Thursday, 11 February 2010

Alexander McQueen: Why I'll Miss Him

Alexander McQueen. High Heeled Shoe 2009
Flickr Creative Commons

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.

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 anger? 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, nor 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.  Today I dress for comfort not for speed.

But fashion is not simply clothing (and perhaps on the catwalk its not even clothing), its also art and creativity,  and something about this guy's work got to 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 the message, whatever it is.

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 quite right, not as they aught to be. 

He was part of Claire Wilcox' hugely successful exhibition on “Radical Fashion” at the Victoria and Albert Museum for the Decorative Arts, 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 in execution, so threatening.  There's a dissonance there: hard to define, but definitely there, I think. That is what he does - 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 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....

This video is fascinating.  I hope you have time to view it.  Its of his last  show, for Spring 2010.  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?), different kinds of automata, each on their respective runways, endlessly mirrored in the backdrop, is shocking, isn't it? And perfectly clear.  It's actually a terrifying image of  the self-absorbed, self-referential elements of the fashion industry, isn't it?

And what about the lightly reptilian fabric, and the distinctly reptilian hair-dos, and the stalking gait of the models, forced on them by the shoes? 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, or at least an absolutely devastating hissy fit.

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 I think he was deeply angry, and he was asking very big questions about his industry, from deep within it.

Not questions about the objectification of women, perhaps,  more about the cruelty and rapaciousness of the fashion/entertainment world, and perhaps also, by implication, the society of which it is the expression. This last is perhaps not impossible, although the focus was  clearly his love-hate relationship with the fashion world.

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

And, sadly, 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.

Alexander McQueen 1969-2010
Flickr Creative Commons

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