The Personal, The Political and The Past
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Two Looks from Highland Rape, Lee McQueen in Jacobite dress, all by Matthew Thompson

In the midst of the current political turmoil caused by Brexit and the subsequent rise in Scottish nationalism, Lucy Vipond reflects on how the late Lee Alexander McQueen used fashion as a means to draw attention to the Scottish diaspora and the country’s harrowing misfortunes.

Words Lucy Vipond  Illustrations Matthew Thompson

He saw fashion shows far more in cinematic terms, where any subject is acceptable for discussion and exploration

In November, Boris Johnson remarked that ‘devolution has been a disaster north of the border’. He later verified he was referring to the Scottish National Party's governance of Scotland - which became the first country to abolish period poverty. The Conservatives' blatant dismissal of the SNP and their unwillingness to support a second independence referendum has led to dispute between the two nations. This restlessness is a result of Brexit, which a mere third of the Scottish people supported. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon likened the nation's treatment throughout the ordeal to the Highland Clearances; one abominable chapter in Scotland’s murky history that has been forgotten by the English and - partially due to its own negligent education system - many of the Scottish. 25 years ago, Lee Alexander McQueen, then a recent Saint Martins graduate with a growing reputation for the gory, demolished the taboo surrounding Scotland’s tormented past with his infamous Autumn/Winter 1995 Highland Rape collection.

The raw, political performance left the fashion press disturbed - and without a press release stupefied. They labelled McQueen a misogynist and came to the general consensus it was barbaric. The second part was Lee’s intention; exasperated by Scotland’s injustice, he intended to demythologise the Scottish fantasy and communicate through fashion the brutal reality. Andrew Groves, McQueen’s head assistant explained: “His background working in costume meant he saw fashion shows far more in cinematic terms, where any subject is acceptable for discussion and exploration”.

 

‘Rape’ referred to England’s violation of the Scottish clan system during the Highland Clearances (1750-1860) in which Highlanders, often through brutality and arson, were evicted from their homes so the land could be used for sheep farming. The clans were embedded in tradition, bound by loyalty and the extorted land was their means of survival.

 

For McQueen it was personal. The London-born designer had Scottish blood, which his mother Joyce traced back to the Isle of Skye during the time of the Jacobite Uprisings. The island’s inhabitants, McQueen’s ancestors, were victim of the early example of ethnic cleansing.

What was witnessed on the 13th of March was McQueen’s pent-up fury. The models' antics ranged from staggering like they had been attacked to hysterically stomping and masturbating. The collection was presented with such conviction the unease the onlookers felt was evidently no accident, McQueen was expressing the tribulations and genocide which had gone overlooked for too long. If the press felt victimised watching it their experience was a mere fraction of the real sufferers. They failed to realise his ingenuity.

What frustrated McQueen about Westwood’s balmoralism can be likened to modern ideas of cultural appropriation by presenting something intertwined with oppression through an idealised English perspective

Highland Rape’s notoriety was equaled by its sartorial brilliance; McQueen may have attracted controversy, but he did not rely on it. He utilised his traditional tailoring experience from Saville Row throughout the collection: a long blue coat, billowing at the tail, was cut to frame the model's exposed breasts, and a dishevelled, one-shouldered dress was torn at the crotch. Its unassuming ice-blue lace had been dyed, with metallics appearing as golden stains from the wild terrain the model had been abandoned to wander in. There were experimental proportions in the form of a low-waisted, mandarin collared tartan skirt-suit which was secured with a chain at the chest.

The use of tartan, Clan McQueen’s own, was significant in itself. Tartan is a material emblem for the Scottish struggle; worn to show support for the Jacobite cause and later outlawed by the English in 1746, who appropriated it as fashionable dress. This  began with George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822, where aspects of Highland culture were used for entertainment, and later cemented by Queen Victoria’s fondness of her Highland holiday castle Balmoral. Henceforth the tartanisation of Scotland has been a constant, but none vexed McQueen quite as much as Vivienne Westwood, who took the liberty of designing her own named ‘Westwood MacAndreas’ tartan for her 1993 Anglomania Collection.

Westwood’s catwalk adhered exclusively to the romantic fairytale of the Highlands. A glamorous plaited tartan mini skirt worn by Linda Evangelista, styled with a sporran, swelled up at the hips and dropped at the back to emulate a kilt. A tulle ballgown draped with swathes of tartan closed the show, worn by Kate Moss who donned a matching veil, like a fictitious bride to be wed in the dreamy highlands.

 

This sentimentality was new to Westwood’s approach to the patterned cloth, which has become a core part of the Englishwoman’s brand. As a punk Westwood, provoked tartans association with the upper class, she used Queen Elisabeth II’s personal favourite, ‘Royal Stewart’, and applied it to modern design. What frustrated McQueen about Westwood’s balmoralism can be likened to modern ideas of cultural appropriation by presenting something intertwined with oppression through an idealised English perspective.

 

Highland Rape came during a wave of Scottish Nationalism, with it slightly predating the release of Braveheart (1995), and at a time of contention in UK domestic politics. The same year the Scottish Constitutional Convention published a paper requesting for a Scottish Parliament and devolved powers from Westminster, which they were granted in 1999. In 1996, there was also requests to remove the 100ft Duke of Sutherland statue, a main perpetrator of the Highland Clearances, which continues to loom across the Highlands as a constant reminder of its tormented past.

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Alexander McQueen, Widows of Culloden, Autumn/Winter 2006

It tackled the battle of Culloden - the bloody event that ended the Jacobite uprisings and secured Scotland’s unwilling union with England - with a sense of irremediable loss

McQueen returned to shed light on the Highlands for the poignant Widows of Culloden in 2006, to whom he dedicated the show. The sorrowful collection was more polished than its predecessor, it tackled the battle of Culloden - the bloody event that ended the Jacobite uprisings and secured Scotland’s unwilling union with England - with a sense of irredeemable loss. It was deeply poetic; a cream chiffon and lace dress with layers of ruffles trailed behind the model conveying a sense of melancholia, her face was concealed by a Philip Treacy headpiece that draped fabric from stag antlers, a symbol of freedom in Scotland.

 

Much of these concerns surrounding Scottish history are overlooked in the country’s own classrooms. The current curriculum teaches the emigration that occurred in the 19th century as diplomatic and focuses on the 1707 ‘Treaty of Union’ as opposed to the cause it derived from, but none of these are mandatory subjects. Today it remains possible and common for Scottish students to complete their high school career without being taught Scottish history to any degree.

 

It has been less than 300 years since the Scots were exiled from the Highlands. The Scottish diaspora has since spread across the globe and their country has betrayed them again; allowing their story to fade into obscurity. Through the medium of fashion, Lee McQueen unpacked centuries of unresolved politics in a collection that was as misunderstood as Scotland’s history itself.