FASHION ARTS. A Queen Within

COLLECTIBLES. Barbara Berger

MASTER CLASS. Making Earwires

BEAD ARTS. Floral Journey

NATIVE ARTS. Heard Museum



KISS ME headdress by Charlie Le Mindu, 2011. Photograph by Vernie Yeung.

Fashion Arts


A Queen Within



Strains of mysterious music resonating in the half-lit galleries at the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis, Missouri are the visitor’s first clues that the exhibition showing through April 18, 2014, “A Queen Within,” is not about the physical features of a playing piece and their influence on fashion design nor even about drawing inspiration for creativity from the game of chess in a broader sense. In the context of the exhibition the queen appears as a symbol of multiple personalities in a dream realm to which chess is only a foil: a fleeting backdrop of logic and rules against which imagination operates like an erratic outlier brought suddenly on stage. It would be difficult to picture many of the exhibition’s fantastic dresses in the mundane walks of the everyday world, but in the space beyond the looking glass­—a space in which the Red Queen and the White Queen conjure in their convoluted utterings the strange associate powers of the unconscious—extremes of the imagination are right at home.

Designer Alexander McQueen’s It’s Only A Game collection, which debuted in 2005 with models confronting one another on a colossal illuminated chessboard, sparked the idea of “A Queen Within,” but fashion curator Sofia Hedman soon expanded the theme dramatically outward from this nucleus. Reflecting on the queen as an archetypal symbol (in the Jungian sense as a representation of primal ideas in the collective unconscious), she divided the exhibition thematically into nine personas with which the queen has been associated in history or fairytales: sage, mother, enchantress, magician, explorer, ruler, heroine, Mother Earth, and Thespian. These categories defined the parameters for the selection of designs. Consequently, such eye-catchers as Hussein Chalayan’s Bubble Dress—composed of scores of clear plastic spheres attached to a semi-transparent ribbon winding its way over a mannequin that is decidedly less detailed than an actual human body—have no obvious visual connections to queens (of the chessboard variety or otherwise).

Only the most pedantic of visitors will care, however, since the exhibition is a tightly packed spectacle that blends the effects of theater, funhouse, wax museum, and haunted house to showcase some of the most extravagant and uniquely inspired wearable art imaginable. The work of McQueen dominates the exhibition but there are also designs by nearly thirty others, among them Gucci, Maiko Takeda, Pam Hogg, Minju Kim, Gianfranco Ferré, Shaun Leane and Daphne Guiness, Anrealage, Josefin Arnell, Anne Deniau, and Iris Schieferstein. The mise-en-scène presentation of the designs is in some cases almost enough (though not quite) to compete with and even triumph over the clothing, so that the exhibition could be appropriately described as a series of installations/environments in which stunningly clad figures—some headless, some merely featureless—stand frozen or seem to glide through worlds of two-dimensional planes, pink-hedged gardens, or glittering reflections as the lilting sounds of chirping birds and the mellow timbre of flutes waft their way through the galleries.

The first room specifically recalls McQueen’s It’s Only A Game. Here, white and brown squares on the floor and walls, with which plinths of varying heights are integrated, invoke the chessboard but also create an excuse for grouping dresses tightly together in a relatively small space. Each stands upon its own square. The first to be encountered is a dazzler, a McQueen bell-shaped dress encrusted with crystals that suggest scales of armor as much as jewels. McQueen famously asserted that men should feel apprehensive about approaching women dressed in his designs, and in this context rough quartz seems adequate to the task without spilling over into the obvious. Among other more overtly menacing designs is Iris Van Herpen’s Snake Dress, in which a black tangle of reticulated coils creates a Medusa body, and Charlie Le Mindu’s humorous but equally disconcerting Kiss Me, a headdress that gives the appearance of a blonde coiffure in the shape of an enormous pair of collagen-injected lips.

Berlin Syndrome headdress by Charlie Le Mindu, 2011. Courtesy of Charlie Le Mindu Haute Coiffure. Photographs by Serge Martynov.

Humor, blended oddly with tenderness, characterizes Bea Szenfeld’s Very Ape, a large albino paper gorilla that hangs amorously from the wearer’s neck like a plush animal won in a carnival dart game. Another design by Szenfeld, Bi Polar Bear, is reminiscent of the painted boards with cutout-holes through which children (and adults who are children at heart) show their faces for humorous picture taking at zoos and county fairs. Harlequin, the witty servant from the eighteenth-century Italian Comedia dell’arte, makes a slightly altered appearance in a Hideko Seo design that also references the medieval jesters, or court fools, who, due to their ostensibly harmless prattle, were given the queen’s ear with impunity.

Some of the most memorable designs on display in “A Queen Within” are over-the-top by anyone’s standards. A dress from Writtenafterwards’ The #07 Seven Gods—Clothes from Chaos Jurozin sweeps a colossal peacock tail of wicker fans upward and outward from a triangular cape adorned with dolls, dresses, flowers, and plastic vegetables, isolating the wearer’s face at the center of the maelstrom like a tiny living island. Perhaps the most mesmerizing design, and one that summarizes the exhibition well enough to grace the cover of the sumptuous catalog accompanying it, is surprisingly simple: Viktor & Rolf’s tulle dress cut through with holes like a Swiss cheese. Displayed on a mirror-headed mannequin in a room filled with convex mirrors that is viewable only through circular holes cut in an enclosing wall, the dress regally epitomizes the dreamlike spectacle staged by “A Queen Within.”






Glen R. Brown
Glen R. Brown is a Professor of Art History and Associate Head of the Art Department at Kansas State University. His review of “The Queen Within” at the World Chess Hall of Fame was, we suspect, his first foray into fashion coverage, and we found this to be a natural fit among his many gifts as a writer. Brown received his graduate degrees at The State University of New York, Stony Brook (M.A. in Art Criticism), and M.A. and Ph.D. in Art History at Stanford University. His publications have appeared in more than thirty different journals. Brown is also well known as a specialist in the field of ceramics. Ornament is looking forward to his upcoming article on jeweler Kiff Slemmons.



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