On ViewBrooklyn Museum
Thierry Mugler: Couturissime
November 18, 2022–May 7, 2023
When I entered the Brooklyn Museum, I thought I was interrupting a costume party. Men in silver suits walked alongside friends in mohawks and culottes. A gaggle of women in what seemed like the comic-sans version of skirt suits sped by. An elderly couple in head-to-toe Rick Owens stopped to look at the Cecily Brown painting in the lobby. One woman, walking past coat check, got her Balenciaga stole stuck under her heel. This crowd, I realized, was heading towards the exhibition Thierry Mugler: Couturissime, and everyone had dressed the part.
The Brooklyn Museum is leaning into fashion: along with the Mugler exhibit, they’re also showing an exhibition in remembrance of Virgil Abloh, the cult streetwear-turned-Louis Vuitton designer. Although one might hope this is a sign of textile arts getting their turn, it seems more like a grab for brand loyalists. I had never seen so many people in the Brooklyn Museum wearing heavily-branded designer duds.
The Mugler exhibit starts, confusingly, with a screaming woman on fire. This 3D projection is made by Michel Lemieux, an artist based in Montreal, where the exhibition originated. The screaming woman is Lady Macbeth, devoid of the giant golden cage gown Mugler designed for her in a 1980 Comédie-Française production. This work speaks strangely to the quote by Mugler that you pass on your way in, which reads, “In my work I’ve always tried to make people look stronger than they really are.” Who’s strong here?
The next room is fashion photography, mostly by Helmut Newton. It is in this room that we start to experience a strange split. You first see the clothes, bejeweled, bustled, solemnly standing on a platform. And then you see the clothes in the photographs, and they become animated. Mugler’s rise coincided with the rise of the supermodel, and in his pictures, you see how they turned the clothes into a living thing. I was shocked at the difference between a long-sleeved black lace dress on the mannequin, and a Helmut Newton photograph for a January 1993 issue of Vanity Fair, which showed Claudia Schiffer wearing it splayed on rocks. When Claudia wore the dress, it opened up: the dress splits at the leg, showing her entire bare thigh. A rip at the armpit becomes a battle wound sustained clawing her way onto the rock. Her leg raises, covering the sea with a screen of black lace.
I had this experience again and again. In the “Fembot” section of the exhibit, where a woman could be made over into a tire, a car, or the Tin Man, we encounter a metal and plexiglass full-body catsuit that was unveiled in a striptease in the Fall/Winter 1995–96 collection. A model started down the catwalk in a large hat and purple duchesse satin evening coat and slowly stripped down to her robot catsuit, a process that shows how thoroughly Mugler’s clothing was intertwined with its presentation. To strip the clothes of the runway show’s drama strips them of some very real power. Sequins, if they are not shimmering under lights, just look like stitched-on circles.
The exhibit’s fashion photography highlights the tension in Mugler’s designs, the space between a wailing Lady Macbeth and his quote on female empowerment. Sarah Moon’s blurred black-and-white photographs develop this tension further, showing a Mugler woman out of her element hiding under a hat, exposed in a forest. Her photograph Le Figaro (1996) isn’t a woman performing, but a woman at the edge of the grass, debating whether she should step further. Mugler women usually don’t debate; they wouldn’t be able to speak at length bound up in their corsets, and anyway, they already know what they want. Moon’s photograph shows us a rare moment when no one was performing.
Mugler also took up fashion photography in his own right, and to him, power often meant posing from a great height. His 1988 photo Chrysler Building, New York, shows a girl in a red skirt suit lying on the edge of the eponymous skyscraper’s roof, one gloved hand stretching out, her heels pointed towards the people walking on the street below. When Mugler said his clothes make a woman look stronger than she really is, did he mean the strength to kill herself? Although one wonders how this signals a powerful woman, there is no denying that his photographs are beautiful images. Mugler understood that there is nothing more irresistible to watch than a woman on the edge. He doesn’t seem to question why.
The last room of the exhibit, the “Metamorphosis” room, is by far the most successful in the show. Mugler’s most inventive designs are here: his “Les Insectes” collection, “La Chimère,” “Les Méduses.” Grinch-like gloves complete with bejeweled fake nails emerge from velvet suits. Long, curved feathers extend from a fringed jacket like tusks. I had never seen so many people in a museum show really grinning. It was almost disconcerting; the usual mood in a large exhibition—hushed, vaguely dutiful—had disappeared.
That ability to capture a mood and bottle it is really Mugler’s gift. The bejeweled corset will be impossible to breathe in, the dress that connects to your nipple rings will pull at them as you walk, and it might kill you to get the photograph you want. But the strength of the image, the character, was never supposed to be yours, anyway. The woman is a conduit for personality.
And that’s who Mugler designed for—personalities. It is no surprise that his famous devotees are single-word household names: Bowie, Iman, Naomi, Madonna, Cardi B, the Kardashians. His clothes are made for theater, for active display. A commemorative video Bowie made, showing the best of Mugler’s runway shows, made me grin, too. The runway shows felt so alive. You start to understand how masterful at wielding these designs the nineties supermodels were, and Lady Macbeth of the first room, drowning in her golden cage, starts to seem smaller and smaller. These women could pick up their golden cages and walk. Seeing a supermodel grip the handlebars of her motorcycle-esque corset and careen down the runway is very different from seeing the same corset on a mannequin with a hastily-assembled ombré wig. What’s the purpose of dressing a woman like a car if she can’t drive it home?