Jean Paul Gaultier’s ruched velvet dresses represented a 1980s riff on the 1950s bullet bra, taken to sexual and material extremes.
About the Look
ean Paul Gaultier’s cone bra corset dress is a signature design by a subversive designer. Gaultier debuted this look in his Fall/Winter 1984-1985 collection Barbès. This dress is unique and has multiple interesting design elements (Fig. 1). Gaultier included lacing on the back (Fig. 2) as a sensual detail as well as a way to fit the dress to the body. The multi-panel design enables the dress to conform more closely to the body, as a corset would. The lower half of the dress hugs the thighs of the wearer, furthering the dress’ tantalizing nature. The velvet textile is ruched, giving the design a dynamic and textured look, but also rendering the boning useless as anything but visual interest. This specific dress is in a vibrant but slightly burnt orange, adding to the overall bold design. The most provocative detail is obviously the exaggerated cones placed at breast-level on the center front of the dress.
About the context
This iconic pointed-breast corset dress first appeared in the collection Jean Paul Gaultier presented for Fall/Winter 1984-1985. The show was titled Barbès and took inspiration from the neighborhood of the same name in Paris. The collection was “inspired by an ethnic ratatouille of North African, Caribbean and Oriental cultures in [Barbès]…designed for the streets and to be chic and wearable all at the same time” (Asome 72).
A June 1984 article in Vogue titled “Vogue’s View: Gaultier, the Newsmaker” discusses the collection:
“Tube skirts – in the thinnest tweed, jersey, velvet, or gabardine – that crush like an accordion around the body. Vests, coats, jackets – pieces to mix, combine, recombine – not necessarily as Gaultier did, perhaps as a mixture of many prints and plaids. Explains Gaultier: ‘The shock of the way I mix patterns and fabric can be disconcerting, but what I am trying to do is to provoke new ideas about how pieces can be put together in different ways. I think this is a more modern way to wear clothes that in themselves are fairly classic.'” (194)
Sadly, the cone bra corset dresses in the collection were not specifically mentioned in American Vogue, even though Gaultier showed multiple versions of the design, like the calf-length dress in purple (Fig. 3). Other publications like the New York Times also shied away from mentioning Gaultier’s conical breast designs but continued to cover the rest of the show.
June Weir of the New York Times wrote an article on June 10, 1984 called “MOVE: Expanding their horizons, the French designers Jean Paul Gaultier and Claude Montana exhibit a well-received new versatility in their collections for Fall” in which she described the acceptance of Gaultier’s designs, as well as the look of the dresses themselves:
“The fashion establishment seems to have boarded the Jean Paul Gaultier bandwagon… Bergdorf Goodman will present the 32-year-old Paris designer’s first major show in New York… [The clothes] have a crunched up feeling of being a size too small.” (327)
Indeed, due to the shorter hemline and the ruching detail throughout, this corset dress almost looks as if it was shrunk in the wash and came out wrong (Fig. 1).
Women’s Wear Daily covered the show, calling it: “a wit-filled, idea-packed collection that earned him four stars and the tile of the Court Jester” (“Gaultier: Paris’s Court Jester,” 34). In a two-page spread (Fig. 4), WWD showcased some of the designs, including a truncated bra version (Fig. 5) of the full dress in the Museum of FIT’s collection, which more closely resembles the original inspiration: 1950s “bullet bras” (Fig. 6).
Bras were often pointed in the 1950s, but actresses like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield wore versions that were rather pointier than what regular women wore (Fig. 7). Bullet bras, however, were always meant to be worn underneath garments for support. Gaultier’s versions are clearly meant to be seen, to the point where his bullet bra actually pokes clear through the model’s fringed top in figure 5. The rough, wrapped surfaces of Gaultier’s conical bras (Fig. 8) mimic the stitched concentric lines on many 1950s bras, but less smoothly.
Unlike American publications, the European press chose to cover the controversial cone bra silhouette. In an editorial in the September 1984 issue of British Vogue, the journalist refers to the exaggerated shape of the breasts in their article “Updated Lines” as “Just two cornetti from Gaultier” (320). Cornetti, the plural form of cornetto, refers to an Italian pastry similar to a croissant. While it may sound odd for a journalist to compare this dress to a pastry, the wrapped layers of the cone do in fact resemble one.
Overall, the cone bra corset dress was simultaneously typical, yet revolutionary: Gaultier as usual. Prior to this collection, the designer had been gaining a following amongst the fashion elite, who were hungry for the unique designs that Gaultier specialized in. However, this collection, and in particular this silhouette, earned him a spot in fashion history.
Thirty years later, Daniel James Cole and Nancy Deihl write in The History of Modern Fashion (2015) that:
“Gaultier continually challenged convention, featuring form-fitting dresses with cone-shaped bra bodices, corsets and bustiers, unisex looks, and witty variations on French staples such as the beret and sailor jersey.” (358)
The cone bra may not have been even seen in the United States were it not for Madonna. The Museum at FIT notes that “Pop singer Madonna later adopted the torpedo-like bust into her stage costumes, furthering Gaultier’s reputation as the ‘enfant terrible’ of Paris fashion.” Madonna first donned a Gaultier corset bra in the 1990 music video for her song “Vogue” (Fig. 9). Her “Vogue” cone bra may be from the 1984 collection; it is similar in material and design to those featured in Barbés.
Madonna continued to wear versions of the cone bra over the next few decades, most famously during her Blonde Ambition tour in 1990, in which she donned a corseted bustier-bodysuit (Fig. 10).
Madonna became so identified with the cone bra that parodies and costumes representing the singer usually include a Gaultier-style outfit (Fig. 11). Halloween costumes that are meant to represent the singer are often cheap imitations of the same Gaultier design from Blonde Ambition (Fig. 12).
The longer version of the cone bra corset dress can be seen in the music video for Jean Paul Gaultier’s song “How To Do That” (1989) (Fig. 13). Only five years after the collection, Gaultier included the orange dress in the music video as the silhouette had become synonymous with his brand; the purple version also appeared in his 2007 retrospective (Fig. 14).
- Asome, Carolyn. Vogue on Jean Paul Gaultier. London: Quadrille, 2017. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/968317418
- Bondil, Nathalie, and Thierry-Maxime Loriot. Jean Paul Gaultier: from the Sidewalk to the Catwalk. Montreal, Quebec: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 2016. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/888733885
- Cole, Daniel James, and Nancy Deihl. The History of Modern Fashion from 1850. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2015. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/932219920
- “Dress.” The Museum at FIT. Accessed February 27, 2019. http://fashionmuseum.fitnyc.edu/view/objects/asitem/search$0040/15/dynasty-desc?t:state:flow=1363cb65-171b-43ca-bdd3-51d9c0e02413
- “Gaultier: Paris’s Court Jester.” Women’s Wear Daily 147, Mar 28, 1984, 1-15. Retrieved from https://libproxy.fitsuny.edu:2818/docview/1445547720?accountid=27253
- “Updated Lines.” British Vogue, September 1984, 320.
- “Vogue’s View: Gaultier, the Newsmaker.” Vogue, Jun 01, 1984, 194. Retrieved from https://libproxy.fitsuny.edu:2818/docview/904347753?accountid=27253
- Weir, June. “MOVE: Expanding their horizons, the French designers Jean Paul Gaultier and Claude Montana exhibit a well-received new versatility in their collections for fall.” New York Jun 10, 1984, 79. Retrieved from https://libproxy.fitsuny.edu:2818/docview/122497675?accountid=27253