The Visual Aura Of Stop the Virgens: Mood Boards Of Costume Designer Christian Joy
Costume designer Christiane Hultquist (aka Christian Joy) has been collaborating with Yeah Yeah Yeahs front woman Karen O for over a decade. As the mastermind behind Karen’s outlandish outfits and signature punk-meets-glitter-glam look, Joy has played a major role in shaping the visual aesthetic of the band over the years, maturing along with the group.
“When I started making clothes, I didn’t even know what I was doing, and that reflected the raw energy of the first EP,” recalls Joy. “After that, I was ready to push myself, and Karen was ready to push herself, too. I think it’s just a natural evolution more than anything else. I’m influenced by the music and she’s influenced by the costume. It’s very natural—let’s just keep trying to break some boundaries and move forward.”
As Karen’s constant collaborator, it was almost a given that Joy would be called on to design the costumes for the cast of Karen’s psycho-opera, Stop the Virgens, which debuted at St. Ann’s Warehouse this past October as part of The Creators Project: New York 2011 event. The dark, visually lush spectacle centered around a cycle of nine songs written by Karen some six years prior, arranged into a loose narrative arc that is steeped in mythology and fairy-tale lore. The plot was left deliberately vague and open to interpretation, with nothing but the music, stage design, and costumes to tell the tale.
“The costume, hair and makeup tell the story just as much as the music and choreography do,” Karen O told T magazine back in October. “The symbolic evolution of what happens to the characters is witnessed through their physical transformations.”
That can put a lot of pressure on a costume designer.
The cast included Karen, seven main Virgens, 33 chorus Virgens and two Sentinels. To develop the designs, Joy started with some visual inspiration from Karen and K.K. Barrett, who co-created and produced the show, but says that she was largely left to her own devices.
“K.K. actually gave me a lot of drawings of how he thought something would look on stage, which was really helpful. For instance, in the beginning, the whole idea was that the Virgens were covered lying around Karen, and in the drawing he had them covered in this long gown. ‘I’m not a gown-person,’ I thought. ‘I’m never going to make something that looks like that. But what could I come up with?’ I imagined Karen covered in these cone shapes, which came across as lungs, or trumpet flowers, or something more organic. On stage, she wasn’t really human but rather an organic shape. So I took K.K.’s example, these Virgens covered in fabric, and transformed it into what I thought would be powerful to see on stage,” explains Joy.
Interjecting her own perspective on the story into her designs, Joy came up with some wild ideas that included a giant monster claw, lotus flower eyes for the Virgens, a costume made of hair and lots and lots of latex.
Below, Christian Joy takes us through her mood boards and describes the thought process behind her designs.
Let’s Begin At the End: The idea here is that we’re not sure what has happened and whether or not we should trust Karen. The viewer is approaching her with caution, wondering who and what she is.
Get Em On the Run: Here Karen has been revealed and we learn that she is powerful and not to be trusted. The hair idea came from an idea that she is wearing the hair of the Virgens. She has somehow taken their power.
Duet: Karen steps back to have a moment of down time. Her cape is double sided so, once again, when she opens it for “Sugar” you realize you’ve been tricked again.
Sugar: I wanted this to be that real Karen O moment in both the Virgens and Karen herself. The idea behind the Virgens putting the dresses on came from watching Karen in her early days of performing, coming out in her costumes, completely disheveled with pieces on backwards. The moment is hectic but then you have Karen hypnotizing the Virgens with her cape. It’s meant to be a little bit of an acid trip moment.
Canada: The girls are put to work. I looked at a lot of photos of child laborers in the early 20th century, but ultimately, this is a pretty simple idea with the smocks.
Calm: I had this idea for Calm where her body is revealed and we realize that, beneath it all, she’s this kind of sad monster. She has a hump here that is decorated with lotus flowers, which is meant to symbolize her eventual rebirth. The hump also has hair inside of it, which the girls pull out and run away with. They’re picking her apart.
Blackbook: This is one of my favorite moments. The girls come out and they are wearing lotus glasses and these sort of Anime/cheerleader costumes. The idea for the lotus glasses came from an idea that they also pulled the lotus flowers from Karen’s hump and were now wearing them in defiance. The black bands are a sort of symbol of defiance as well.
The Nile: This costume really came together last minute and somehow worked. Karen is born again here and she is meant to be coming up out of the water. It’s also a play off 60s girl groups.
Thursday: Karen has become a priestess, something like the Sentinels. I love the way the lavender looks here. The Virgens now have almost cape-like attachments. I really love the way the caped sleeves ended up working. They looked so dramatic.
Sentinels: I wanted the Sentinels to look sort of scary and also like judges or priests. Also, when I researched Sentinels, a lot of pictures of owls popped up and I think inadvertently they ended up looking like them. The Sentinels costumes are one of my very favorites.
Mood boards courtesy of Christian Joy. Photographs courtesy of James Medcraft.