Thierry Mugler: Couturissime is a traveling exhibition of Mugler’s groundbreaking couture work (1977 to 2014). The exhibition is designed and curated by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA https://www.mbam.qc.ca/en/) and will be shown in several museums around the world. Currently the exhibition can be seen in the Kunsthal, Rotterdam.

Now it must be said that the immediate vicinity of the museum is interesting as well. The municipality of Rotterdam is developing a museumpark that hosts six (!) museums among which the natural history museum and the famous Boijmans van Beuningen. Their new depot is a sure eye-catcher for miles around if it weren’t for the many high-rise buildings that have appeared after the bombing of the city in the Second World War. 

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As for the exhibition itself; there is not much of a story or overarching narrative but rather a collection of Muglers work, divided in a couple of categories. The thing is, even being widely accepted as a fashion designer (and perfumer,  photographer, director, etc. etc.) Mugler is, in my eyes, definitely a costume maker. Mugler makes costumes and this exhibition is a straight forward celebration of costume.

It can be nicely juxtaposed with an exhibition from the Centre national du costume de scéne (www.cncs.fr) in Moulins, France. In 2017 there was an exhibition called ‘Modes! À la ville, à la scene’ in which the curators explore the relationship between fashion and costume in 18th, 19th and 20th century. Fashion designers and costumers often looked to the stage for inspiration, the focus of which later shifted to the silver screen (Hollywood). Actresses played a key role in demanding fashionable costumes from the costume artists. For more information and pictures visit Google Arts & Culture. I do recommend a visit to the CNCS if you’re ever near. Just don’t count on much information in English.

Room 12: couturiers-costumiers : 1950–2000.
See Muglers’ dress for MacBeth (1985) in the middle. Source
Salle 13 de l’exposition “Modes ! À la ville, à la scène” Source

In any case, the last room of the exhibition was a staged protest of costume designers, demanding the same respect and prestige as their colleagues working in couture. The public adores major design houses like Chanel, Dior, but hardly anyone can name one costume designer even though we admire their creations on a regular basis (think of the popular series Game of Thrones – with outstanding costume work by Michele Clapton.) Mugler has of course been commissioned to make costumes for plays – the exhibition in Rotterdam actually opens with his Queen Elizabeth dress.

Stage costumes and city outfits do not serve the same purposes. On stage, costumes have a threefold function. They underline specificities, exemplify roles and blend within the atmosphere of the play. In town, outfits dress their owners with or without ostentation and reveal their social status. This exhibition does not intend to compare the history of those two means of expression throughout three centuries, but to highlight the moments when they interlock, engendering innovations.

Catherine JOIN-DIETERLE, curator of the exhibition ‘Modes!’

Back to the Kunsthal. What I like most about Mugler’s work is 1) the way he power-dresses women and 2) his love for silhouette and corsetry. Of course the 1980s were the decade of the power suit for women, but Mugler took this concept to the next level, building a ‘total look’. Borrowing from fetisj and other sub cultures he builds the perfect body. And in doing that he does not abstain from more traditionally masculine elements of dress. A reviewer from the New York Times (1994) explains it well:

[…] when you see these women you’ve dressed on the runway being so forthright about their sexuality, who do you think is in control? […] It’s so extreme that these women aren’t sex objects, they’re sex subjects. 

Linda Nochlin (feminist art historian and critic) (source)

What does it mean to be a sex subject? In any case, it is always a balancing act: can a powerful woman be sexy, too? Or is power defined by masculinity? Does sex appeal detract from that power? Does it do so in men?

While the exhibition does not necessarily address these questions, I do recommend it to anyone who loves fashion or costume. Or both because we now know it doesn’t differ all that much. You can see it till march 8th. After that it travels to München. See www.kunsthalle-muc.de.

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