Identity is the product of human self-definition, the way in which one sees oneself and how one is perceived by others, tied to associations with multiple social categories including nationality, race, and gender. One can easily examine this definition of identity in fashion by studying the designs of the late Lee Alexander McQueen.
Born in London to parents of Scottish descent on March 17th, 1969, Lee Alexander McQueen was one of the preeminent British designers of the century.
Traditionally trained as a tailor on Savile Row, McQueen received a degree in Fashion Design from the prestigious Central Saint Martin’s. He was an openly gay man who was intensely private about his personal life and spoke through his creations. Throughout his collections, one is able to see the deep range of emotions felt by the designer. As curator Andrew Bolton once said,” Through his runway presentations, McQueen validated powerful emotions as compelling and undeniable sources of aesthetic experience.”
Following the designers untimely death in 2010, several retrospectives have highlighted the intensely personal nature of McQueens designs over his impressive career. In evaluating his designs, one is able to draw conclusions about the ability of clothing to communicate one’s identity both intentionally and inadvertently. To take the personal aspect of his craft to a whole new level, McQueen sewed locks hair into clear plastic labels underneath his name in of some of his earliest designs, including his 1999 Central Saint Martins graduation collection, “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims,” famously bought in its entirety by Isabella Blow, who would come to be one of McQueens dearest friends. This gesture was a reference to Victorian era love notes in which lovers would exchange locks of hair in letters, a nod to the past by which McQueen was fascinated. This obsession with the past very much shaped McQueens identity as a designer.
McQueen was very proud of both his British and Scottish heritages, and chose to use tropes from each country throughout several of his collections. Like McQueen, these two nations have somewhat of a tumultuous past. This aspect of McQueen’s identity would form the basis for McQueen’s controversial “Highland Rape” collection which explored the history between England and Scotland. He utilized deep, haphazard slashes and purposefully torn hems to emphasize the violent nature of the past between these two nations.
He also expanded on his pride for his heritage in his “Widows of Culloden” collection, which utilized his now-famous McQueen tartan which both he and Sarah Jessica Parker wore to the Met Ball in 2006. Gant’s article “Consuming or Living with Things” explains the symbiotic relationship between clothing and the identity of the wearer in that “the engagement of the wearer and the garment such that they become part of each other, also gives the clothes meaning…[garments] become a vehicle for individual identity through their material malleability” (Dant 383). When McQueen wore his own tartan print over a kilt on the red carpet, it spoke directly to his identity as a Scottish/British citizen. The respect for this traditional outfit, deemed fitting for a black tie event in America, imbued the outfit with deep meaning. The fact that he escorted Sarah Jessica Parker wearing the same print spoke to the familial kinship behind their relationship through the use of his traditional family fabric. This pattern immediately allowed others to identify the two individuals as close companions.
Unfortunately, McQueen’s eventual suicide would come to reveal that the designer was a bit of a tortured soul, as reflected in his somewhat dark fascination with death in many of his collections. However, there were positive influences that came across from McQueen’s personality as well. As McRobbie notes in “Second-hand Dresses and the Role of the Ragmarket,” McQueen seems to be the perfect example of the idea that “loss of faith in the future has produced a culture which can only look backwards and reexamine key moments of its own recent history with a sentimental gloss and a soft focus lens” (McRobbie 147). His fascination with utilizing historical references of his own past throughout his collections seems to point to an idealized happier time as an escape method from his unhappy present. His fascination with ornithology and birds can be seen in his Spring/Summer 1995 collection “The Birds” and again in his Spring/Summer 2008 collection “Birds of Paradise”.
McQueen also enjoyed cinematography and explored Robert De Niro’s role in “Taxi Driver” for his Fall/Winter 1993 collection of the same name, referenced Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock in his S/S 2005 collection, and based the final dance that closed his S/S 2003 show off of Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?.
McQueen’s final collection before his death, S/S 2010’s “Plato’s Atlantis”, revealed his love of scuba diving through its oceanic elements and use of deep sea imagery. As one writer would note after his death, “The genius of his clothes lay in his ability to keep the joy and hope symbolised by beauty and perfection in a tantalising equilibrium with the darkness which rumbled beneath.” While he was intensely private, the identity of McQueen was quietly looming behind each of his collections.
While many of McQueens collections drew from his personal background and interest, the young designer was also fascinated by the culture and identity of others across the globe. McQueen’s tasteful appropriation of the cultures of others spoke to his gentle fascination with other civilizations.
As Bell Hooks notes in “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” “the desire to make contact with those bodies deemed Other, with no apparent will to dominate, assuages the guilt of the past, even takes the form of a defiant gesture where one denies accountability and historical connection” (Bell Hooks 369).
As a white British male, McQueen romanticized the cultures of others throughout several of his collections, ignoring his ancestors’ imperialistic past.
McQueen apparently had no qualms making references to Asian and African cultures with whom he had little to no interaction with. Rather, he chose to appropriate aspects of those civilizations in his collections which would later be referred to as “savage,” “primitive,” and “exotic”.
Aptly it seems, there was quietly a bit of a savage nature to McQueen as well. The retrospective of Alexander McQueen’s life and career following his death at The Metropolitan Museum of Art was appropriately titled “Savage Beauty”.
- Dant, Tim. “Consuming or Living with Things?” Fashion Theory: A Reader. By Malcolm Barnard. London: Routledge, 2007. N. pag. Print.
- Hooks, Bell. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston, MA: South End, 1992. N. pag. Print.
- McRobbie, Angela. “Second-hand Dresses and the Role of the Ragmarket.”Zoot Suits and Second-hand Dresses: An Anthology of Fashion and Music. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1988. N. pag. Print.
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