“Life to me is a bit of a Brothers Grimm fairytale,” Lee Alexander McQueen once said. The British designer’s life was certainly a rags-to-riches story – from cockney cabbie’s son to globally acclaimed fashion star. Like the best-known fairy stories, too, there was a dark, troubled side to his life, culminating in his tragic suicide in 2010. And fairytale Gothicism certainly infused the creative vision of this enfant terrible of fashion – just as the Gothic influenced the stories of the German Brothers Grimm, who together collected and published folk tales during the 19th Century, among them Cinderella, Rapunzel, the Frog Prince, Snow White and Hansel and Gretel.
McQueen’s meticulously crafted designs and theatrical catwalk shows pushed the boundaries of fashion into art, making him one of the most visionary designers of his generation. And now a major retrospective, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, comes to the Victoria & Albert Museum in the designer’s hometown of London, a new version of the sell-out exhibition that showed in 2010 at the Costume Institute in New York. The show highlights the designer’s fairy-tale narratives and themes of magical transformation. “McQueen was a masterful storyteller,” Kate Bethune, who is on the curatorial team for the V&A show, tells BBC Culture. “His catwalk shows were integral to his creative vision as a designer and often involved elaborate narratives.”
The Girl Who Lived in the Tree, his autumn/winter 2008 collection, is inspired by a 600-year-old elm tree in the garden of the designer’s country home. The catwalk show told the story of a feral girl who climbs down from the tree to meet a prince and become a queen. “It was one of McQueen’s most lyrical and beautiful collections,” says Bethune. “It included some of his most opulent designs crafted from sumptuous silk, embellished with Swarovski crystal.” In his autumn/winter 2002 collection, a model in a lilac cape with voluminous hood, leading two wolf-hybrid dogs, opened the runway show. And of a fashion shoot for AnOther magazine directed by McQueen (and shot by Sam Taylor-Johnson), the designer said: “It’s very Grimm’s fairytale. He’s Dick Whittington, she’s Puss Without Her Boots.” There’s a pantomime-style playfulness about the idea, but the photos carry an undercurrent of horror that was the trademark of the Grimm stories.
“Many of McQueen’s designs were imbued with a strong Gothic sensibility,” says Bethune. “He loved the Victorian era and its attendant melancholia.” She singles out his graduate collection, in which he famously included human hair in the linings of jackets. And it’s no surprise that McQueen felt a kinship with American film-maker Tim Burton, who is also known for his works of dark fantasy. In fact, McQueen’s entire autumn/winter 2002 collection, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, including a famous black parachute cape, was inspired by Burton.
The designer’s ‘macabre iconoclasm’ is explored in the book that accompanies the exhibition, Alexander McQueen, edited by Claire Wilcox. Contributor Catherine Spooner writes: “Gothic provided [McQueen] with a distinctive idiom that he explored and refined over successive collections.” He also plays with the “aesthetics of disgust”, and makes references to haunting and undead elements, and presents “the past as Gothic trauma” by memorializing his own ancestor, executed as a witch at Salem in the autumn/winter 2007 show In Memory of Elizabeth Howe, Salem, 1692. It’s easy to see where the notion of the designer as a tormented genius came from.
Shapeshifting is another recurring fairytale trope in McQueen’s work. In folklore and mythology, an entity may be physically transformed into another being or form, often through a magical spell cast by a witch or sorcerer – from frog to prince, for instance, or from queen to witch. As Spooner writes: “The metamorphic body is... a feature of traditional fairytale and this was another of McQueen’s interests, appearing in Gothicized form.” She explains how “abhuman” motifs are everywhere in his work. Separated from normal human existence, an abhuman figure is continually on the verge of becoming another species. McQueen used this idea by incorporating antlers into a bridal gown, and evoked mythical creatures, including unicorns in his pieces. McQueen himself was often photographed with skulls or crowned with an antler trophy, or with his beloved kestrels.
Feathers of peacocks, ducks and pheasants were frequently incorporated into his garments and headpieces, one of which – by milliner Philip Treacy – resembled a swarm of red butterflies. The famously out-there, python Armadillo shoe, measuring a towering 12 inches high; a black ball gown that seems to transform into a black swan – examples are everywhere in McQueen’s work. Other hybrids crop up – animal-women, moth-women. And in the masterful spring/summer 2010 collection Plato’s Atlantis, it is aquatic hybrids, the silk garments emblazoned with digital reptile prints and the models in vertiginous, claw-like shoes. It was the designer’s last, fully realised collection.
There was something otherworldly about the models in Plato’s Atlantis, stalking the catwalk in their towering heels, but there was also a strength about them. The fearless warrior princess is a fairytale archetype that has proved popular in contemporary interpretations of the Grimms’ tales, notably in the film Snow White and the Huntsman. And the warrior princess is also a figure in McQueen’s work. The designer collaborated with jeweller Shaun Leane to create the Coiled Corset for autumn/winter 1999. Leane was a friend and frequent collaborator who, having worked with McQueen already on an African-inspired neckpiece for Björk’s iconic Homogenic album cover, was then asked by the designer to create a similar piece, but for the whole torso. Leane tells BBC Culture: “He said to me ‘nothing is impossible’. I spent 16 hours a day for 10 weeks creating the piece... I had to cast the model’s body in concrete first to create a mould and use this to hand-shape and coil every wire to fit exactly to her body. To me Lee was a genius. He changed silhouettes in fashion, he pushed boundaries that others wouldn’t to provoke people’s understanding of what fashion should be.”
Whether metamorphosing into a wild reptile-woman or wearing steel body armour, there’s no doubt that these creations present women in a powerful, Amazonian – and scary – light. According to Andrew Wilson, author of the biography, Alexander McQueen: Blood Beneath the Skin, this stemmed from violent, traumatic events in McQueen’s own childhood. “He wanted to dress women in a way that scared men,” Wilson has said. “The women that walked his catwalk were in creative armour. It explains everything.”
This Cinderella-ish empowerment is a theme of playwright James Phillips, whose play, McQueen , steps into “the fairy story landscape of McQueen’s mind... where with a dress a tiny urchin can become an Amazon.” The action of the play centres around a girl who breaks into McQueen’s house to steal a dress and gets caught red-handed by the designer. “He sees something in her that inspires him,” Phillips tells BBC Culture. “The two go on a quest across London, from west to east. It’s about surviving the night, creativity and about how beauty can save us or kill us, and how those two things may be linked.”
One photographic portrait of the designer shows his face half in light and half in shade, which, according to Catherine Spooner, is “a fitting tribute to the rich and complex Gothic fictions that McQueen enjoyed spinning in his work.” Certainly he was a complex man, full of stories. As the V&A’s Kate Bethune puts it: “Although McQueen’s aesthetic is dark in places, and it was sometimes laced with references to mortality, he had a very positive attitude toward death. He once commented that, although death is sad and melancholy, it is a natural part of the cycle of life that leaves room for new things to follow.” Now that his successor Sarah Burton is at the helm of the McQueen fashion house, the story continues. She even designed the princess-bride dress for the royal wedding of William and Kate in 2011. A fairytale ending – for the McQueen brand at least.
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