The Liberace of Style

Fashion and its victims.
Dec. 25 1997 3:30 AM

The Liberace of Style

Gianni Versace's glorious exhibitionism.

"Gianni Versace"
The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Dec. 11, 1997-March 22, 1998


Click on any image to see an enlargement.

Gianni Versace was synonymous with glitz and indecorousness, but he was also a man of great talent. He makes me think of Liberace, another man of great talent famous for over-the-top sartorial splendor that made people nervous. Both men were blessed with a strong capacity for pure delight. There was nothing hostile, rancorous, weak-minded, or confused in their confident love of extreme display. People adored them for it.

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Also like Liberace, Versace understood how to wield theatrical magic. Richard Martin, the curator of the Costume Institute's show and author of the catalog, has stripped the Versace ensembles of the celebrity aura of their original wearers--Claudia Schiffer, Princess Diana, etc.--so that the clothes can show their own true qualities. He's right. Arrayed on dummies, the Versaces have the air of waiting backstage for their entrance music. Their showbiziness isn't just in the dramatic fabrics, bold cut, and applied glitter. It is in their look of heightened self-consciousness--the "get this!" effect that establishes character. Many of these outfits seem intended for actors in 1940s Bible spectaculars, or 1950s screen dramas set in the 1920s, or present-day screen comedies where the clothes exaggerate the roles--the Vamp and the Creep and the Weirdo and the Bitch. The clothes do the work, the actor could be anybody. Just right for modern living.

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S ome of the pieces have been worked up from modes originally invented for ladies in the 1920s and 1930s by Mme. Grès or Madeleine Vionnet, for instance--two neoclassic and erotic designers not at all averse to using bodily exposure--and then fantasticated a few notches further. Versace tends to twitch the drapes so they hang an extra bit, as if already plucked at by a lustful hand. A black columnar dress with long sleeves and a neckline up to the chin in front leaves the whole back bare to well below the waist at one side. The bareness is enhanced by a drape that seems yanked down on purpose to expose the bottom 8 inches of skin over the right kidney. Three inches below that begins the slit in the skirt, opening over the right buttock and descending to the shoe. This two-stage rear cascade of bare flesh, adroitly swerving to avoid the cleavage of the buttocks, is invisible from the front. The face is left to do its work alone.

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Versace followed ancient Italian tradition in his deep love of materials, and that's not just silk, cotton, linen, and wool but also metal and leather, synthetics and plastic. Five centuries ago, Italian dress was far more sumptuous, chic, and sexy than anything French--just look at the striped codpieces in Signorelli paintings. The Italians taught France everything about daring sartorial elegance--to say nothing of daring stagecraft, cuisine, and architecture--until Louis XIV was able to turn around and impose French fashion on all of Europe. Italy had to wait until after World War II to regain its rightful status as a primary fashion source. But superior Italian design has never ceased to be expressed in marble, bronze, and silver, and later in steel and aluminum, in vinyl and Lucite, in tile and ceramic, in straw, in painted paper and painted plaster. The relish Versace brings to his clear vinyl dresses strewn with rhinestones, or to shiny-colored opaque ones punctuated with nifty cutouts, has traditional bravura and sprezzatura in it, suggesting Bernini at his most outré. The vulgarity is integral to the glory, just as it is in majolica plates or Puccini operas.

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S ometimes Versace took this spirit too far, into trendy conceptual play. When he forgets the eye and the body and tries to appeal to the mind; when he blinds you with too-vivid zebra juxtaposed with too-vivid leopard so you can't see the dress; or when he overburdens the feminine torso with a short, floppy, bulky hoop skirt apparently made of hugely printed pastel silk curtains from a Las Vegas hotel room, topped by a short, bulky blue denim jacket with big brass buttons, then he starts looking too French, and by that I mean, theoretical.

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In clothing, optical chaos offered up as carefully unbecoming unbeauty is meant to refer to the idea of modernism rather than embracing it directly, in bodily terms. What does embrace both the modern and the body, by contrast, is Versace's sleek, stiff, short hoop-skirt dress made of briskly clashing silk-print sections in color, swept with a flowing black-and-white silk-print stole. Here the scale of warring shapes and prints is attuned to the female shape underneath, so the result is a modern garment, not a modern sandwich board. Another triumph is the brilliant leopard-skin-cum-baroque-gold-ornament silk-print scarf, draped into a closefitting column that turns the wearer into a walking blend of wild beast and ormolu candlestick. Note how the swirls of gold hit the body over the breasts, navel, and ovaries, while the leopard's spots slink over the crotch, thighs, and knees. Yum.

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A lso yummy is a virtual slip in sparkly white metal mesh, trimmed top and bottom in sparkly black cotton lace. But the most perfect garment is a sleeveless black dress of tough synthetic net, ornamented with inspired beading and delicate black leather appliqués that rise from the hem in black flames (maybe seaweed) around the thighs and pelvis and descend from the neckline in uneven black clusters of grapes (maybe clouds) over the breasts and shoulders. Through the middle, the synthetic net makes moiré patterns as it moves against the bare midriff.

At the end of the show are some of Versace's stage costumes for operas and ballets. There we see his imagination working with mobile combinations of expanded and unearthly human creatures, covered with color and pattern and accompanied by music, not so very far from the desired effect in much of real life right now. Versace may have resembled Liberace, but he was also like Andy Warhol, in that he saw the mythic capacities of modern tawdriness. He found his own way of expounding them in the most modern of media, the new eroticized and commercialized arena of high fashion. RequiescatinPucci.

Anne Hollander is the fashion writer for Slate.

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