Thierry Mugler’s campy “Birth of Venus” dress from Fall/Winter 1995 was made to celebrate the brand’s 20th anniversary and features the body-conscious design and theatrical flair that Mugler was known for.
About the Look
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of his couture house, Thierry Mugler unveiled his F/W 1995 runway show – an hour-long theatrical extravaganza of 300 looks. Held at the Cirque d’hiver, a legendary Parisian circus, the show featured performances from artists like James Brown, as well as the biggest supermodels of the time such as Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, and Linda Evangelista (Bhatia). The “Birth of Venus” dress, worn by Italian model Simonette Gianfelici (Fig. 1), is an homage to Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli’s 15th-century painting of the same name (Fig. 2).
Also referred to as the “Venus ensemble,” it is composed of two main parts: a blush-colored translucent body suit, and a dark navy velvet column skirt that wraps around the hips and flows upward into a clam shell shape. The bodysuit, worn over a corset or similar shapewear, is embroidered with clear paillettes and pearl beads to give it a shimmering appearance. The skirt is lined with a pink duchess satin, which is also made into opera-length gloves and a rose embellishment, pinned just beneath the right hip. Gianfelici is adorned in pearls at the waist, neck, and hair. In accordance with body-modification trends of the 1990s, an additional single pearl is placed at the navel, a cheeky nod to a belly button ring. The overall illusion is that of an open clam shell, the wearer of the garment standing in as the prized pearl.
About the context
Mugler was a provocateur who always designed with his vision of the future of fashion in mind. He was known for impeccable tailoring and the use of avant-garde techniques and materials (PVC, latex, chrome, etc.), as in his “Robot Woman,” which also included in the anniversary show (Fig. 3). Mugler’s craftsmanship was deeply rooted in his performance background, as Daniel James Cole and Nancy Deihl describe in The History of Modern Fashion (2015):
“Thierry Mugler had training in dance and experience in the corps de ballet of a regional company, a focus that informed his theatrical, body-conscious fashions… His aesthetic was dramatic, at times even campy. He was one of the first to advocate the strong-shouldered silhouette; by 1980 Mugler was already showing futuristic jumpsuits with sharp padded shoulders and cinched waists. Mugler’s work showed influence from the 1940s with details such as narrow skirts, swing-style coats, and peplums.” (356)
The fashion landscape of the 1990s was diverse: “a decade of extremes and contradictions, a mixture of new ideas and familiar names” (Cole & Deihl 377). The term luxury took on new meaning, with waning interest in the level of craftsmanship or material quality, and an increasing obsession with recognizable branding. Designers like Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, and Ralph Lauren were praised as top designers for their logos and minimalist aesthetic. American Vogue, the go-to fashion source for women in the US, underwent a massive revamp during this decade with Anna Wintour prioritizing celebrity covers and the use of “supermodels,” a new term that soon went global. For the 100th anniversary of American Vogue, their April 1992 cover (Fig. 4) featured leading supermodels of the time, several of whom walked in Mugler’s 1995 runway show.
The body was heavily emphasized during this decade, as the “underwear as outerwear” trend and a focus on body-conscious silhouettes increased (Shields). One of Mugler’s biggest inspirations was the shape of women’s bodies, as Dazed Magazine notes: “[at] the core of Mugler’s work was a desire to celebrate the female form” (Davidson). Transparent materials, corsets, bustiers, body-hugging slip dresses, and body-modification were trending throughout the 90s, as well as an overall body-con silhouette as also seen in a bustier and shorts set by Jean Paul Gaultier (Fig. 5). Tops began to shrink and low-waistline skirts were often long and narrow, emphasizing a small waist and long torso.
A less obvious way to participate in the body-con trend was described by Vogue as the ‘uptown aesthetic,’ which featured classic clean-cuts, minimalism, and the revival of Hollywood glamour through classic couture fabrics like satin and updated silhouettes (“Vogue‘s View”). For evening wear, slinky dresses resembling those of the 1930s (Fig. 6) were extremely popular and widely imitated, such as John Galliano’s bias-cut silk dresses (Fig. 7) and Calvin Klein’s metallic lace slip dresses (Betts). Designers like Donna Karan and Tom Ford (for Gucci) also featured long matte jersey dresses (Fig. 8).
Although most ready-to-wear gowns looked very different compared to Mugler’s “Birth of Venus” gown, it did adhere to mid-90s trends in its use of rich fabrics like satin and velvet, the columnar stature, body-emphasizing silhouettes and adornments, and the transparency of the body suit. Mugler was often overlooked due to the fact that he didn’t conform to these trends as literally as his peers did, but his unique vision ultimately has given his work a timeless allure.
Since its debut in 1995, Mugler’s “Birth of Venus” dress has been included in several fashion exhibitions, and also recently been seen on the red carpet. Artist Cardi B wore the dress, as well as two other looks from the Mugler archive, to the 2019 Grammy Awards (Fig. 9). She wore the ensemble in the same way it was styled on Gianfelici in 1995, with the addition of a blue rose affixed next to the original pink one (Maisey).
In 2019 the first exhibition solely dedicated to Mugler, “Thierry Mugler: Couturissime,” debuted at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) and then moved to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris (Garrigues). MMFA’s Director General and Chief Curator Nathalie Bondil said of Mugler:
“Metamorphoses, superheroines and cyborgs inhabit the work of this designer [Mugler] who perceived early on, and with considerable humor, the coming transhumanist revolutions… His sleek, elegant creatures, his dangerous seductresses, populate a world of glamour at the edges of reality.” (Braun)
The “Birth of Venus” dress was also featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s 2019 fashion exhibition “Camp: Notes on Fashion” (Fig. 10). This exhibition followed the notion of “camp” aesthetic from 17th-century France through modern fashion, and was based on the definition written by Susan Sontag in her 1964 essay, “Notes on Camp.” Sontag writes:
“[Camp] sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman’. To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater… What Camp taste responds to is instant character, a person being one, very intense thing.” (Camp)
Mugler’s designs often embodied Sontag’s definition of camp, perhaps due to his formative experiences in performance. Popular trends of the 1990s, as well as the varied aesthetics of subcultures, left little room for understanding of camp or Mugler’s vision at the time of his 1995 F/W show. The “Birth of Venus” dress, Mugler’s ode to women as his muse, however, is rightfully celebrated in the eyes of fashion today (Shardlow).
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- Maisey, Sarah. “The Hidden Message in Cardi B’s Amazing Grammys Dress: This Is the Year of Venus Rising.” The National, February 11, 2019. https://www.thenationalnews.com/lifestyle/fashion/the-hidden-message-in-cardi-b-s-amazing-grammys-dress-this-is-the-year-of-venus-rising-1.824378.
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