Alexander McQueen: Why I’ll Miss Him

The death of Alexander Lee McQueen so shocked and upset and touched me that I left my deadlines to spend an hour or so that evening setting up a post, just a few pix, to express my feelings.

Alexander McQueen. High Heeled Shoe 2009
Flickr Creative Commons

Next morning I took it down.  “What am I thinking?” I thought.  “What exactly are my feelings?”

You see, my formative years were spent in the women’s liberation movement, which still has a beating heart.  We had then, and still have, concerns about the objectification of women.  And here I am, wanting to comment on the death of someone who made his living by objectifying womanhood, if not women themselves, sometimes in the most extreme ways.  I cannot let that go by me.  I have to interrogate myself on that one, I thought.

He was at the pinnacle of a profession about which one must ask questions, and he seemed to be asking them.  Nevertheless, he was hailed as a genius by even its silliest propagandists, sycophants and hangers-on, those one would most want to question, as well as by its serious and thoughtful adherents. Did they not see the questions, or where the questions not there?  Did they not see the fury? I am quite perplexed.  So today I have to spend another hour thinking about that, sorting it out and re-posting.

Now (full disclosure), I am not a fashionista, or even minimally fashionable, come to that.  Those who know me might chortle at the thought.  I don’t read the magazines that peddle destructive fantasies to women: not even flick through them in waiting rooms.  All that stuff made me very unhappy once, and I totally reject the rampant consumerism that they promote and feed.  Today I dress for comfort, not for speed.

But fashion is not simply clothing (and perhaps on the catwalk it is not even clothing), it is also art and creativity, and something about this guy’s work got to even me.  There is social commentary, less widely noted than the brilliance and originality of his styling, but the fact that it reached me, about as far from the fashion world as it is possible to get, is evidence in itself of the power of his message, whatever it was.

His work is very, very, edgy: teetering like his models at the boundaries of composure, terror, glamour, melancholia, sexuality, the macabre, the sweet and the terribly painful.  This teetering is interesting in itself: he manages to convey so much contradiction and complexity, to use the extremes of his industry to criticize it, and to suggest, more than suggest, that things are not right, not as they aught to be.

He was part of Claire Wilcox’ hugely successful exhibition on “Radical Fashion” at the V&A, way back in 2002.  His models were in glass  cages, and thousands of moths were released.  Moths?  *Blinks rapidly!*  Talk about a many-layered metaphor!

And take a look at this little number, that is so sweet and lovely in concept, and yet so strangely armoured and tense inexecution, so threatening.  There’s a dissonance there: hard to define, but definitely there.  I think.  That is what he does – he makes you feel uncertain.  And yet a beautiful dress, beautifully made.

And then there are those astonishing shoes of his.  So incredibly extreme and high and sexy, so odd, so puzzling, so outrageous and glamorous, but at the same time so downright ugly, and hinting, more than hinting, at disablement: the club foot, the bound foot, limitations in mobility. And talk about teetering ….

 Dazed and Confused Magazine.  October 2009
Downloaded from Flickr

….  hints of stilts, the circus, the illusion, the freak show….

And talking about freak shows, this video is fascinating.  I hope you have time to view it.  Its of his last show, for Spring 2010, and was a huge, huge succes.  Maybe you saw it streamed live, in itself an innovation.

In stark contrast to the lovely, feminine and familiar McQueen silhouettes, the parallel (literally) between the models and the cameras (or are they machine tools?), each automata in their own way, each on their respective runways, endlessly mirrored in the backdrop, is shocking, isn’t it? And perfectly clear.  It’s a terrifying image of  the self-absorbed, self-referential elements of the fashion industry, isn’t it?  Utterly ghastly, even though the dresses themselves are so lovely. Isn’t it?

And what about the lightly reptilian fabric, and the distinctly reptilian hair-dos, and the stalking, distorted gait of the models, forced on them by the shoes, and the norms of their world? Combine this with the predatory silhouette of the cameras, like a couple of praying mantis.  And we all know what praying mantis do with their own, with those they “love”.

And what about this one?  The machine tools, this time spray guns, actually attack the model innocently pirouetting between them in her flouncy white dress.  It’s very beautiful and original, and got thunderous applause, but it looks like a gang rape, doesn’t it? Or at least an absolutely devastating hissy fit of spite and nastyness.  But let’s not ignore the obvious:  it’s a rape.

I know nothing of the theory of fashion, nor much about McQueen or his life, so I should not, but I do, dare to comment: there is something about his attention to both the beauty and the horror of fashion that is important, as well as arresting.  He was angry, in fact he was clearly very angry, and he was asking very big questions about his industry, from deep within it.

Not questions about the objectification of women, perhaps, except by extension.  Maybe he was something of a feminist. I hope so.  But he seems more focused on the cruelty and rapaciousness of the fashion/entertainment world, and perhaps also, by implication, the society of which it is the expression. He loved and excelled in his trade, but hated and was destroyed by his profession.

And now it is all in the past.  We are left with an enigma, and the awful tragedy of genius dying way to early.

Yet another disturbing example of the fashion industry not looking after its own, even its greatest.

And I’ll miss him: he had serious things to say, and he hadn’t finished.

Alexander McQueen 1969-2010
Flickr Creative Commons



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