Madonna, cone bras and sailors: Review of Jean Paul Gaultier exhibit at Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (photos)

Madonna has changed her look countless times over the past 30 years, but I’ll always associate her with one signature style: pointy cone bras. She popularized the gravity-defying underwear during her Blond Ambition Tour (1990-1991), igniting a lingerie-as-outerwear trend that is still going strong 20 years later.

Madonna’s corsets were the brainchild of French designer Jean Paul Gaultier, the subject of an expansive exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. You don’t have to be a fashionista to appreciate the show, which features Gaultier’s original designs from 1970 through 2011.

Using animatronic mannequins, a rotating runway and keepsakes from Gaultier’s childhood, the museum provides an inside look at the man known as fashion’s enfant terrible. Madonna’s pointy bra is just one of the avant-garde (and often bizarre) designs on display; other key looks include skirts for men, a “body suit” decorated with muscles and veins, and fur hats inspired by Hasidic rabbis.

If you can’t make it to the show– which ends today– scroll down for the highlights.

Cone bras

The Jean Paul Gaultier exhibit is divided into five rooms, each with a distinct theme. An entire section is devoted to cone bras and pointy corsets, which have fascinated the designer since childhood.

Jean Paul Gaultier cone bra at Montreal art museum

Madonna’s pink corset merits its own display case, and is surrounded by behind-the-scenes photos of the singer and her Blond Ambition Tour dancers at wardrobe fittings.

Jean Paul Gaultier corsets at Montreal Musee des Beaux Arts

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts brings the designs to life with rotating displays that provide 360-degree views of each piece.

Jean Paul Gaultier Nana teddy bear with cones at Montreal museum

Gaultier’s childhood teddy bear, Nana, is the most intriguing exhibit in the show. This well-preserved, ’50s-era toy is evidence of the designer’s lifelong obsession with women’s undergarments. The golden-haired bear has cone-shaped breasts attached to its chest!

Men’s couture

Known as the creator of “men’s couture,” Jean Paul Gaultier enjoys blurring the boundaries between men’s and women’s wear.

One room of the exhibit is devoted to sexually provocative, S&M-influenced fashion; the back wall is covered by a tic-tac-toe grid of vignettes. In the middle compartment, a leather-clad female mannequin straddles a harness-wearing (possibly male) mannequin.

Each design is daring and thought-provoking– typical of Gaultier’s work.

Jean Paul Gaultier naked dress at Montreal Musee des Beaux Arts

This sequined “nude” gown was worn by male actor Gael Garcia Bernal in the Pedro Almodovar film “Bad Education” (2004).

Jean Paul Gaultier mens couture at Montreal Musee des Beaux Arts

Gaultier believes skirts aren’t just for women. This business-inspired collection matches crisp white dress shirts with lace skirts and exaggerated bell bottoms for men.

Ethnic chic

From rabbis to Asian sherpas, Gaultier’s list of influences is vast. An entire room at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts show is dedicated to fashions inspired by world cultures.

Jean Paul Gaultier chic rabbis at Montreal Musee des Beaux Arts

Gaultier courted controversy with his “rabbi chic” women’s collection, which featured hairstyles modeled on the Hasidic payot, wide-brimmed fur hats, fringed shawls and bulky coats.

Jean Paul Gaultier backpacker at Montreal Musee des Beaux Arts

Gaultier also elevated backpacking to an art form with this Mongolian-inspired look, featuring a fur rucksack and platform boots.

Jean Paul Gaultier python dress at Montreal Musee des Beaux Arts

Animal lovers may wince at Gaultier’s python-skin tights and crocodile-scale crochet dress, just a few of the unusual materials he has used in his designs.

Extreme body suits

Parts of the Gaultier show resemble the “Bodies” anatomical exhibit more than a traditional art show.

Jean Paul Gaultier fashions at Montreal Musee des Beaux Arts

The French designer gives “body suit” a whole new meaning by constructing clothing that resembles human musculature– complete with veins and internal organs.

Jean Paul Gaultier human body stocking at Montreal art museum

This trio of Gaultier creations– displayed together on a rotating platform– show how the designer’s corsets are inspired by the lines of the human form.

Live from the runway

Most of us haven’t scored front row seats to a fashion show– the natural habitat for Jean Paul Gaultier’s couture creations.

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts addresses this issue by using animatronic models (think Disney World’s “It’s a Small Word” attraction) and mechanical rigging in many of its displays.

Jean Paul Gaultier runway at Montreal Musee des Beaux Arts

Gaultier’s designs sashay down a life-size runway, thanks to some old-school technology: a conveyor belt. (When I visited, a stylishly dressed mechanic with a tool kit was perched near the back of the runway, just in case).

Although these were clearly mannequins, I felt a bit like a Fashion Week attendee seeing Gaultier’s daring fashions grace the catwalk.

Jean Paul Gaultier runway at Montreal art museum

Many of the runway looks are influenced by vintage business wear– particularly the highly-structured women’s suits of the 1940s. With a twist, of course.

Montreal Girls Getaway Jean Paul Gaultier exhibit at Musee des Beaux Arts

I was entranced by the animatronic mannequins at the exhibit’s entrance. While their limbs are motionless, their faces blink, smile and even speak. The life-like features are created using projectors on the ceiling.

Jean Paul Gaultier sailors at Montreal Musee des Beaux Arts

Several mannequins wear Jean Paul Gaultier’s signature striped sweaters– a look that some museum visitors have also embraced.

Jean Paul Gaultier sailor at Montreal art museum

Gaultier has tweaked the classic sailor’s outfit to match his own sensibilities– edgy, gender-bending and fun. And that’s exactly how I would describe this museum exhibit.


Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
(le Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal)

1379 Sherbrooke Street West
Montreal, Quebec, Canada H3G 1J5
Phone: 1-800-899-6873
Twitter: @MBAMTL
Cost: Admission to most of the Museum’s exhibitions is free at all times. For special exhibits like Gaultier, the fees range from free (for children under 13) to $15 (for adults 26-64).

My trip to Montreal was sponsored by Tourisme Montreal. For information on city attractions and events, visit the Tourisme Montreal website and Twitter feed (@VisitMontreal).

Click on #MontrealArts to read my other Montreal posts.

About Leslie Koch

I'm a New Yorker with a passion for travel and art. I founded after returning from a year-long backpacking trip around the world. Find me on Twitter at @leslietravel.