Love Note – Yves Saint Laurent photo reel

This week has been, in a word, intense.

I went on the hen weekend to end all hen weekends last week (6 hours sleep in 48 hours); in a related move, I am now hideously ill and was confined to my sickbed all day yesterday sneezing, coughing and croaking my way through seminal teen film ‘Clueless’ and ‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell; and I started my PGCE in English on Monday. There are emotions, curricula and pathogens flying all over the place in this house.

As such, and whilst still in the thick of my pity party, I am going to post the photos from my trip to the Yves Saint Laurent Museum in Paris. We’re in the thick of Fashion Month, with Paris just round the corner, so it feels pretty time-appropriate; plus there is nothing like pretty clothing to raise your spirits when you’re spluttering your way through multiple life transitions.

So here we have it, Yves Saint Laurent, with his epoch-changing Mondrian dresses, elegant evening wear and exquisite accessories. I also managed to get a snap of his reconstructed studio and design notes, which made the whole experience even more magical and intimate. If this doesn’t pick your spirits up on a rainy day, I don’t know what will.

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Dior: Designer of Dreams

On Friday 5th April, I trundled down to London to visit two very excellent friends. We have partaken in a number of cultural weekends in the capital over the past few years, with trips to see the Savage Beauty exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined at the Barbican, the Vogue 100 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, the West End production of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring Sienna Miller and Jack O’Connell (where somehow we managed to get seats in a box, very jammy), amongst many other lovely, fun activities. This weekend was in every way just as lovely: in spite of a sketchy visit to a fancy restaurant off Regent’s Street where we were made to feel like actual scum, we shopped in Arket, visited the new Archlight cinema in Battersea, drank all the Taddy Lager at a Samuel Smith’s next to Liberty’s and spotted BBC Middle East correspondent Jeremy Bowen at Denmark Hill station and started smirking at him by accident. He definitely thought we were insane. The highlight of the trip, however, amongst all the other loveliness, was our visit to the Dior: Designer of Dreams exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

My first academic introduction to Dior came through the documentary, Dior and I: a fly-on-the-wall film that followed Belgian designer Raf Simons as he took up the mantle of creative director in 2012. I had been aware of John Galliano’s tenure, largely thanks to Lily Cole who was a veritable goddess in his designs, but had little actual passion for the house of Dior beyond that. I have a penchant for the theatrical in fashion, but I was more into Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood and Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton at the time. Galliano was famously fired from Dior after an anti-Semitic rant outside a café in Paris, and this created a space at Dior for something new and different. The film introduced us to Raf Simons, with his refreshingly modern aesthetic and his endearing emotionality. Reading from Christian Dior’s autobiography and discussing art, it became clear that Dior was on the cusp of being reimagined for a new generation. I fell for the brand then and there.

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I came to learn from Dior: Designer of Dreams that the fact that there is even a house of Dior is nigh-on miraculous. Christian Dior founded the label in 1947, creating the ‘New Look’: he divined an ultra-feminine silhouette, re-introducing women to sensuality after the austerity, deprivation and destruction that encompassed life during the Second World War. In no more than ten years, he built a booming, globally successful fashion house, placing his love for women at the very heart of his work. He introduced the H line, the Bar jacket and many other ingeniously crafted designs to emphasise curves, create drama and indelibly flatter. Tragically, he died in 1957; but in the short but very sweet time he had, he laid the foundations for one of the best-loved fashion houses of all time.

I believe the key to Dior’s success in his lifetime and beyond can be attributed to his commitment to women. Indeed, he seems to have dedicated his whole sartorial life to making women look and feel beautiful. He said:

‘Deep in every heart slumbers a dream, and the couturier knows it: every woman is a princess’.

It is one thing for men to say that they love and support women, but it is almost overwhelming how much Christian Dior repeatedly practiced and demonstrated that love through his creations. He knew how to make women feel special through the alchemical combination of silhouette, colour and craftsmanship. He in no way objectified women: instead, he placed womanhood and femininity on a pedestal to be absolutely adored. I used to be very sceptical of traditional notions of femininity: I’ve read my Judith Butler, I understand that gender is performance in many ways. However, where so much disrespect and abject hatred of women and their bodies has been witnessed and experienced throughout history, for a man to be so readily loving and devoted to women, is amazing. Similarly, I do not subscribe to monarchy or regal inequality in any way, but I think the reference to princess-hood can be read more archetypally. His work helps to bring women back to the sense of their own worthiness: that, yes, each one of us is unique and special, with dreams and ambitions, and a powerful capacity for conscientiousness, compassion, joy and love. All of these things make us inherently beautiful. I know a lot of women, including myself, have a hard time believing that, but Christian Dior is here to remind us, in a sartorial, fashionable way, that it is truly is the case.

Christian Dior’s legacy has been kept intact thanks to a line of wonderful designers who placed women and what women want at the core of their work. Everyone, from Yves Saint Laurent to Maria Grazia Chiuri, have adhered to his silhouettes and inspirations, but subtly and ingeniously regenerated and refreshed them for each generation of women that passed their way. The exhibition presented and reflected this fact beautifully, placing pieces from all of Dior’s eras next to one another: for example, these two dresses from 1953 and 2019:

Mexican Dior

Both of these dresses nod to Dior’s interest in Mexican art and sartorial sensibility, speaking to each other across the years.[1] Although the Dior logo splashed across the dress on the right is a dead giveaway that it is a 21st century piece, they could both feasibly have come from the same collection. Similarly, the 18th century-inspired collections exhibit both continuity within the house of Dior and their individual designer’s unique perspective and flair:

18th century Diors

On the far left we have Gianfranco Ferré’s imagining of an 18th century coat, followed by Raf Simon’s cornflower blue dress with drop-waist hip emphasis; then we have another Raf Simons creation, this time a two-piece of intricately embroidered top with combat trousers; and finally a theatrical John Galliano dress with a billowing top and voluminous pleated skirt. All of the pieces are intrinsically Dior and could have walked down the runway in exactly the same show. But, we are also introduced to the subtle modernity of Simons, somehow taking an archaic hip style and making it contemporary and cool; the free-spirited proportion-play of Gianfranco Ferré; and the drama and craftsmanship of Galliano. The accusation has been levelled (at Simons in particular) that these collections for Dior are archivist; however, we can see clearly how the directors have honoured the history and mystique of the house whilst also exploring their own creative interests and personal aesthetics. It makes the collections personal but also part of a fluid, historical whole.

I will always have the softest of soft spots for Raf Simons because his work is just so polished, interesting and fun; but this exhibition formally introduced me to the work of Maria Grazia Chiuri. Up until now, I have reservedly watched Chiuri’s tenure blossom with popularity from afar. I was not convinced that slapping ‘We should all be feminists’ and ‘Why have there been no great women artists’ onto T-shirts to be sold for hundreds of pounds was particularly intersectional. I am still absolutely sure that capitalising on a buoyant new wave of feminism for commercial gain whilst reinforcing exclusivity and hierarchy is not how I want my intersectional feminism to look. However, this exhibition taught me that this woman bloody well knows how to make fabulous clothing. We wandered around the exhibition, pointing to one exquisite dress after another, exclaiming ‘I want that. I want that. I want that’, most of them originating from her sketchbook. Chiuri’s silhouettes are not as avant-garde as a Galliano, nor are they as refined and modern as a Simons, but they are dreamy beyond belief. Deceptively simple forms make way for frothy, fairytale content: her dresses become canvases for beautiful entwining flowers, embroidered constellations, elegant tulle and third eyes.

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I have a newfound respect for what Chiuri is accomplishing at Dior. Namely, creating exceptionally designed clothing, luxurious without being fussy, whilst also, with those clean and elegant lines, very wearable. I would opt for any of these dresses in a heartbeat (please sartorial gods, please).

Without spoiling the exhibition too much for those who are still to visit, the final room was quite literally breathtaking. We audibly gasped and gaped at the twinkling ballroom setting we found ourselves in, debating whether or not we’d overreacted to the splendour on show. The gasps and squeals that came behind us as others entered the room confirmed not. The whole effect was magical: the glittering dresses, the rosy lighting, the cavernous space, everything. Time permitting, we could have sat in that room for ages just absorbing it all.

Dior: Designer of Dreams was another triumph for the Victoria and Albert museum. The layout and story of the exhibition is pitch perfect, demonstrating seamlessly the historical threads of the fashion house, as well as showcasing the individual contributions of the creative directors. The exhibition is a tribute to everyone who has been involved with the house: from Christian Dior himself and his creative directors, to the petit mains creating the designs at the atelier and the women chosen to represent the brand (it features dresses worn by Natalie Portman, Charlize Theron, Rihanna and Lupita Nyong’o). It celebrates womanhood, femininity and the princess within each woman, and the paradox that is a success built upon a winning and delicate combination of history and modernity. Needless to say, if you can get to it, go.

 

[1] What was also brilliant was that the curators had taken great pains to stress the pitfalls and damage of cultural appropriation, highlighting the ways in which Grazia Chiuri in particular sought practical help and input from Mexican women in the production and presentation of her Mexican-inspired collection.

Love Note – The Vogue Colouring Book

I hate/love to sound like a two year old, but I was inspired to buy a colouring book after seeing my friend’s. She has a Harry Potter-themed one and had done a beautiful job of meticulously colouring in the scene of Harry and Ron flying Arthur Weasley’s Ford Anglia. Her shading was gorgeous. Where I would have coloured Harry and Ron in pink, she had expertly blended a combination of peach, yellow and cream to re-create the colour of white skin. I realised that good colouring requires a lot more skill than just picking a crayon and keeping between the lines. I had some arty things to learn.

When the Vogue colouring book was published I was all over it like it was a Selfridges sale (top tip you guys: Paige jeans. The best fitting jeans you will ever wear, will last forever if you wash them cold, ethically made in Los Angeles, £350 in real life but often reduced to £70 in the Selfridges sale. You can thank me later). As much as I would like to make clothing, I have never learnt how and it is unlikely to happen anytime soon. I tried my hand at designing clothing when I was in secondary school, have binged on multiple episodes of Project Runway and have taken a particular interest in fashion writing for many, many years, so the opportunity to colour in some glorious illustrations from the 1950s seemed like too much fun to miss. I nabbed a copy after visiting the Vogue 100 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 2016.

Ever since then, all of my fashion designing delusions of grandeur have been released in a healthy safe, way. I rarely follow the original description copy in the book, choosing to blaze my own (ridiculous) trail. With my box of crayons, I have tested my sartorial eye by colour clashing, at times imagining myself as Alessandro Michele, Raf Simons and Phoebe Philo, and even put Hubert de Givenchy to shame with a great replication of an LBD. Aside from colouring one woman’s arm in purple by accident, there have been no huge disasters.

It might all be a bit silly but I can safely say that I’ve had a whole lot of fun, expressed myself in a creative capacity when I’ve been bored and tempted to scroll through Instagram, and I’ve given myself a bit of styling education and practice. Here are some of my favourite exhibits and design notes:

Woman in beige

Kate Moss once said in conversation with Nick Knight that she would be loath to wear a beige suit, so I decided to try and make a beige suit look nice. I think it’s OK.

 

Woman in turqouise

This woman encapsulates all my turquoise-mermaid-dress-and-turban-combo ambitions. I love this look.

 

Woman who looks like Meryl Streep

This woman is spits of Meryl Streep. It’s ridiculous.

 

Woman in stripes

Beachwear that dreams are made of but I wish I’d done the glasses in tortoiseshell #hindsight #designerproblems

 

Woman done by Stanley

Sharing is caring and I let a little family member colour this woman in. I have to say, I’m liking the psychedelic vibes.

 

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Similarly with these women. My sister did some really quite expert shading for the woman on the left, whilst I went for statement (millenial?) pink on the right. I also did the dog.

 

Woman who looks fabulous

This dress was inspired by Jennifer Lawrence’s dress at the SAG Awards in 2014. I don’t know why I remember that dress so clearly, but I do. Textbook Raf Simons.

 

Woman with dog and absinthe

So many life goals right here: cute dog in hand, a glass of Absinthe, killer hat, sassy gloves and black lipstick done well.

 

Woman in red

This woman reminds me of the fabulous Jacquie ‘Tajah’ Murdock, who was cast in a Lanvin advertising campaign in 2012 at the age of 82. When I am an older woman, I hope to pull off a red jumpsuit with this much grace.

 

Woman who looks like a Hitchcock film

I feel like I created a Hitchcock heroine here and I am thrilled. I didn’t realise that skirt suits come great in a cool grey, a green veil is all I’ve ever dreamed of and that all seagulls should be pink.

 

Pink hair don't care

Pink hair don’t care (I would LOVE to give this a go one day.). And yes. The Balmain sweepy on the right makes me weepy. I need a moment like this in a dress like that in the future sometime (please sartorial gods).

Death in fashion: Karl Lagerfeld

‘For fashion was never anything other than the parody of the motley cadaver’ – Walter Benjamin

Yesterday we heard the news that Karl Lagerfeld, the creative director at Chanel, Fendi and his own eponymous label, has died. Walter Benjamin would, perhaps, argue that Lagerfeld has been dabbling with death for his entire career (see this essay’s epigraph), but yesterday he passed away in Paris at the age of 85.  Fashion design was, undoubtedly, his entire life (apart from his love for his cat, Choupette), and such extraordinary dedication to his craft is what has made him legendary. Although he may not have openly exhibited the emotional naiveté of designers like Alexander McQueen or Raf Simons (two of my all-time favourite designers), by golly he was a figure of creative and commercial genius. Lagerfeld was able to fearlessly embrace both history and modernity, turn fashion shows into aspirational spectacles, and take his understanding of brand power to astronomical levels.[1] Those inter-locking Cs are immediately recognisable worldwide thanks to him. Although he claims that Coco Chanel would have hated his commercial transformation of the fashion house, he has adhered to her philosophy that fashion was dress-making: clothes are meant to be bought, sold and worn.[2] For Lagerfeld, as it was for Coco, fashion most definitely is not an art-form.

Karl has never been my favourite designer, even though his shows, clothes and perfume campaigns have made Chanel products ridiculously desirable (I wear Coco Mademoiselle because it smells divine and just because Keira Knightley). I am, however, not OK with the way in which he described Germany’s open-door refugee policy in 2017, which reeked of hateful Islamophobia.[3] I am not OK with the way that he has spoken about Adele, Michelle Obama or Pippa Middleton: I would find it very difficult to take if someone said that I should only show my back because my face isn’t pretty enough. It was undeniably a fucking mean thing to say.[4] For all of his designing excellence and great taste, he had a mean streak that was completely ungracious, unbecoming and offensive.

Nevertheless, his passing is deeply significant. It feels like the passing of one of modern culture’s greats, like the deaths of Seamus Heaney or Aretha Franklin. He is an icon of popular culture who has achieved the feat of having grown into a ripe old age, where so many creative lives have been cut short by illness or personal tragedy. He has traversed, witnessed and helped to create so much change over the course of the twentieth and twenty first centuries, evidenced in the fluctuations and ideas presented in his extraordinary backlog of visual work. His death leaves a large void in the cultural fabric of the 21st century, and it’s going to be interesting to witness the unfolding transition in the wake of his death both at Chanel and Fendi, and across fashion in general.

Fashion is a funny thing: I subscribe to Walter Benjamin’s conception of it as a dialectical social construct, encapsulating both commodity fetishism and the release of utopian desire and energy in a moment of historical awakening. It is both frivolous and fruitful. Whether you care about it or not, it shapes and literally dresses the world around us (please click on the picture below for the iconic scene from The Devil Wears Prada for further reference and explanation). Lagerfeld’s passing is another one of the great transitions we witness in life: the dying of the old ways, the liminality of not knowing what is going to come next and, ultimately, the emergence of something else, something we don’t yet know or understand. Whatever and whoever comes next, life in fashion and beyond, is going to continue to fascinate.

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[1] Lagerfeld’s adeptness for creating and designing extraordinary fashion shows is particularly significant. Classic runway exhibitions have become increasingly outdated thanks to the industry’s demands for instant, immediate access to fashion, with collection turnarounds that beggar belief. (Again, it is important to emphasise here Lagerfeld’s enormous and unparalleled creative output: he worked tirelessly and wholeheartedly to produce collections for Autumn/Winter, Spring/Summer, Resort, Cruise and couture for three labels, as well as an additional Metiers d’Art for Chanel). By creating fashion shows that turn a collection presentation into a show and a spectacle (Lagerfeld took us to an enchanted forest, a beach, a jungle, a cruise ship, a brasserie, a rocket launch, an iceberg, a data centre, Ancient Greece and a barn amongst others) he not only preserved the sanctity of the runway when it had all but become a stale, outdated method of introducing new collections, but, indeed, breathed new life into it. A ticket to a Karl Lagerfeld Chanel show was perhaps the most covetable of all the fashion month shows, never mind just Paris, and were as Instagrammable as they come. As a side note, I would LOVE to compare the shows and performances of Alexander McQueen and Karl Lagerfeld at some point.

[2] ‘What I do, Coco would have hated. The label has an image and it’s up to me to update it. I do what she never did’. https://www.marieclaire.co.uk/fashion/karl-lagerfeld-quotes-120855 [accessed 14:36, 20/02/2019].

[3] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/chanels-karl-lagerfeld-claims-muslim-migrants-are-affront-to-holocaust-victims-cm2tr9prt

[4] https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/karl-lagerfeld-controversial-quotes-intl/index.html

Love Note – Avant gardish style (AKA anything but athleisure)

The fashion editor in me has been lying a little dormant for a while, but today, I feel like unleashing her a little. I’m sorry if this comes across a bit Blair Waldorf, but I’m sure this will be good for all of us.

I am well aware that fashion trends can envelope us one and all: I myself have been very open about my questionable adolescent boho phase, which attempted to walk in the shoes of Noughties Sienna Miller but ended up looking like a big old brown mess. I did not have the sartorial maturity to master both neutral, earthy hues and long hemlines. It taught me that just because something is in fashion, it doesn’t mean you should buy it and wear it. Especially if everyone else is buying it too. With this in mind, I am turning my critical fashion gaze to a trend that is beginning to get my goat: athleisure.

Everywhere I have been for the past couple of years, I have seen them: young people shuffling about in a combination of gym leggings, trainers, crop tops and enormous puffer jackets. I see them on university campuses, on the bus, going round Aldi, at the cinema, everywhere. I am not one to bash young people for their choices because being young is a lot more difficult than many older people remember. There is heaps of pressure to be successful, smart, have excellent socials whilst attempting to look after your mental health and a Brexit-ful future to look forward to. There is no doubt that being young in 2019 is hard. I understand that times are tough and we need every last inch of comfort and softness to get us through cold weather and political chaos, and I can see how athleisure helps in this. Why bother dressing properly to leave the house when everything else is going to shit? Having said that, this perpetual state of sartorial proto-gymming has to have an endpoint. Why would I want to wear clothes that remind me that: a) I should be in the gym doing exercise because I eat like a heifer and b) remind me of the horror of the exercise that punctures my week with a whole lot of sweating and my biceps and triceps being ripped to shreds? (Thanks Body Pump combined track).

Now, I am not suggesting that we all leg it to Comme de Garçons to snap up some silhouette-obscuring, proportional challenging Rei Kawakubo garb, even though that would be a whole lot of fun. But something has to be done about the on-going proliferation of athleisure. Yes, things are uncertain and shit at the moment but in times of existential discomfort, we are also given an invitation to grow and challenge old habits. Are we really going to approach this day, 24 hours we will never be given again, with the innumerate possibilities and opportunities it brings, in gym leggings? It’s like watching supermodels turn up for the Met Gala without having heeded the theme: lazy and atrocious.

I really don’t care what you do: whether you opt for layering, colour clashing, minimalism, extravagant knitwear, modest cuts, androgyny or a ball gown, and whether you experiment with the understated chicness of a classic T-shirt and jeans or the all-out geeky Renaissance flamboyance  of Gucci, handmade flowers and all, just make it interesting and make it personal.  Oh the joy of seeing someone who has committed themselves wholeheartedly to their aesthetic, no matter what their style. I just love it.

Finally, I ask you: are we really going to let history remember us for wearing cycling shorts? The pariah of the P.E. kit allegedly made cool because they were worn by a Kardashian? People, I challenge you, for your generation’s own good, to do yourselves a favour and leave the gym leggings in the bloody locker. This period of history is being defined by Trump and Brexit as it is: don’t let athleisure taint the 2010s even further.

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.

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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.

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).