The word “queen” is often associated with ideas of wealth, benevolence, and traditional Eurocentric feminine beauty. From frilly dresses and crowns and horse-drawn carriages, the “pretty, pretty princess” vibe has long dominated the landscape of female childhood. And while all of that fits in somewhere along the spectrum of how we perceive a queen, the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) recently opened A Queen Within: Adorned Archetypes, an exhibition that presents a layered look at what it means to be feminine in today’s politically driven society.
Debuted in 2013 at St. Louis’s World Chess Hall of Fame museum, and curated and designed by Sofia Hedman and Serge Martynov (Hedman was the archivist for The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2011 exhibit, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty), A Queen Within explodes the traditionally strict notions of what it means to be female and exploring fashion as the ultimate form of self-expression. After viewing the show, which is a delicious mix of whimsy, strength, and drool-worthy fashion (oh, the McQueens!), we chatted with Hedman about how the exhibition fits in with today’s gender politics, ideas of beauty, and how fashion is so much more than just clothes.
Queen is such a loaded word—culturally, socially, politically, and religiously—what was the impetus and inspiration for this exhibition?
The word is in a constant change of meaning. Even today, it has very different connotations in different parts of the world. This is a traveling exhibition and was first shown at the World Chess Hall of Fame museum in St. Louis. At MoPOP we are exploring six archetypes: the Thespian, Mother Earth, Explorer, Sage, Enchantress, and Heroine. The themes are derived from recurring motifs in myths and fairy tales of world literature. The story of each feminine archetype—its powers, its weaknesses, and its significance—is articulated in A Queen Within through pioneering fashion, photography, and artwork.
Jungian psychoanalyst Mary Wells Barron says, “An archetype manifests through image and emotion. 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. Archetypes are what give myth and fairy tales their timeless power and fascination.”
This exhibition explores some of the symbols and themes that contemporary fashion designers use to illustrate and celebrate different kinds of femininity. We are exhibiting work from the last 20 years by very well known designers such as Alexander McQueen, Comme des Garçons, Gucci, Prada, and Iris van Herpen, but also new emerging designers.
The boundaries between traditionally accepted genders are so fluid now—how does this exhibit contend with that?
The exhibition embraces all kinds of femininity and features designers who indulge in everything from very traditional feminine symbols to very male attributes. The idea is to celebrate and value both the very feminine and the very masculine.
We are also exhibiting designers who are challenging the traditional gender codes and pushing today’s boundaries when it comes to gender identity. Chromat always includes transgender models in its work, and designers like Gypsy Sport, Rich Mnisi, Selam Fessahaye, and Maja Gunn all push for a progression.
Many of these designers throw traditional ideas in the air and let them come down in new constellations. The idea is that when walking out of the exhibition, people will feel a bit happier in what they are and freer when choosing what to wear every day.
The idea of “queen” has long been couched in the ideals of feminine beauty (the Disney-ification of what it means to be a princess comes to mind), and yet there are elements in the show that show bodies as distorted—why is this representation important?
We all want to be seen and represented in advertising, online, and in museums. New technologies and social media platforms such as Instagram have amplified this need. We are moving towards an aesthetic eye where traditional perfection is not as interesting as finding beauty in real, everyday life or new alternative worlds. For the show, we brought in bigger-sized mannequins. This turned out to be quite challenging as samples still often come in smaller sizes, but things are changing.
Earlier fashion was incredibly Eurocentric and homogenous and the high-fashion world has quite an old tradition of selling clothes through size zero models and mannequins, which has driven many to develop eating disorders. However, the fashion world is changing fundamentally not only because of the climate crisis but also because of the awareness of ethical production and diverse representation. Although it moves very slowly, we are at the beginning of a new era of fashion. Body positivity is growing, and high-end mannequin producers are making bigger mannequins based on more realistic proportions.
We live in a time where women still have a long way to go in terms of gender parity. Some might look at A Queen Within and say, “so what, it’s just clothes, how will that ever help,” and yet so many of these designers are so radical and groundbreaking. How can fashion be political?
Fashion is always political. Fashion, perhaps more than any other art form, is a very good indicator of what is happening in society. Fashion is incredibly fast to pick up movements. It is a cultural mirror, perhaps much more interdisciplinary than any other art form.
Although you might say that you do not care about clothes, you are making a statement every morning when you dress yourself. Perhaps more than ever, we dress to belong to certain communities, which have certain values.
Six years ago, the storytelling in the fashion industry tended to be through creating characters, theatrically themed collections, etc. Back then, it was much more common for experimental designers to create fashion for archetypes such as the Enchantress or Heroine. Today, experimental designers appear to create fashion for the Explorer, who is an independent-minded pioneer and rebel. She is needed for growth and progress in society. And many also create fashion for the Mother Earth archetypes which is the altruistic parent and protector. Many of the designers we chose are working towards sustainable and ethical production.
Many of the pieces in this show toe the line between design and art… can you speak to this? Is there importance in the distinction?
For us, fashion can definitely be art, but not all fashion is. Fashion needs its own terminology to drive the discussion further. There has always been a spectrum, where on one side fashion is driven by commercial interests and on the other side fashion is driven by concepts and expression.
We present a lot of very interesting ideas such as Cutecircuit’s Soundshirt which allows a deaf person to feel music on their skin and experience a live symphonic concert for the first time. Or Studio Roosegaarde’s Smog ring. During a trip in China, Roosegaarde came up with the idea “to build the largest smog vacuum cleaner in the world, which sucks up polluted air from the sky, cleans it, and then releases clean air.” Roosegaarde argues that “waste should not exist” and developed a way to turn smog collected from the Smog Free Tower into cubes that adorn rings and cufflinks.
What do you hope people take away from the exhibition?
For us, reading about what defines the different archetypes had a very soothing effect. We hope the exhibition helps people understand themselves, as well as others around them, better, and that viewers can come to love and see the beauty and function of different kinds of femininity. We hope that the visitors will have a moment to escape and absorb the many progressive ideas that question the status quo, and that the exhibition will inspire people to come up with more great ideas and work towards a better, kinder future.
A Queen Within: Adorned Archetypes, on view now through September 2; mopop.org