Alexander McQueen’s work was filled with fantasy and the macabre, from warrior princesses to mythical creatures. Lindsay Baker looks back at a one-of-a-kind artist.
“Life is like a Brothers Grimm fairytale to me,” Lee Alexander McQueen once said. From cockney cabbie’s son to globally acclaimed fashion star, the British designer’s life was certainly a rags-to-riches story. Like the most well-known fairy tales, he had a dark, troubled side to his life, which culminated in his tragic suicide in 2010. And fairytale Gothicism undoubtedly influenced the creative vision of this fashion’s enfant terrible, just as it influenced the stories of the German Brothers Grimm, who collected and published folk tales during the nineteenth century, including Cinderella, Rapunzel, the Frog Prince, Snow White, and Hansel and Gretel.
McQueen’s meticulously crafted designs and theatrical catwalk shows pushed fashion into the realm of art. Making him one of the most forward-thinking designers of his generation. And now, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, a major retrospective, is coming to the Victoria & Albert Museum in the designer’s hometown of London, a new version of the sell-out exhibition that debuted in 2010 at the Costume Institute in New York. The exhibition focuses on the designer’s fairy-tale narratives and magical transformation themes. “McQueen was a masterful storyteller,” says Kate Bethune, who is part of the V&A show’s curatorial team. “His catwalk shows were central to his creative vision as a designer, and they frequently included elaborate narratives.”
His autumn/winter 2008 collection, The Girl Who Lived in the Tree, is inspired by a 600-year-old elm tree in the designer’s country home garden. The catwalk show told the story of a feral girl who climbs down a tree to meet a prince and eventually become queen. “It was one of McQueen’s most lyrical and beautiful collections,” Bethune says of the collection. “It featured some of his most opulent designs made of sumptuous silk and embellished with Swarovski crystal.” A model in a lilac cape with voluminous hood led two wolf-hybrid dogs down the runway in his autumn/winter 2002 collection. “It’s very Grimm’s fairytale,” McQueen said of a fashion shoot for AnOther magazine directed by him (and shot by Sam Taylor-Johnson). Dick Whittington is he, and Puss Without Her Boots is she.” The idea has a pantomime-style playfulness to it, but the photos have an undercurrent of horror that was characteristic of the Grimm stories.
“Many of McQueen’s designs had a strong Gothic sensibility,” Bethune says. “He adored the Victorian era and its associated melancholy.” She highlights his graduate collection, in which he famously used human hair in jacket linings. It’s no surprise that McQueen felt a connection with American filmmaker Tim Burton, who is also known for his dark fantasy works. In fact, Burton inspired McQueen’s entire autumn/winter 2002 collection, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, which included a famous black parachute cape.
The designer’s ‘macabre iconoclasm’ is explored in the book that accompanies the exhibition, Alexander McQueen, edited by Claire Wilcox. “Gothic provided [McQueen] with a distinctive idiom that he explored and refined over successive collections,” writes contributor Catherine Spooner. In the autumn/winter 2007 show In Memory of Elizabeth Howe, Salem, 1692, he also plays with the “aesthetics of disgust,” makes references to haunting and undead elements, and presents “the past as Gothic trauma” by memorialising his own ancestor, executed as a witch at Salem. It’s easy to see where the idea of the designer as a tortured genius originated.
Another recurring fairytale trope in McQueen’s work is shapeshifting. An entity in folklore and mythology can be physically transformed into another being or form. Often through a magical spell cast by a witch or sorcerer – for example, from frog to prince or queen to witch. “The metamorphic body is… a feature of traditional fairytale, and this was another of McQueen’s interests, appearing in Gothicized form,” Spooner writes. She explains how “abhuman” motifs appear throughout his work. An abhuman figure is constantly on the verge of becoming another species when separated from normal human existence. McQueen incorporated antlers into a bridal gown and evoked mythical creatures such as unicorns in his pieces. McQueen himself was frequently photographed with skulls, antler trophies, or his beloved kestrels.
Peacock, duck, and pheasant feathers were frequently incorporated into his garments and headpieces, one of which resembled a swarm of red butterflies and was created by milliner Philip Treacy. The famously out-there python Armadillo shoe, standing 12 inches tall; a black ball gown that appears to transform into a black swan – examples abound in McQueen’s work. Other hybrids emerge, such as animal-women and moth-women. And it’s aquatic hybrids in Plato’s Atlantis, the masterful spring/summer 2010 collection, with silk garments emblazoned with digital reptile prints and models wearing vertiginous, claw-like shoes. It was the designer’s final full-fledged collection.
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