the style sinners among us who push fashion forward — is best seen in the 19121925 volumes of La Gazette du Bon Ton, the fashion bible of Paris that offered its readers a mixed message: While articles emphasized a traditional approach to image, illustrations revealed a fantastical sensibility. A woman is dressed as a baroque fountain in “The Garden of Versailles,” another is depicted wearing a giant birdcage. While Bon Ton (“good taste”) spoke to a small world that included aristocratic society and the very wealthy, it also particularly targeted the rising and less—conventional bourgeois class. This period was pivotal: Fashion was being influenced by exotica, such as Orientalist theater productions, bohemian celebrities and their fascination with marginal characters, like Barbette.
While Barbette successfully crossed over the high—fashion line, a low—rent cross—dresser snapped by the photographer Weegee in 1940 as she's walking down the stairs of a New York City police station — she's looking both clunky and defiant with a cop in the background — represents in more ways than one the criminality of co—opting women's attire. The photo is snidely titled “Might be a wig, but that's a pansy alright. He was in the fashion show, too.” Rounding out the gender—bending section are Brassai's well—known photographs of transvestites both male and female.
Hollywood publicity shots of Norma Shearer and Gloria Swanson exemplify how the manufacturing of glamour became an industry. Jennifer Munro Miller writes in the catalog, “Hollywood in the glamour era destabilized — or, at the very least, challenged — couture and the perpetuation of an elite standard of fashion and taste . . . This illusion reveals fashion and identity as just another performance.” There is an outré version of that idea of performance displayed in Ralph Steiner's portrait of burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee and her girls standing on the highway, serving it up in costumes with a “Curves Ahead” sign stating the obvious. Given that it's virtually impossible to be transgressive in fashion these days, this show inspires a sense of nostalgia for a time when one could push boundaries and it meant something.
“Fashion and Transgression” is at the USC Fisher Gallery, Harris Hall, 823 Exposition Blvd., USC's University Park campus. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free. Call (213) 740—4561, or visit their Web site for more information; the exhibit runs through April 12.