The designer Alexander McQueen has apparently committed suicide, and this is the way Robin Givhan of the WaPo eulogizes him:
In one of his early shows in 1999, which unfolded in a chilly warehouse along New York’s Hudson River and drew a packed house despite a tropical-storm warning, Mr. McQueen’s models splashed through ankle-deep water in a makeshift pool.
The collection addressed female sexuality in triptych. In one moment, Mr. McQueen aggressively flaunted the female body in a boldly revealing and vulgar manner. Then, his vision of women turned strong and self-empowering. And ultimately, it shifted to sexuality as something completely hidden, as if the very mention of it was cause for revulsion.
Female repression and disenfranchisement in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime had been in the headlines at the time, and Mr. McQueen put chadors in this collection and used them as a tool for exploring the politics of gender.
In his finale, cloaked models swayed from trapeze-type swings, then suddenly the sounds of an electrocution reverberated around the vast room. The models’ frail bodies jerked and flailed into stillness. It was a deeply troubling fashion presentation grounded in social consciousness—and confusion, and frustration—rather than mere beauty.
Thank heaven for that! Many’s the time I’ve observed people—on the street, at dinner, at the theater—and thought, You know, all this mere beauty being achieved in tailoring and dressmaking is a big bore. Why can’t some designer start helping people look slovenly and overtly sexualized for a change?
I mean, you’d think that if you wanted to use the chador (I thought that was the Iranian version, BTW?) as a point of departure for fashion as social commentary, you’d think about how it’s part of a system that starves women for beauty and sensory stimulation—keeping them in their houses or literally under wraps when outside them. If you were a trained and skilled designer, wouldn’t you want to take the opportunity to offer gorgeous colors, touchable fabrics, and flattering cuts, to celebrate the possibilities precluded by sack-wearing? You might even raise challenging questions about modesty by making women look hot without falling out of everything, and raise disturbing questions about propriety by men look hot without seeming to be wearing their gym clothes. Then spoiled fashionistas who wanted an anthropology or comparative religion lesson could go to the NYU adult education program where such things belong.
The unfettered imagination must be served, and if there’s enough money in the fashion world to mount runway shows that serve as “intensely personal therapy” sessions, why not? I believe in markets. Sitting in a bone-chilling warehouse watching faked electrocutions presumably has value for some people. (It’s not particularly helpful to real suffering Afghan women in any way I’m aware of, though.) What’s sad is that the state of things is such that Givhan leads with that, as if it were what the mass audience should remember McQueen for, relegating his real “social contribution” to page 2:
Mr. McQueen was not merely flash and petulance. He was substance, too. Indeed, he was able to cut a suit with enough professional sharpness and reserve that no-nonsense women — including lawyers and first lady Michelle Obama — found a place for them in their wardrobe.
He explained the decision in an interview with The Washington Post: “I come from Savile Row. This is where I learned my craft. For me, working with Huntsman is less about a trend in fashion or the culture and more about a respect for craftsmanship and attention to detail.
“I realize that it may not be a big part of my business in financial terms, but I do believe that there will always be a customer who appreciates the art and the tradition of tailoring.”
McQueen’s flagship label is too rich for my blood—and, in any case, I work in an industry in which showing up at the office in pressed wool trousers rather than jeans draws questions about your big dinner plans—but I have a little denim shirt from his diffusion line that’s one of my favorites. It has half-zippers where you’d expect piping, and when people notice, it always makes them smile. It’s also beautifully built. So are the McQueen suits and dresses I’ve seen others wear. That’s the real way fashion in a free society makes a political statement and shows social consciousness: by flattering individuals with distinct personalities that mesh with the designer’s.
But, of course, what gets top billing as McQueen’s legacy is, like, Maggie Rizer (or whoever it was) in a cloth bag having spasms on a trapeze. I don’t blame Givhan, who’s just doing her job as a fashion columnist, but it’s a shame nonetheless.
Via Ann Althouse.
Added on 13 February: Deep Glamour has a post up about McQueen, of course, that includes a link to a much better Telegraph obit and a comment in which Virginia Postrel links to this photo-post about McQueen’s career highlights.
While I’m adding those, let me just expand a little bit on something I wrote above: I’m not trying to argue that fashion can’t make a political statement. Who wears what on what occasions has been bound by taboos and political rules since time immemorial, and there’s no reason that designers shouldn’t see political expression as an aspect of their work or that scholars shouldn’t then study it.
My point is that, if we’re going to see some runway shows as political art, we have to judge them by the same criteria we’d use to judge, say, a multimedia installation in a gallery that treated the same issues. Has the artist risked something of himself by taking a position that could be debated and maybe found wanting (or, at the very least, framed the relevant political questions in a way that expresses a point of view)? Or has he just thrown a bunch of provocative stuff together, lunged at the audience with it, and then stepped back to chortle at how much he’s knocked people for a loop? Unless there was more meat to the show Givhan writes about than she describes, I can’t see how it adds up to much of value. Call me old-fashioned, but if you’re going to take the beauty out of art, you’d better have something equally compelling to put in it’s place. A bunch of fragmented images that convey little beyond how socially conscious you think you are doesn’t (ahem) cut it.