McQueen: Bodies Are Where You Find Them

30 years on from Lee Alexander McQueen’s enrolment at Central Saint Martins, Ella Slater reflects on her relationship with the designer’s sinister and erotic depictions of women.

Words Ella Slater 

Photography Emily Gleeson

Two months before the turn of the century, in November 1999’s US Vogue, Plum Sykes pondered upon the New Year’s Eve plans of fashion types. “Most millennial partiers are suffering from pre-traumatic stress disorder,” she wrote. “Style types are particularly hysterical about possibility of hysteria.” Y2K created global anxiety eerily resemblant of that surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, albeit less well-founded. Yet 2000’s hysteria did not really concern the apocalypse, nor the anti-Christ, but a fear of technological revolution; the fracturing of society.


As the millennium neared, Alexander McQueen’s notoriety rose. A somewhat controversial figure, his technical skill and ability to shock were undeniable, but his intentions were criticised. “He has a perverse view of women,” Marion Hume wrote after McQueen’s SS94 Nihilism collection; a presumption which would haunt his career. “But he has an assured view of fashion.”


McQueen’s clothes reflected both his own turmoil and that of the world around him. Delicate Chinese silks alongside a hat of needle-sharp pheasant feathers, Burmese Kayak rings of searing metal atop a flash of nipple; Eclect Dissect, Givenchy’s AW97-98 couture collection, was an achingly erotic premonition of millennial anxiety, built around H.G.Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau. Colin McDowell, writing in The Sunday Times afterwards, called it “a parade of amazing dresses, individually impressive, but signifying little... Overall what came through was McQueen’s aggression.” Even Joseph Bennett, McQueen’s production designer for numerous post-millennium shows, tells me “there was an aggression in his use of decay”, although the word ‘decay’ is perhaps too passive to describe what was really presented. The savagery and brutality of the crimes were now immortalised in silhouettes, textiles, cuts and colours.

Fashion is political, but profiting off the still raw wounds of tragedy sparked outrage

McQueen’s collections were rife with tortured women; whether dissected by a surgeon creating human-beast hybrids, or by a 19th century serial killer stalking the streets of Whitechapel. His 1992 graduate collection was titled Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims, a theme he returned to incessantly. As late as 2009, his collection The Horn of Plenty was named after the pub where Mary Jane Kelly, the murderer’s final victim, drank before being disembowelled in her own bed. The savagery and brutality of the crimes were- and still are- terrifying, and very much real; now immortalised in silhouettes, textiles, cuts and colours.

In her book Fashion at the Edge, fashion historian Caroline Evans attributes morbidity in clothing to anxiety “against the backdrop of the dark history of the twentieth century.” That may be true, but as a young woman who has lived through the #MeToo movement and who, like countless others, has experienced sexual assault, my feelings towards McQueen’s themes are deeply complex. I have always been intrigued by the morbid, by the perverse, perhaps in a rather masochistic way of befriending my own demons. Yet the idea of a man- with all of the ingrained patriarchal power that entails - presenting clothes inspired by, say, Harvey Weinstein’s innumerable abuses of power, or the recently surfaced allegations against former Elite Models boss Gérald Marie, makes me sick. The stories of these women are no man’s to tell.


Photography  by Emily Gleeson, jewellery by Tabitha Charlton

Why, then, in fashion history, is McQueen excused? In 2019, Bstroy presented their SS20 collection, a series of distressed hoodies with the names of the American schools where mass shootings have occurred emblazoned across their chests. Fashion is political, but profiting off the still-raw wounds of tragedy sparked outrage, quite rightly. Both survivors and the families of the victims responded with disgust: “Our pain is not to be used for your fashion.”


Perhaps with hindsight, and the healing powers of time, it is more acceptable to explore catastrophe. But McQueen’s graduate collection was less than 100 years from the beginning of Jack the Ripper’s killing spree. AW95’s Highland Rape- based around the turbulent history of the Scottish Highlands, yet featuring slashed lace, torn satin, and tartan tops yanked below the cleavage- occurred in a year where, prior to 2015, the number of rapes recorded in England and Wales was at its peak. I have ceaselessly defended McQueen’s sensitivity; his intelligence. Fashion is not always meant to be escapism. Still, upon deep reflection, something so unashamed in its brutality- so entitled in its aggression- doesn’t sit as peacefully with me now. I wonder, if I were in Burton’s shoes, what I would feel. Would I want to allow these women to be just beautiful and pure, for once?

I wonder, if I were in Burton's shoes, what I would feel. Would I want to allow these women to be just beautiful and pure, for once?

Today, London battles a global pandemic, an impending Brexit, and an education system exhausted by the demands of money. Our divisions are exposed by the very systems which perpetuate them: social media, politics, violence. Last Thursday Sarah Burton, who took over McQueen’s eponymous brand following his death, presented her SS21 womenswear pre-collection, formed of assertively feminine and soft silhouettes; tailored trouser-suits and debutante dresses in powder pink. The clothes were beautiful, constructed from previous seasons’ discarded fabrics, but their delicacy was a far cry from the brutality of her predecessor’s.


Bennett argues that Burton’s abstinence from wicked storytelling perhaps stems from respectful awe, or even intimidation. “By trying to do shows like him, you’re only going to do pastiches of what they would have been,” he tells me. Yet I wonder, if I were in Burton’s shoes, what I would feel. Would I simply be exhausted by the brand’s relentless adoption of other people’s trauma? Would I want to allow women to be beautiful and pure- just beautiful and pure- for once? Or would I want to return to these dark and dangerous themes through my own eyes; a female eye? McQueen was a genius, and I do not think that he was not a misogynist. But he was certainly misplaced in assuming his rights to tell such traumatic stories of female oppression.