Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture Contemplates Feminine Symbology


Fashion has long taught us about the great world around us, reflecting cultural values, gender fluidity, a moment’s consciousness, and so much more. While the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Costume Institute show has long discussed fashion’s ability to transcend retail significance, a a newly opened show from St. Louis arts organization Barrett Barrera Projects is also moving the conversation along. “A Queen Within: Adorned Archetypes,” is now on view at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture until September 2.

“For us, it’s not necessarily about ‘this has to be a fashion exhibition,’ but much more about how can these feminine archetypes—and I use feminine purposely rather than female—be articulated through objects that are innovative?” explains Barrett Barrera Projects Vice President Kelly Peck in a panel discussion. In “A Queen Within,” those innovative objects are not just clothing, but video, sculpture, photography, and textile design. Even so, the organization sees everything equally. “We don’t see in silos of fashion or art or performance,” Peck said. “It’s all one in the same and we don’t like to delineate between disciplines.”

The exhibition was originally developed as a project related to the game of chess, in which the queen is the most powerful, unpredictable piece. While there are six archetypes on view in the final showing, there were once nine because, playing strategically, one can develop as many as nine queens. Seeking a more global approach to “A Queen Within” later on, however, exhibition curators Sofia Hedman and Serge Martynov sought out an international coterie of writers and thinkers to comment on the symbolism and creation of these archetypes. In the process, the exhibition even employed Jungian psychoanalyst Mary Wells Barron to weigh in. “When we are struck with awe, overcome by beauty, or moved to tears, we are in the presence of an archetype, which speaks more than words through the symbolic language of images,” Barron is quoted at the beginning of the exhibition. “Archetypes are what give myth and fairy tales their timeless power and fascination.”

The six archetypes of femininity “A Queen Within” explores are the Sage, the Enchantress, the Heroine, the Explorer, the Thespian, and Mother Earth, all through contemporary fashion, art, literature, and cultural history. The Sage is regarded for her wisdom and analytical nature. The Enchantress is the femme fatale, displayed in the exhibition through a wall of circular windows as if seducing the viewer into voyeurism. The Heroine is the tenacious warrior. The Explorer, a rebellious adventurer, challenges the status quo. The Thespian is an imaginative, dramatic entertainer, and Mother Earth is the great teacher and protector. Each of these types are represented in the exhibition by diverse cultural symbols from the likes of Norse, Igbo, Chinese, Filipino, European mythologies and histories, among many others. Each archetype has their own distinct section of the exhibition, but “A Queen Within” is by no means stagnant, regularly growing and changing at the discretion of the curators. Some items of clothing, like humans themselves, can also cross archetypal boundaries.

Having previously toured internationally and domestically, “A Queen Within” includes work from both established designers, like Alexander McQueen (Barrett Barrera has one of the largest private McQueen collections in the world), and emerging artists, like Rio Uribe of Gypsy Sport. Also in appearance, to name a few, are pieces from Comme des Garçons and Central Saint Martins grad Serena Gili; photography by David LaChapelle and Senegalese artist Omar Victor Diop; images of wigs designed by Joanne Petit-Frère, Solange’s wig designer; videos from Chromat and art duo Arvida Byström and Maja Malou Lyse; fashion sculpture by artist Hideki Seo, previously Azzedine Alaïa’s first assistant. They address body positivity, gender nonconformity, environmental awareness, social justice, and more. These are avenues fashion is not frequently credited with addressing–rather, often the opposite is true.

Being inches from the couture and experimental fashion (and even the ready-to-wear) on view within the exhibition is a treat, especially since so much of it is not just “pretty,” but offers progressive ideas of what fashion can be and do. It is a memorial: a black McQueen cocktail dress from the designer’s Spring/Summer 2008 collection La Dame Bleue reveals in sequins a portrait of fashion editor Isabella Blow before her passing as the viewer shifts from left to right. It is an aid: a button-down shirt secured by magnets by Tommy Hilfiger addresses disability, allowing for swift closure if dexterity is an issue. It is scientific: Iris van Herpen’s technologically-informed Cymatic dress, from her 2016 haute couture collection Seijaku, was inspired by cymatics, which create patterns of varying visibility and complexity depending on sound frequency. It addresses sustainability: a red ensemble crafted in a single piece of cloth from Issey Miyake & Dai Fujiwara’s Spring/Summer 1999 collection was one of the first to explore the prospects of “zero-waste” garment making.

“The distinction or the line of, ‘is this fashion or is this art,’ is not really interesting to me,” says designer Maja Gunn, who has a sculpture in the show.. “It’s fruitful to think that it does not have to be one thing only.” It’s true, the conversation of “is fashion art?” is a tired one, whose institutions have questioned for eons. Luckily, “A Queen Within” sidesteps this conversation and instead offers up new questions, unpacking what we know about femininity, fashion, and the possibilities each hold.

“A Queen Within: Adorned Archetypes,” is on view at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture from now until September 2, 2019.


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