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Robin Givhan: Thom Browne Traps Women in Clothes

Designer Thom Browne prepared his audience for the virgin queens, zombie brides, and sacred supplicants in his madhouse of a spring fashion show by holding his guests hostage in a series of white padded rooms illuminated by single-filament lightbulbs flickering ominously. Headless papier-mâché bodies hung from the ceiling on S-hooks while the tinny plink-plink-plink of an out-of-tune piano played in a torturous loop.

In fairness, Browne didn't exactly tether guests to their seats. Indeed, as a 30-minute wait became a 50-minute one, at least two editors flew the coop. But Browne's curious and confounding environment compelled almost everyone to stay and see what would unfold. When at last the piano went silent, a woman’s high-pitched, hysterical laughter filled the room, followed by urgent shushing noises. The “madwoman in the attic” had to be silenced.

The first models appeared as ghostly apparitions smeared with white greasepaint, their legs covered in white latex stockings. Their limbs looked bloodless and fake and their bodies were camouflaged beneath an hourglass-shaped sculpture crafted out of lace, embroidery, ruffles, and pearls. After a slow promenade throughout the rooms, they took up position by the doorways — sentinels on watch.

Other models followed, wearing a collection dominated by extravagantly embellished, molded white jackets and dresses, skirts and blouses that called to mind wedding gowns, christening dresses, debutante gowns, and quinceañera finery — the pro forma costumes for various rites of passage in a woman’s life. All of those moments come with a host of rules and traditions that can be constricting and that historically set women on a well-worn path — pushing her into a trap, containing her. Browne’s collection therefore felt structured and confining. His stiff jackets, with their high collars and broad sleeves, made the models look as if they were wearing a prehistoric exoskeleton. The skirts, with their pleats and origami folds, exaggerated the hips to sideshow proportions. Even lace dresses that looked as though they might allow for easy movement were cocooned under a tight rubber tube.

Browne transformed a lace blouse into a straightjacket, elongating the sleeves and using them to pin the model’s arms across her torso. He laid the structure of the garments bare — leaving shoulder pads visible under translucent jackets, as if to unveil the truth behind the pretense. When the soundtrack shifted to mewling cats, a model rounded a corner pulling stuffed white cats on a leash — or, given the context, perhaps it was a noose.

If there was any confusion about the state of mind of these women, it was clarified with their cotton-candy hair ratted high toward the heavens. As the models somnambulated into the center of each room, they stopped and stared into the audience with an expression of nervous despair. Red lipstick was smeared across their faces, their eyes rimmed in dark, smudged liner.

The beautiful artistry and grandeur of the clothes made for a sad contradiction to the sorrowful anguish in the faces of the young women trapped in them. The models were the “madwomen” of literature, those heroines whom society declared hysterical, unfit, or damaged because of their willfulness, intelligence, or power. As such, they had to be controlled, imprisoned, or hidden. The feminist literary critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar famously identified this conceit in their 1979 book, The Madwoman in the Attic. In it, they detailed and analyzed the ways in which women writers such as Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Mary Shelley used a series of metaphors — from locked closets to dungeons — as a way of underscoring their social limitations and those of other women.

Browne is not a feminist scholar nor an academic of any sort, but his fashion told a lucid and thoughtful story about constraints, social expectations, and cultural prejudices. His vocabulary referenced traditional feminine wardrobes: cumbersome evening gowns, hobbling skirts, body-shaping underpinnings, and fussy embellishments. At times the presentation veered toward haunted-house kitsch. After all, it’s hard to put the wail of frightened kittens on a soundtrack and not have the audience start looking for the bowl of peeled grapes masquerading as eyeballs.

Still, Browne’s intricate, high-minded gestures served as an invigorating reminder that fashion has the potential to tell stories and raise fundamental questions about how we live our lives. One only wished that Browne had allowed his audience to see more clearly, if only for a moment, something fundamental to a fashion show: What he proposes women wear.

After all, the great women writers not only challenged their readers with lofty intellectual considerations, they also rewarded them with a great tale.

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