In the 1980s, the Comédie Française gave the French fashion designer Thierry Mugler the largest costume budget in the company’s history and the task of dressing Macbeth and his retinue. Mr. Mugler, a multidisciplinary artist whose work has included fashion videos and photography as well as stage productions, was in those years France’s most provocative couturier and his metal-studded costumes for the 1985 production of Macbeth did not disappoint. They included leather football armour for the men, massive farthingales for the women and, for the witches, oversized black ruffs that sat on their shoulders like a yoke. One satin gown for Lady Macbeth weighed 34 kilograms and, in the end, actor Catherine Ferran did not wear it because it took 100 seconds to don and she only had 45 seconds for her costume change.
If you were a stage manager or a theatre’s comptroller, you might feel that counted as a significant failure on the part of a costume designer, but the anecdote is related with some pride in Couturissime, a new exhibition of Mr. Mugler’s work at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Extravagance was always Mr. Mugler’s watchword.
When that extravagance was put to the service of a drama such as Macbeth, the results are as riveting as all those metal studs. The opening room in this six-part exhibition curated by Thierry-Maxime Loriot features a small but compelling collection of the Comédie Française costumes and includes a tricky video projection directed by Michel Lemieux and inspired by the original stage production. It shows Lady Macbeth encased in a gold court dress as wide as a shed which is then engulfed in flames and burns away to expose the guilt-stricken queen in her thin shift.
Yet when these dramatic instincts are applied to dressing contemporary women, Mr. Mugler – and this exhibition – move into difficult territory. The second room is filled with Mr. Mugler’s fashion designs from the 1980s, and there is little here to make you miss the decade of excess. Plunging bodices, padded shoulders, sequined corselets, trailing tail feathers – pinned onto immobile mannequins in a museum setting, the clothes look garish and dated. As for the metallic merry widow disguised as a motorcycle with handlebars and rear-view mirrors, one wonders if the cowgirl was to ride her bike or if some other rider was going to mount her? The position of the handles is ambiguous.
Yes, fashion is art: France rather insists on it and in the 1980s, Mr. Mugler was the designer who recaptured Paris’ lead from New York and London. (He flamed out in the 2000s and turned permanently from couturier collections to costume design, starting with his work on the Cirque du Soleil’s Zumanity in 2003.) Mr. Mugler, who transformed the runway show into a staged spectacle, is credited as one of the first designers to use drag queens as models, and this exhibition includes a striking Kelly green suit made for the androgynous David Bowie. Mr. Mugler did also design some men’s clothing but the green outfit is one of only two men’s suits in the entire show. So, fashion’s problem as art is that it is one almost exclusively displayed on women’s bodies. It needs to acknowledge that reality, get some cultural theory and seriously address the way it depicts its customers.
Critics have called Mr. Mugler’s work sexist in the past, but as Mr. Loriot invites it into the museum, a place not only of public entertainment but also of scholarly research, his exhibition mainly waves these criticisms aside. The large and lush catalogue includes an essay by Lou Stoppard that evaluates the complaints in their 1980s context, and it reproduces a dialogue between Mr. Mugler and feminist critic Linda Nochlin conducted by The New York Times Magazine in 1994. They discussed the sexual power of the runway models in Mr. Mugler’s shows, agreeing they were subjects rather than objects, which does rather point to the problem of taking these highly sexualized outfits and sticking them on inanimate mannequins.
Did the 1980s power suits truly empower women? The museum visitor will be none the wiser.
The 1980s room is followed by tasteful black-and-white displays of sleek day suits and slim evening gowns from the 1990s, but even in these more restrained designs, the mushroom-cap hats seem intent on hiding the women beneath them. Then, with tapering feathers, curtained veils and goggle-eyed sunglasses, Mr. Mugler begins to disguise women as bugs. And, in the late 1990s, he invents the fembot, represented here with silver body suits, neck braces and breast plates of transparent plastic, and metallic helmets. The designer often speaks about celebrating humanity, but costuming women as anonymous machines or exotic insects would seem to do the reverse, denying them at the very least their individuality, if not also their agency.
In a news conference at the exhibition’s opening, Mr. Mugler talked about the need for a sense of humour in fashion, a sentiment with which anyone bored by the pouting and posing of the runway model might sympathize. He gave an example of the occasion when he asked a model with a pierced nipple if she would consider piercing the second one; when she agreed, he then dressed her a diaphanous black gown that showed her nipples. He finished the ensemble with pearls and a classic coif and send her out on to the catwalk to a classical score, playing with the gap between her hard-edge piercings and the traditional evening dress.
Good story, but the gown itself is included in the show, and its fabric actually dangles from the pierced nipples, hinting at real pain if it got caught or tugged. Yes, there are some very elegant outfits in this show and some delightful bits of whimsy, including a round fuzzy purse that looks like a Muppet, a clever dress in a fabric of blue waves that wash across the wearer’s body and a black rubber suit with a peplum shaped like a car tire. Those are designs that raise an easy smile, but too often Mr. Mugler’s jokes seem to be told at women’s expense.
Thierry Mugler: Couturissime continues to Sept. 8 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.