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Francesca Granata on the Grotesque Body in Fashion

The Grotesque Body: From Renaissance Insult to Contemporary Ideal

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Francesca Granata Associate Professor of Fashion Studies
Parsons School of Design

I first learned of Francesca Granata when I read her book, Experimental Fashion, Performance Art, Carnival and the Grotesque Body. As an artist who investigates the boundaries of the body I found it fascinating and intriguing. Granata effortlessly works at the intersection of fashion, aesthetics, gender, and the body, studying the ways in which our own norms are reflected in the clothes we wear. I spoke with the Parsons School of Design professor about the concept of the Grotesque Body –both its historical roots and the ways it is expressed in fashion.

The Grotesque Body: From Renaissance Insult to Contemporary Ideal

“The etymology of the word grotesque comes from the Italian word ‘grotto’, which means cave. It originated in the Renaissance, when excavations in various parts of Italy revealed ancient frescos of decorative motives often combining animal and human bodies. These paintings went against the classical concept of the body. They were called grotesque, and the word was used somewhat disparagingly to mean ornamental, decorative, or even something potentially obscene. In the 1930’s-1940’s, the concept was extensively discussed by Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian cultural and literary historian and theorist. Bakhtin defined the grotesque as a phenomenon of reversal and disruption of borders, in particular body borders. The grotesque body is a body which exceeds its borders. It is not the idealized, symmetrical, proper body of classical antiquity that was then taken up in the Renaissance and through the contemporary times. The grotesque body questions Western ideals of beauty and classical aesthetics. Bakhtin also argued that the grotesque canon had a political role as it was the aesthetic of the carnival, a space that allowed for a subversion of traditional hierarchies and order, where different realities became possible, at least temporarily.”   

Fashion Gets Grotesque: The 1980’s Adoption of Exaggerated Aesthetics

“Starting in the 1980’s, there was a widespread exploration of the grotesque by experimental designers, such as Rei Kawakubo and Georgina Godley. These designers didn’t describe their work as grotesque, but they experimented with silhouettes, materials, and modes of presentation to question body borders, body ideals, symmetry and proportions, in a way that was in line with grotesque aesthetics. The grotesque was often articulated in womenswear, which is not surprisingly since if one understands the grotesque as that which transgresses and deviates from the norm, the female body as understood vis-à-vis the model of the male body is always grotesque.

Traditional Western fashion could be seen as a continuous attempt to contain and sanitize female-identified bodies, while the grotesque in fashion is way for experimental designers such as Godley and Kawakubo to push against fashion’s attempt to contain the body and as a site for renegotiating ideals of norms and deviations.

Male body ideals were also challenged. In 1996, Walter Van Beirendonck designed an inflatable jacket that sported fake six-pack abs. It is referred to as the muscle jacket, poking fun at masculine ideals of strength and ‘perfectly’ chiseled bodies. Van Beirendonck was also one of the first designers to work on unisex fashion before it was popular, breaking down the binary of men’s and women’s wear. In fact, the 1980s saw an increasing interest in the fit and “classical” body for both men and women and the various techniques to attain such a body from aerobics to plastic surgery. And yet, it is also in the 1980s that we start to see a proliferation of grotesque imagery and bodies-out-of-bounds in fashion – something that should be understood as a critique towards these normative discourses. This shift was influenced by feminism’s desire to open up and question gender and bodily norms and particularly the normative bodies of fashion. It was also tied to the AIDS epidemic. Experimental fashion often mediated the fears of contagion and the obsessive moral policing of bodily borders that characterized the 1980s and part of the 1990s and cannot be read separately from the powerful discourses of contagion, bodies and health surrounding the AIDS crisis.

Grotesque Fashion: Materials and Silhouettes

“Experimentation involved both silhouettes and materials. The designs of Martin Margiela, for example, broke with the norms of sizing and proportions. One of his collections consisted of enlarged Barbie doll clothing that showed how disproportionate the doll was. Another interesting example is Rei Kawakubo’s use of padding. In the 1980’s, shoulder pads contributed to the desired body shape at the time; the strong and masculine body. In her Body Meets Dress Collection (Spring/Summer 1997), Kawakubo used experimental pattern-making techniques to incorporate kidney-shaped pads to dresses, resulting in softer and vulnerable forms. It’s also interesting to note that the materials designers used were specific to the aesthetic. Margiela used a lot of recycled materials and Kawakubo, at the beginning of her career, used woolen and dark fabrics.”  

Media Response: Fashion Disaster or Avant-Garde Innovation?

“The mainstream press did not embrace their work at first. In fact, they were talked about in negative terms. Kawakubo’s Body Meets Dress Collection (SS1996), for which voluminous pads were incorporated in the garments on the back, the hips and the belly, was initially controversial. People thought it was deforming the human body and that it was not attractive. It was challenging the aesthetic of the beautiful as it has been articulated within fashion. The collection also made reference to pregnancy, which at a time wasn’t embraced by fashion the way that it is today. The clothes from these collections were referred to disparagingly as tumorous –a fact that further proves how a body in the act of becoming (such as the pregnant one, that Kawakubo made reference to) challenges codes of beauty, but also health. I think the art world was much quicker to embrace this type of work. Hilton Als reviewed the collection positively in Artforum. And there was a pushback by parts of the public, but obviously there were many who liked their work. Kawakubo’s and Margiela’s collections were not just show pieces, they were sold in stores, so the response was mixed.” 

The Grotesque in Performance Art

At the border of fashion itself, the work I discuss often spills into the realm of performance art, as is the case for Leigh Bowery, a club figure, fashion designer and performance artist active in London and New York in the 1980s and 1990s. Performance art shares with fashion a deep relation to the body and constitutes an important cultural trope for exploring the grotesque body and bodily practices. These have been of central importance to performance art, particularly from the 1960s onwards, when the practice became strongly influenced by feminist theory and later queer theory. Time-based and process-oriented, performance art has never been defined with a level of consensus but, similarly to the grotesque, it has been discussed through its association with liminality, in-betweenness and border crossing, all aspects that characterized Leigh Bowery’s practice. This hybridization of fashion performance and club culture explored by Bowery has continued to our present time and can be observed, in particular, in the work of New York-based fashion designer such as Telfar Clemens and the brand/collective Hood by Air. The latter employed a grotesque aesthetic to question traditional Western beauty ideals and explore the beauty of queer Black bodies.

Francesca Granata’s forthcoming book, An Anthology of Fashion Criticism will be published by Bloomsbury in 2021. This anthology outlines how fashion criticism has played a central role in shifting gender roles and understandings of race. 

The transcribed text has been edited for length and clarity.

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