Remembering Alexander McQueen: Allegory

This article was first written in September 2015

The multi-faceted and heterogeneous nature of Alexander McQueen’s collections, as discussed in my essay on McQueen and the ‘abyss’, leaves it next to impossible to not say more about the Savage Beauty retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum. McQueen’s clothes in both their physical and metaphysical composition, I argued, see them occupy an abyssal limit. As a result, what we are able to say about McQueen’s collections cannot simply end there. There are so many more things that can be argued and posited about his clothes, intertwined with what they present, represent and how they exist in a world created for them and by them. For the purpose of this essay, I want to suggest that McQueen’s work is greatly involved with death, history and, ultimately, allegory.

One aspect of McQueen’s work that I find particularly intriguing is the visceral historicity of his clothes. He used images of Hieronymus Bosch’s 14th century triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights to form the background of dresses in his last collection; he used silhouettes and tailoring from the Victorian period; and, perhaps most famously, used fiery red tartan in Highland Rape and The Widows of Culloden, his 1995 and 2006 shows inspired by the eradication and cultural smudging of Gaelic and Celtic life in Scotland. These latter two collections were very personal elegies to a culture that has almost entirely diminished as a result of English colonialism, and incorporated fragments of tweed, tulle and antique lace with the tartan to help convey this semblance of trampled upon Scottish identity. Seeing these clothes on show at the V&A, clothes which project and embody history almost as a physical presence, helps to throw a fascinating light on the idea of the retrospective itself. We remember Alexander McQueen by looking at his clothes, which in turn are fragments and objects that remember and bear witness to the past.  As previously mentioned, Scottish history was a key concern in his collections, but so was McQueen’s multiple collection tributes to Isabella Blow. Blow was a renowned fashion editor who was Phillip Treacey’s muse and is credited with having ‘discovered’ Alexander McQueen, who took her own life just three years before McQueen’s own suicide.  Many of his most famous collections, including Dante and The Widows of Culloden were personally dedicated to her and remembered her very personal influence on his life and art. As a result, we can see that the retrospective creates a chain of history and layers of remembrance which the clothes are an active part of, if not absolutely integral to.

Widows-of-Culloden

This undoes the idea that clothes are merely passive symbols that reflect culture like a mirror, or simply transcend the drudgery of everyday life in a fluffy artistic cloud. Marilyn J. Horn and Lois M. Gurel argue that fashion has ‘a silent language communicated through the use of visual or nonverbal symbols’.[1] Whilst their case is very convincing, that clothes and fashion form an arbitrary system of signs and signifiers, I would argue that clothes have a much more complex social relationship with people than by simply manifesting as symbols. Clothes certainly do help to ‘fashion’ the world we live in through their colours, silhouettes and materials, and because the only way in which we discuss clothing is through language. They are, however, also borne from language, history and experience which the concept of ‘symbolism’ simplifies and renders impotent.

Walter Benjamin sees the sentimental application of and the Romantic idea behind symbolism as tyrannical and ‘illegitimate […] destructive extravagance’ partly because it ‘fails to do justice to content in formal analysis and to form in the aesthetics of content’.[2] He argues that whilst insisting upon the unity of form and content, symbolism does not allow for a dialectical analytic approach and, therefore, neither form nor content are rigorously interrogated. Imposing the idea of ‘clothes-as-symbols’ onto fashion collections, and for my own purposes, upon Alexander McQueen’s collections, embodies the tyranny that Benjamin rejects. This is because by privileging the idea that the clothes we read and interpret are purely symbolic, we overlook the power structures in place that facilitated the clothes’ production and the way in which we receive them. Instead, I would approach McQueen’s collections as allegory because, as Benjamin argues:

[…] in allegory, the observer is confronted with the facies hippocratica of history as a petrified, primordial landscape. Everything about history that, from the very beginning, has been untimely, sorrowful, unsuccessful, is expressed in a face- or rather a death’s head […] it significantly gives rise not only to the question of human existence, but also the biographical historicity of the individual.[3]

He suggests that symbolism idealises destruction, which can be seen in the way in which history is silenced and becomes a void when the idea of symbolism is arbitrarily imposed on language and literature, essentially saying that one thing is actually another and not conveying its own story or history. There is no potential for digression or for the multiplicity of ideas when such a dead weight is imposed on literature and, for my purpose, clothing. Allegory, on the other hand, gives us an insight into history’s fragmented state wrought with failure and sadness, and the individual’s existence within it and in relation to it, ultimately bringing us into contact with our own sense of mortality.

Through McQueen’s collections Highland Rape and The Widows of Culloden with the ruined, hybrid compositions of tartan, lace and tulle, we are confronted with the death and destruction that were met by the historical peoples of Scotland. [4] More specifically, McQueen focuses on the experience of women, with his explicit reference to sexual violence and with the term ‘widows’ used to convey the heavy burden associated with womanhood, battle-loss and mourning. Importantly, this confrontation with violence and destruction presented in the clothing perhaps speaks for the continued death and destruction we experience in our own times. We are given a much more comprehensive and disturbing study in historical failure through fragmented form which expresses a fractured, mournful past instead of privileging an empty aesthetic idea. To emphasise this, McQueen, in Widows of Culloden, had his models wearing antlers, feathers and other animalistic paraphernalia in their hair and on their heads in addition to lace, tulle and tartan. These simultaneously detract from the historical argument being presented but also open up history to other perspectives, corporealities and existences. Allegory, although heavily involved with death and destruction ironically helps to expand our understanding of historical experience that cannot just be limited to human suffering, but giving light to the suffering of animals and the natural world.

History cannot be pinned down. It is fluid, interchangeable and slippery, which is what makes remembrance such a difficult and perhaps even a futile task. Thinking of art as allegory, however, opens up our awareness of history and means we never fall into the trap that we live in a world that is fixed, stable and where we can impose absolute meaning on anything, from literature and art to fashion. Allegory helps to dispel fallacy whilst creating fallacy, and McQueen’s clothing is all the more interesting, important and extraordinary as a result of the allegorical fragments and components that structured what we saw when they were first unveiled to us and to what we see now.

 

[1] Marilyn J. Horn and Lois M. Gurel, The Second Skin (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981), p.150.

[2] Walter Benjamin The Origin of German Tragic Drama trans. John Osborne (London: Verso, 2009), p.160.

[3] Benjamin The Origin of German Tragic Drama, p.166.

[4] 1,500-2000 member of Charles Stuart’s Jacobite army were killed at the Battle of Culloden (near Inverness) in 1745. They were attempting to overthrow the Hanoverian army who had secured the English throne and who lost only 54 men in comparison. After the battle, the government weakened the power of the Scottish clans and attempted to stamp out Gaelic culture to remove the threat of a future uprising. They succeeded: this was the last pitched battle on English soil and there was no subsequent rebellion.

Advertisements

Remembering Alexander McQueen: Abyss

This essay was first written in September 2015

British fashion designer and couturier Alexander McQueen took his own life in 2010 and five years later, his most famous collections were brought together in a triumphant and critically-lauded retrospective entitled Savage Beauty.  The exhibition, situated in the Victoria and Albert Museum having been initially shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was an overwhelming, grotesque and utterly fascinating spectacle. Seeing all of McQueen’s most famous pieces in one space was almost physically arresting and undeniable emotional: from the spray painted dress, the tartan, the ‘bumsters’ and all the tailoring, to the VTs of his catwalk shows playing all at once, his metal, woodwork and sea shell accessories, the Armadillo shoes, the millinery by Phillip Treacey, the feathers, the spectre of Kate Moss rising to the violin of John Williams’ Schindler’s List, the melancholy background music, and the fragments of his political and aesthetic musings stamped on the walls. Seeing everything all at once in one place confirmed that this exhibition and this designer worked beyond fashion, bleeding into the realms of theatre and performance art.

There was one aspect of the exhibition, however, that I would argue did not do the memory of McQueen justice. At the start of each new exhibit was a piece of introductory text imposed on the wall that described McQueen’s various inspirations in producing a specific collection or an idea that ran through his entire oeuvre. The descriptions relied heavily on two things: firstly, McQueen’s supposed use of binary oppositions in his aesthetic ideas which translated into his clothing, for example, light and dark, life and death, beauty and the grotesque etc. Secondly, they relied upon a seemingly endless string of ‘isms’ to help us garner some meaning from his work, for example romanticism, historicism, animalism and eroticism. This became particularly problematic when some of McQueen’s garments inspired by African tribeswomen were described as examples of primitivism in his work. Primitivism was an artistic movement that became fairly prominent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, under the influence of artists like Henri Rousseau with his jungle scenes, Gaugin’s Tahitian masks and Pablo Picasso’s African Period which formed a precursor to ‘Cubism’. One of the biggest sticking points with this artistic idea is that it involves the appropriation of the symbols and artefacts belonging to different cultures and using their ‘otherness’ to form art for a Western consumption. As Edward Said writes in Orientalism, ‘the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience’.  He argues that the concept of ‘the other’ is established to help create an exclusionary set of norms and conventions which the West can use to distinguish itself from the exotic East. In the most basic terms, therefore, primitivism, an artistic idea that walks hand in hand with appropriation and othering, is racist.

To pigeonhole McQueen under this label of ‘primitivism’ and thereby within this tradition is not fair and not very accurate. He rallied against the fashion industry’s racism, saying that ‘fashion can be really racist, looking at the clothes of other cultures as costumes’. Of course, just because he said this, it doesn’t mean he wasn’t racist in his designs, and his own reference to ‘tribalism’ in his work is relatively suspect. Authorial intent is all well and good but what is actually produced can undoubtedly undercut or undo whatever the author, or in this case, designer wanted to make. Regardless of this, I would argue that his designs deconstructed barriers, and ‘isms’, even his own, only seem to provide vague linguistic parameters that box in McQueen and his designs.

In The Animal That Therefore I Am, Jacques Derrida describes the difference between humans and animals as an abyssal limit:

One attempts to think what a limit becomes once it is abyssal, once the frontier no longer forms a single indivisible line but more than one internally divided line, once, as a result, it can no longer be traced, objectified, or counted as single and indivisible.[1]

He argues that the difference between humans and animals is not homogeneous and continuous, an almost tangible line distinguishing the two and placing them in nigh-on separate spheres of existence. Instead, Derrida suggests that the limit between humans and animals is comprised of a multitude of different differences, which serve to simultaneously thicken and fragment both the connection and division between the two.  Humans and animals are, therefore, inextricably linked; but this is only achieved through differences. I argue that the same logic can be applied to McQueen when we remember his work, except instead of an exploration of the relationship between humans and animals on show, his work occupies an abyssal limit between various other ideas, forms and entities. As a result, what McQueen produced renders the possibility of binary oppositions of light and dark, death and life, joy and sadness, so perpetuated by his curators, to be null and void. Although his work was also described as ‘blurring lines’ between oppositions, I would argue that McQueen’s work did not blur the lines between empty oppositions but actively made us acutely aware of all the different things that all at once constructed and were constructed by his clothing. McQueen had more to do with the thickening of limits, creating connection and division through difference; thus rendering his clothes multifarious and gargantuan in the Rabelaisian sense, rather than muddied or blurred.

Both McQueen’s collections and his shows thickened the limit between fashion and a host of other forms and media; for example, performance art in VOSS, theatre and performativity in Horn of Plenty and mechanical production with the infamous spray painting robots creating fashion/art/consumer fodder live. He was entirely of the fashion world having worked as an apprentice tailor on Savile Row and earning himself a Master’s degree from London’s hot-bed of design talent Central St Martin’s College of Art and Design, whose other notable alumni includes John Galliano, Stella McCartney, Sarah Burton and Riccardo Tisci. However to think of McQueen as synonymous with fashion is to remember him too simplistically, because whilst irrevocably attached to fashion with its consumer focus and its elite group of orchestrators, McQueen’s work was not separate from experimental art and spectacle. His work was neither fashion, nor was it in anyway separate from fashion. His models were stripped of their identities and became actors, pawns, victims and saboteurs. Furthermore, the people who attended his shows were not simply editors, fans or enthusiasts; they were audiences, witnesses, congregations and perpetrators of the violence that frequently unfolded on his runway. Perhaps his work was so disturbing, awe-inspiring and, ultimately, original because it forced us to re-examine our own distance from what we saw taking place: we were forced, compelled, tricked or willingly a part and component of the mechanics at work in his shows. Our relationship with his work and presentation was another abyssal limit: fragmented and heterogeneous with no clearly defined or tangible boundaries.

The hair coat, Eshu, Alexander McQueen

Eshu, Alexander McQueen

This was illustrated, I would argue, in one thick black coat from McQueen’s Autumn/Winter 2000-2001 collection Eshu, almost the lynch-pin of the entire retrospective. The coat is made from black synthetic hair, twisted and gnarled, forming layer upon layer of ruffles and knots. Derrida’s conception of the multifarious and fragmented limit is encapsulated in this garment, a coat that folds, enveloping itself and the model within it whilst also expanding outwards, bloated with its own heterogeneity. Whilst not one of McQueen’s most famous pieces, the coat represents an abyssal limit occupied by all of his collections, its undulations suggesting his work belongs to different spheres like art and theatre beyond fashion, but could only be articulated from within the linguistic and capitalistic confines of the fashion world.

Although language by its very nature is artificial, the language of the fashion world takes this artificiality to a whole other level of vapidity. McQueen’s work was a slippery beast that embodied everything it negated, fashion and capital, but also undercut the conditions and the context within which it was created through the thickening of various formal limits. The retrospective could only perpetuate this pigeonholing, and consigned the memory of McQueen to the umbrella phrase Savage Beauty. I don’t think language can ever do justice to the memory of anything, including McQueen: nothing we can say or write can fully articulate or pin down all the different things that McQueen created. This may go some way in explaining why and how we, perhaps inevitably, entrap the memory of people we admire and care about within the binding and empty confines of cliché.

 

[1] Jacques Derrida, ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’, Critical Inquiry, 28:2 (Winter, 2002), pp.369-418 (p.399).