Academic journal article Helios

Versace's Medusa: (Capita)lizing upon Classical Antiquity

Academic journal article Helios

Versace's Medusa: (Capita)lizing upon Classical Antiquity

Article excerpt

Serious analysis by scholars of the work of the Italian designer Gianni Versace (1946-1997) has been growing in recent years. In 1997, just after Versace was shot dead on July 15 in front of his home in Miami, Florida, by Andrew Cunanan, a young gay man conflicted by emotions of love and hate, the archaeologist Vinnie Norskov published a study of two South Italian vases from Versace's personal collection. (1) In the same year the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art assembled an exhibition of Versace's work. (2) In 1998 a master's thesis focused on Versace's interpretation of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. (3) In 2002 the Victoria and Albert Museum mounted a major retrospective show of his work. (4) In the same year Chris Townsend, senior lecturer in the Department of Media at Royal Holloway College of the University of London, wrote cogently about Versace in his book on the relationship between fashion and art. (5)

Interest in Medusa, on the other hand, and in the interpretation of her myth has never waned. A ubiquitous figure in popular culture, she has appeared in a variety of guises, which have followed generally Freud's gendered, heterosexual analysis that assigns the active role of onlooker to males and the passive role of object to females. The work, however, of the German artist and graphic designer Gunther Kieser (1930-), whose poster art depicted Jimi Hendrix in 1969 wired up like a Medusa in "electric ladyland," and fellow musician Elton John, who launched his own "Medusa tour" in 2000, offer proof that these roles can be reversed or depict relations between pairs of the same sex. (6) In the realm of creative writing, Medusa has captured the imagination of authors from the early-twentieth-century American poet Countee Cullen (1903-1946) to the children's writer Kate McMullan, who published a young adult novel, Say Cheese, Medusa, as the third part of her Myth-O-Mania series in 2002. (7) Among academic books published in the past five years are Stephen R. Wilk's Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon and The Medusa Reader by Marjorie B. Garber and Nancy J. Vickers.

No figure in the world of fashion and design, however, has ever had a closer association with Medusa than Gianni Versace. His self-selected symbol is "now perhaps as twentieth-century an image as the Nike swoosh." (8) In this paper I shall weave together the threads concerning the significance of Medusa to Versace.

Versace was born on December 2, 1946 in Reggio di Calabria, in southern Italy. His father was a businessman, his mother a seamstress. From the very beginning, his world was filled with women and the creation of beauty through the beautiful garments that his mother made. Medusa appeared in Versace's world almost immediately, and accounts of his childhood (which differ) say that he had found either a mosaic of her near a beach in Calabria or a statue of her on family property. (9)

In 1972 Versace went north to Milan, and by 1978 he had prepared his first line of women's clothing and opened his first boutique. Over time his work, a dramatic melange of neoclassical and baroque styles, became filled with classical references. One famous example was his use of Medusa-headed safety pins to hold together the little black dress that Elizabeth Hurley wore in 1994 to a movie premiere in London. (10) These pins paid homage not only to punk style of the 1990s but also to the use and design of Roman fibulae.

Versace marked his creative association with Medusa by placing her face, drawn according to his own design, on his logo and on a wide variety of his products--from buttons, jewelry, and wallets to fabric, paperweights, and belt buckles. In 1992 he put Medusa on the face of his "La Meduse" watch, a clever and symbolic design by which the wearer could look into the stony face of time and see an immortal Medusa on her own mortal wrist. In 1993 Versace added a new collection of home-wares to the products already merchandised by the House of Versace; among these items was a line of fine porcelain called Medusa china, its central motif the head of his by now well-known Medusa (fig. …

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