Content warning: ableism, racism and abuse
Hi! Soo I wrote this paper in the Spring for Oxford and wanted to share it. As someone who lives outside the borders of both whiteness and 'able bodied ideals' discussions on the intersections of colonialism and ableism are incredibly important to me, so thinking about this stuff in relation to one of my favourite Comme collections was kind of everything!
Arabelle (whose own lumps and bumps tribute is talked about in this paper, and who wrote about Comme only yesterday for Rookie, which reminded me to actually upload this essay!) helped me also and said nice things about it so that really meant a lot!!
But um yay, I hope u like it!! I always get so, so anxious before uploading my work??? But hopefully it is okay!!!
☁ ☁ ☁
“We didn't lie to you, folks. We told you we had living, breathing, monstrosities. You'll laugh at them, shudder at them, and yet, but for the accident of birth, you might be even as they are. They did not ask to be brought into the world, but into the world they came. And now, if you'll just step this way, you are about to witness the most amazing, the most astounding, living monstrosity of all time. [A woman screams.] Friends, she was once a beautiful woman. A royal prince shot himself for love of her. She was known as the peacock of the air...”
-‘Freaks’, directed by Tod Browning (1932)
It is said that God created man in his own image. Yet, when comparing one’s own reflection to the angelic figures of runway catwalks and movie posters, you can’t help but draw the conclusion that God is either very cruel or rather ugly. This is the dead space between ‘should look like’ and ‘actually looks like’, which can be identified in the profound sense of loss that undercuts the act of getting dressed. It is the gap between the item we want (the designer dress) and the item we can afford (the high street knock off), the physical body (how we are perceived) and the dream body (how we wish we were perceived), the clothes on the hanger and the clothes on the ‘ordinary’ person, the clothes on the ‘ordinary’ person and the clothes on the model.
A particularly powerful case study for understanding these tensions between ideal self and actual self, beauty and ‘deformity’, liberating high school movie make over versus horror film mutilative revenge, can be found in Comme des Garcons Spring/Summer 1997 collection, ‘Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body’. One of the most commercially unsuccessful offerings from the label, it is colloquially known as the ‘Lumps and Bumps’ range for the tumour-like padded growths and built in hunch backs that warp the ‘ideal’ forms of the young, white, female models on the runway (1). In distorting the traditional boundaries of the female form, by blurring the safe space of the untouchable, eternal, beauty of runway collections, questions are raised of the pre-existing ideals of the ‘beautiful’ body and the ‘beautiful’ dress within high fashion. The viewer wonders: where does the dress end and the body begin? Is that arched silhouette the handiwork of Rei Kawakubo (who is the head of Comme des Garcons) or does her model have scoliosis? (3) Is that girl on the runway ‘one of them’ or “one of us”?
We can understand such questions by locating the collection within the existing history of ‘deformity’, disability and the grotesque, in the visual culture of post-World War II Japan. This can be achieved through studying the ero-guro (erotic grotesque) genre and the avant-garde dance movement Ankoku Butoh (dance of darkness) (2). To focus this comparison, I have selected one particular case study, the 1969 film ‘Horrors of Malformed Men’. Directed by Teruo Ishii (1925-2005), a prolific Japanese film director, who created a number of ero-guro films, it was adapted from a collection of stories by the Japanese horror writer, Edogawa Ranpo (1894-1965) an avid fan of ‘freak show’ culture, whose work, from the 1930s onwards, serves as an earlier example of the ero-guro genre in literature.
‘Horrors of Malformed Men’ is a unique, and therefore exciting, movie to study, because it exists as both a powerful example of ero-guro, and a showcase for the Ankoku Butoh dance form, due to Ishii’s casting of Tatsumi Hijikata (1928-1986), the dancer and choreographer who founded this movement, and his dance troupe, to star in the film. Whilst, no research has been previously undertaken on the links between ‘Horrors of Malformed Men’ and this particular Comme collection, it is relevant to note that the choreographer, Trajal Harrell, has been investigating the connections between the work of Comme des Garcons and the Butoh genre for a number of years. This research serves as a complement to his own, Butoh inspired, dance work. In an interview with Time Out New York, Trajal explains:
“Even though they’re different generations, clearly in the ’70s, there’s some overlap. I would like to ask Rei Kawakubo that question. But I haven’t found anyone who’s said, “Let’s look at the connections between Butoh and Comme des Garçons and Hijikata and Rei Kawakubo.””
|1. Comme des Garcons S/S 1997, Paris|
|2 Beatriz Schiller, Eiko and Koma’s ‘Night Tide’, 25th January 1984, at Dance Theatre Workshop|
|3. runway shot of Comme des Garcons S/S 1997, Paris|
It is interesting that a prolific artist, such as Trajal, focuses particularly on Hijikata, the Butoh performer I have selected for this paper, suggesting that ‘the Tales of Malformed Men’-S/S 1997 comparison is not only unique (after all anything can be unique if one tries hard enough) but important in understanding the invisible threads that connect seemingly separate movements in the post-World War II world of the Japanese avant-garde.
It should be stressed, however, that this is not an attempt to either homogenize, or essentialize, these works as essentially ‘Japanese’, a model of writing which has its own uniquely grotesque history in Western journalism, with its portraits of warped Orientalism being every bit as lurid, as disconnected from any lived reality, as an Edogawa Ranpo story. This is the work of publications such as Women’s Wear Daily whose bizarre prose includes quotes such as: “Ah, the delicately winning ways of Rei Kawakubo, the samurai geisha of fashion.” This is an outlook so obsessed with “the glib generalization about the impact of post-Hiroshima deprivations” that red lipstick was mistaken for open wounds, designers’ own explanations of collections were ignored, with Western writers favoring their own idea of a ‘tragic Orient’ producing “post atom bomb fashion” and “Hiroshima chic” collections. This resulted in Japanese fashion designers being known, not by name, but by nationality. Print mistakes, as a result of cultural ignorance were also commonplace, with names of Japanese designers often being misspelt in Vogue, and the 1989 trade publication ‘Fashion Guide’ listing Comme Des Garcons as a French company, whilst referring to Rei Kawakubo as ‘Hai Kawakube’.
Butoh underwent a similar fate, with reductive readings of the work, as a simple product of post-war trauma, abounding. This was despite the fact that Hijikata himself did not see the dance style as “exclusively Japanese” arguing that it “could as well emerge from Northern England as from Northern Japan” a point illustrated by his cited influences of the post WWI Surrealists of Western Europe and transgressive French authors such as Jean Genet. (A parallel to Rei Kawakubo choosing the French lilt of a Francoise Hardy song over her own supposedly ‘Japanese’ name when christening her label.) The cultural critic, Mark Holborn, emphasizes this issue of Western misunderstanding, arguing that, in exposing Butoh to a Western audience, “the change of context, like all translation…may have distorted the original meaning. It confirmed the accessibility of Butoh as spectacle, even if the translation dampened the subversive fire.”
The phrase “distorted” is key, particularly in relation to the question of ‘mistranslating’ Japanese culture. Perhaps, the Orientalist school of fashion journalism, with its butchered Japanese, its misreading of collections, and references to “samurai geishas” is a model of ‘deforming’ and distorting the Comme des Garcons collection in and of itself. It is a ‘freak’, created not by birth, but by the white superiority complex of colonialism. And whilst, the notion of the ‘freak show’ is an important part of this essay, this particular ‘freak’ is one I do not wish to take over the paper.
Of course, this history should not ‘scare’ writers away from writing critically about Comme des Garcons. Neither should they eschew the critical application of context (either in terms of history or ethnic identity) in their analysis under the guise of ‘not seeing race’. Such a shallow, ahistorical, model fits neatly into a white, liberal narrative, whitewashing the work of people of colour and erasing their history, under the pretension that everyone is ‘identical’. Instead, I would argue, that by understanding the failings of previous cultural critics in the West, writing on these collections may become stronger, more nuanced, and the historical context, of both the reality of 20th century Japan, and the Western writers’ ‘idea’ of 20th century Japan, may be used to further our understanding of the work of Comme des Garcons, rather than limit it.
This is relevant when considering the work of the artists themselves. For whilst Rei Kawakubo (b.1942) insists she had a comfortable upbringing, free from tragedy and poverty, Hijikata’s Butoh movement was, in contrast, directly influenced by the war, particularly the firebombing of Japan, and the family he lost during this period, whose absent bodies were absorbed into his dance. And though, he refused an essentialist Orientalist idea of ‘Japaneseness’, the Butoh movement was still shaped around his surroundings, both in his upbringing in Northern Japan, and the all-consuming blackness of its night skies, and the “constantly mutating body” of post-war Tokyo, which he made his home from his twenties onwards. In this sense, if we are to produce a critical reading of Comme des Garcons, through contextualizing its links with movements such as butoh and ero-guro, before applying this understanding to the question of disability and ‘deformity’, it is not Japan’s history or cultural heritage, we should reject, but rather the Western Orientalist construction of Japanese identity and Japanese history.
With this existing model of Comme as sign for the ‘warped’, ‘broken’ ‘Orient’, and the positioning of Japanese designers as “inadequate imitates of Western fashion and racial threat” in place, it is possible to interpret this collection as a revenge, of sorts. A parallel could be drawn to the finale of Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks’ (1932) where the so called ‘freaks’ enact revenge on the beautiful Cleopatra (who has Othered them, mocked them, and even planned to murder one of their own-her supposedly ‘beloved’ husband) by turning her into a quacking ‘human duck’ (4.), tarred, feathered, legless, with webbed feet in place of hands, one eye gouged and her tongue cut out. Cleopatra, whose very name denotes physical perfection, and who once cried ‘freak!’ in horror of their likeness, now finds herself, in a twist of fate the most frightening ‘freak’ of all.
In this same way, Rei Kawakubo has taken the ‘flawless’ form of the white, Western, ideal of the female, hour glass figure, tall and curvaceous, and using her expert craftsmanship (metaphorically) skinned it alive and given its mutilated remains to her young, white girl models to wear down the catwalk. By ‘freaking’ this Western silhouette, through turning desirable curves into grotesque tumours (5 and 6), which in turn, renders her perfect white girl models grotesque by association, the designer seems to simultaneously mock, both the stereotype of “shapeless” Japanese clothes draped over ‘small’, ‘petite’, East Asian bodies and the seemingly natural, neutral space of white womanhood.
|4. Still from ‘Freaks’, directed by Tod Browning (1932: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)|
|5 and 6, Kyoto Costume Institute, film stills of Comme des Garcons S/S 1997, Paris|
|7 and 8, Stills from Mean Girls directed by Mark Waters (2004: Paramount): Cady robs Regina of her “hot” body, in the still below Regina is horrified that she can longer fit into her ‘dream’ dress.|
This is revenge as redistribution of power, drawing a parallel to Lindsay Lohan’s character Cady, in the 2004 teen comedy ‘Mean Girls’, who in an attempt to dethrone ‘the fascist dictator’ Regina George, the cruel queen bee of her high school, steals her
“hot” body (7) by tricking her into “unknowingly eating 4000 calories a day”. Castrated of her white girl physique, she is left humiliated, alienated and powerless, too bloated for her pale pink dream dress (8), she bulges uncomfortably out of maroon sweat pants (a playful parallel to the Comme models’ unsightly dress protrusions) and is now mocked by those who once feared her. Barbara Kruger once proclaimed that “your body is a battleground” and, in this case, it seems victory is declared by destroying the opposing territory.
The question of the unwanted transformation, identified in both ‘Freaks’ and ‘Mean Girls’, returns us to the ero-guro film ‘Horrors of Malformed Men’, and specifically how these forms of representation intersect with the lived experience of disability in Japan (an important factor to consider in the contextualisation of this particular Comme collection). The question of disability is evident from the title in Japanese alone, ‘Kyoufu Kikei Ningen’, which roughly translates to “those filthy invalids.” The Japanese culture critics Patrick Macias and Tomohiro Machiyama explain this stating:
“Simply put, you cannot call someone, or something, “Kyoufu Kikei Ningen” anymore. The English translation “Horrors of Malformed Men” sounds a bit too polite. In Japanese the words strongly imply that the deformed are inhuman, but also that one should be afraid of them.”
Regarded as a homage to Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks’ the film is regarded (partly as a result of the aformentioned title) as “unfit for mass consumption in its home country” due to its treatment of themes of disability. It follows the story of a young man escaping from an institution for the mentally ill and eventually discovering that his long lost father (played by Hijikata) is a warped, web fingered villain (9) who is the “ugly bridegroom” “to the most beautiful woman in all of China, Japan and India”. When he is betrayed by this beautiful, able bodied wife, he retreats to an island, which he intends to transform into a utopia for the ‘malformed’. Here he kidnaps older people and babies and (without consent) surgically alters them so they may join his ‘malformed’ ranks. His wife is kept captive in the meantime, a parallel to ‘Freaks’ own tale of husbandly revenge.
|9. Director Ishii’s use of distorted reflections emphasizes Hijikata’s character’s physical, and therefore, morally, ‘warped’ state in this still from ‘Horrors of Malformed Men’ (Toei: 1969).|
10, 11, 12, 13 Stills of ‘Horrors of Malformed Men’s ‘Quasimodo dress’ extra
We can see this story as a lurid parallel to Rei’s own ‘freakified’ models. Consider this ‘malformed’ background extra (10. 11), who also featured in the original promotional trailers (12). Note the figure’s floor long length dress, bound tight, to reveal an array of peculiar protrusions in their lumps and back (13). Is it not uncanny in its likeness to Comme des Garcons’ own ‘lumps and bumps’ collection? Is the silhouette not remarkably similar? Of course, we cannot be sure if Rei actually watched this film, or even its trailer, and even if she did, if she was inspired by, or even noticed, this earlier example of a ‘Quasimodo dress’. (Though, it is certainly a possibility, given the equally avant-garde circles she would have moved in at the time of the film’s release.) Regardless of these ambiguities, to find such a clear precursor to the Spring/Summer 1997 collection, a precursor, which so perfectly complements this paper’s goal, of contextualizing the Comme collection within the existing history of ‘deformity’, is certainly a remarkable discovery.
This returns us to the question of exaggerated ‘deformity’ versus real life disability, as often, the ban on ‘Horrors of Malformed Men’ has been regarded as a simply by-product of militant “political correctness.” Similarly it may seem far-reaching to locate Comme’s fantastical dresses, so dislocated from reality, in the world of high fashion, within the history of disability in Japan. However, just because it is unexpected does not make it untrue. For visual culture does not exist in isolation, and representations of ‘monstrous deformity’ in visual culture live, if not intentionally in support of, but certainly in conversation with, the ableist attitudes of mid 20th century Japan.
It is important to realize that attitudes in Hijikata and Kawakubo’s generation were particularly extreme. Condemned to institutions for life, disabled people were kept segregated from able-bodied society, conditions were extremely poor, and children were often left unwashed so that “flies gathered over them and laid eggs in their bed sores”. Women were involuntarily given hysterectomies, sexual abuse of patients was widespread, and a eugenics lens was applied to the lives of disabled people, with the law going so far as to question if it was truly murder if a mother killed her disabled child. The Fuchu Ryoiku Centre, which opened in 1968 serves as a particularly powerful example of the mistreatment of disabled bodies. This is outlined in the 2001 paper ‘The Disability Rights Movement in Japan’, which explains:
“For disabled persons to be accepted into the Centre, their parents had to sign a waiver eliminating the requirement of their consent for any surgical procedures performed on their adult children. This enabled the doctors of the Centre to perform any surgery, including lobotomy and autopsy, without parent notification. As a result, residents were used as guinea-pigs by the doctors for medical research.”
Perhaps, now we can understand why Hijikata’s premise that “only when, despite having a normal, healthy body you come to wish that you were disabled or had been born disabled, do you take your first step in butoh” falls into the problematic territory of ‘occupying the Other’. A point illustrated by critics reflecting on the dancer’s “spastic” butoh performance in ‘Tales of Malformed Men’, an observation which was not without grounding. For Hijikata did indeed study the movements of people with polio, people who in an ableist society, may indeed be perceived as “spastic”, in order to mimic their gestures in his choreography.
At this point it is significant to consider how the seemingly subversive work of the creative avant-garde fits in with the existing power structures of able-bodied culture. In a New Yorker article, Rei Kawakubo once argued that she “likes tradition and history” but also “wants to break the rules”, what better compromise than a freak show, in its confirmation of existing power structures through its exhibition of those that, by mere dint of their existence, radically defy it.
This complements the “sometimes shunned but at times made special” position that disabled people occupy in Japanese culture. The idea of disability as a mouthpiece for the ‘unique’ creativity of the able bodied, found in the Quasimodo dresses of Comme des Garcons and Hijikata’s polio inspired dance moves, is revealing in its irony. For the mission of institutions was to make disabled bodies conform as much as possible to ableist ideals, with children pressured into walking, even if it was physically too difficult for them to do so. Whilst, outside of the institution, many disabled people underwent the “high psychological price” of “passing” as able bodied in everyday life to avoid being discriminated against and mistreated in so called ‘mainstream’ society.
In contrast to these lived experiences, Rei Kawakubo and Hijikata appear to offer disability to their audience as a form of liberation, challenging pre-existing notions of beauty and elegance for an alternative model of being. This is the idea that an able bodied person’s occupation of a vague notion of difference through ‘deformity’ provides them with a seemingly ‘radical’ sense of agency. The notion, of ‘deformity’ as a subversive and empowering tool in the hands of the able bodied creative, is another revealingly ironic point, when considering how little control disabled people actually had of their own bodies in institutions such as The Fuchu Ryoiku Centre, with its consent free use of invasive, experimental, surgery. For much as ‘Horrors of Malformed Men’s leading man is stabbed in an institution by one of “the crazies”, only to be pleasantly surprised that the weapon was merely a novelty retractable knife, the tumours in the Spring/Summer 1997 collection are removable, giving the wearer the option of taking them in and out at will, an option that, needless to say, the disabled person does not have.
This disability as freedom model, where textile crafted tumours may double up as angels’ wings, is particularly evident in the genre of ‘dancing deformity’, which connects Butoh with Comme. Whilst Hijikata’s requirements for a successful butoh dancer was “to see the world from the perspective of disability so badly she wished she were born that way” Rei Kawakubo adapted the growth-like forms of her lumps and bumps collection for the medium of dance, taking them to the stage as costumes for Merce Cunnigham’s, ‘Scenario’, 1997. Despite being clothed in Otherness, these works, with their bold green gingham style prints and wide blue stripes (14), are neither dark nor threatening, a far cry from the sinister, stormy setting of one of ‘Freaks’ more ‘frightening’ scenes. The same can be said of the original Comme des Garcons collection, with its use of primary colours and simple prints (3). These clothes are not horror film scary. Instead they seem to represent, a joyful, childlike freedom, for the able bodied adult.
|14. Jacque Maotti, “Merce Cunnigham’s ‘Scenario’”, 1997, New York|
Though, this in theory may seem positive, or at least more palatable than Hijikata’s work, it is important to realize that this portrait of the happy Other is not necessarily working against ableist culture. For the disabled adult is taught by society to be “childlike, loveable, always smiling” in order to be accepted, or at least tolerated by the able bodied community. For the joyful Other, that appeals to the able bodied person, and may even be romanticized by them, is simply another system of control to keep disabled people in a position of inferiority. I think of the words of the British feminist author Caitlin Moran: “I am, by and large, boundlessly positive. I have all the joyful ebullience of a retard.” Whilst, Rei Kawakubo’s landmark collection certainly possesses more complexity, more subtleties, than such a crude remark, it is in the same school of thought, if one is to view a hunchback dress as an able bodied person’s key to liberation.
The subject of dance and ‘deformity’ brings us back to Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks’, in one of its most famous scenes: The Wedding Feast, where Cleopatra (prior to her duck lady transformation) celebrates her wedding to Hans, a circus performer with dwarfism, music plays and Minnie Woolsey (known for her stage name Koo Koo the Bird Girl) dances on the table. This is not about Minnie’s striking performance, but the question of who may dine at, who may dance at, the ‘freaks’ table. A powerful example of this is found in Susan Sontag’s essay ‘America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly’. Here Sontag criticises the photographer of ‘freaks’ Diane Arbus, who she believes, is fetishizing Otherness from a position of privilege. Sontag argues:
“Arbus’s work is reactive—reactive against gentility, against what is approved. It was her way of saying fuck Vogue, fuck fashion, fuck what’s pretty, the twin poles of boringness and freakishness.”
To a certain extent, the same could be said of the Comme des Garcons collection, with its juxtaposition of girl next door, suburban banality, found in the kitchen table check prints of its dresses, contrasts to the jarring ‘freakishness’ of the garments tumorous bulges, a freakification of domesticity it shares with both Horrors of Malformed Men (15) and much of Japanese post-war literature. But perhaps these subjects are not a binary, with prettiness at one end and freakishness at the other. For, beauty, particularly in the fashion industry, with its warped distance from reality, is in so many ways, an acceptable form of ‘deformity’, begging the questions of whether such themes are as reactive as they appear on the surface. Susan Sontag, identifies this ‘beauty as deformity model’, saying:
“Who could have better appreciated the truth of freaks than someone like Arbus, who was by profession a fashion photographer—a fabricator of the cosmetic lie that masks the intractable inequalities of birth and class and physical appearance.”
Perhaps, the bandages on the ‘malformed’ lumps and bumps-esque extra (i13) were not a result of a medical procedure, but a cosmetic one. After all they were a movie star, if only for a brief second. This reading complements the interpretation that the circus world of Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks’ is a metaphor for Hollywood. Mark A. Vieira, whose academic work specialises in the history of cinema, explains this, writing:
“The circus itself appears as a distorted symbol of the Hollywood studio, creating vast profits for its owners by displaying its employees — whether actors or "monsters" — in garish popular entertainments…The movie shows the folly of trusting the kind of beautiful surface — "glamour"- — that was MGM’s particular trademark by having that surface disfigured and destroyed by the "low elements" represented by the freaks.”
|15. Hijikata as web fingered husband ‘freaks’ the domestic space in ‘Horrors of Malformed Men’.|
The film critic Peter Bradshaw continues this idea viewing ‘Freaks’ “as a provocative comparison with the alienated condition of women and the freakish nature of all showbiz celebrity.” If glamour is freakishness, then Cleopatra was a freak already, Rei’s models too. The transformation was simply a gentle reminder to the audience. It is certainly a plausible explanation that is not without grounding in the context of these cultural works. But surely we can go further. For this as ‘ugly on the outside as they are ugly’ inside model still feels too reductive, too closely tied to an idea of an ugly-pretty binary where disabled bodies may act as canvases for the abled bodied artist’s elaborate metaphors.
I find atonement, not in the original Comme collection, but instead in its recreations online. Time Magazine was quick to deride the selfie, shared online as an object of narcissism (16). But what is interesting is the discarded selfie, blinking, mouth open, the ones instantly put in the recycle bin; the images that expose rather than conceal, but in that exposure form armour to keep the author safe. I see such images as the meeting of medical photo and model test shoot. And I see one of the most powerful examples in the work of fashion blogger Arabelle Sicardi, a queer Taiwanese-American writer, whose $15 dollar recreation of a ‘lumps and bumps’ dress (17), made as a teenager, and shared with her blog followers, navigates these tensions so expertly. She has blacked her own eyes out, confronting Jeffrey Eugenides’ medical photography model as “the black box; a fig leaf in reverse, concealing identity while leaving shame exposed.” For, in Arabelle’s writing on chronic illness, queerness and mixed identity, all against a backdrop of Comme des Garcons, we find that ideal self and actual self is not the quintessential rock and a hard place. But instead that these tensions between model, mannequin and mortal body can be creatively explored in a model of thought that does not exploit those marginalised by ableism, but instead provides the critical tools so that this very community may speak more boldly.
|16. Time Magazine Cover, May 26th 2013|
|17. Arabelle Sicardi, ‘Lumps and Bumps’ recreation, Fashion Pirate, 12th August 2011|
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