Naked lightbulbs flickered against the backdrop of a padded cell as a monotonously plinking xylophone soundtracked an interminable delay that pushed the assembled throng to the brink of madness. Then came the show itself, a handful of wayward and difficult associations that toyed with insanity: Bette Davis' Baby Jane; Heath Ledger's Joker; the Asylum story arc of American Horror Story; noir goddess Gloria Grahame disfigured by Lee Marvin in The Big Heat; renegade star Frances Farmer torn apart by her brutal and involuntary electroshock therapy; a society lady institutionalized for strangling the family pets with her string of pearls; papier-mâché keeping lunatic fingers busy. Let no one say that Thom Browne makes things easy for his audience.
And yet this was hardly McQueen's profoundly disturbing glass cage. Instead, it was a bare smirk away from cartoon. Browne has mastered a peculiar species of Broadway couture. The workmanship is dazzling but numbing in its obsessive detail. The fabrics are the stuff of fairy tales. You crave a show tune to bring it all to vibrant life, especially when Browne is almost Warholian in his steadfast refusal to impart the weight of metaphor—let alone intimately personal subtext—to presentations that are so heavily weighted with weirdness. An Elizabethan silhouette? Well, that really speaks to the here and now. But Browne would at least admit Judi Dench as Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love might have had something to do with his fascination with ruffs, elaborate shoulders, leg-of-mutton sleeves, funnels, whorls, and sculpted plissés of fabric. (These were located, one might add, above erogenous zones, meaning it was not just weird but sexual—sort of.) It is, after all, manipulation of form that is Browne's design signature.
Here, it was sharpest in the slashed latex sheathes that confined extravagant collages of zibeline and lace and silk. How the designer could deny the subtext in that particularly graphic image defies comprehension. But there was another question that demanded more immediate resolution. If it's an asylum cliché that men imagine themselves as Napoleon, do women see themselves as Elizabeth I?