‘A Queen Within’ brings dazzling designer couture to St. Louis

| Television Editor

You might expect to find a collection of elaborate designer gowns at a place like the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art; after all, two of the New York museum’s most popular exhibitions of all time were its recent Alexander McQueen and punk couture costume exhibits. You probably wouldn’t expect to find runway pieces of the same caliber here in St. Louis, much less in a museum dedicated to a board game. The World Chess Hall of Fame is shattering those expectations with its newest exhibition, “A Queen Within: Adorned Archetypes, Fashion and Chess.”

The exhibit, which opened Oct. 19 and will be on display until April, explores the archetype of the queen through contemporary couture. It features one-of-a-kind gowns and accessories from a number of world-class designers, including Gucci, Gianfranco Ferre and McQueen.

As you walk into the first-floor gallery, you’re confronted with a gorgeous array of gowns, including an intricate McQueen coat embroidered in gold thread with the words of Edgar Allen Poe. These elegant pieces are meant to illustrate the “sage” persona of a queen. From there, the exhibit winds through eight more mini-collections that illustrate eight other “personas” of the queen archetype: the queen as a mother figure, magician, enchantress, explorer, ruler, Mother Earth, heroine and orphan. Each part of the exhibit is preceded by a placard that contextualizes the pieces on display and provides an example of a female ruler from history who embodied that persona.

London-based curator Sofia Hedman distinctly differentiates each distinct persona through the layout of the exhibition space. The exhibit becomes more and more fantastical as you progress through the two floors of galleries. Many of the gowns themselves are pretty zany, like Hussein Chalayan’s Lady Gaga-esque bubble dress and a Ryohei Kawanishi gown that basically looks like a pile of random junk. The gowns are also displayed in creative ways, often surrounded by whimsical scenery and over-the-top accessories. A large part of the second-floor gallery is devoted to a collection of mod dresses displayed alongside Charlie Le Mindu’s wacky wigs and headpieces. Another part of the gallery features gowns placed between fake hedges, evoking the image of a palatial garden. A few dresses are displayed on their own: one of the most standout pieces in the collection, a pink Viktor & Rolf gown with surrealist cutouts in the tulle skirt, is highlighted in this way at the end of the exhibition.

Even though “A Queen Within” is housed in the World Chess Hall of Fame, its connections to the game are pretty tenuous. The nine personas explored in the exhibit are meant to parallel the nine queens that a player can theoretically attain on the chessboard at once. Aside from some occasional chess imagery within the displays, though, the rest of the exhibition is entirely focused on fashion. Many of the gowns and accessories in the exhibit are drop-dead gorgeous; others are totally off-the-wall. All of them will capture your attention in ways that chess probably won’t.

“A Queen Within” is on display until April 18 at the World Chess Hall of Fame, located at 4652 Maryland Ave. in the Central West End.