Ginger Gregg Duggan argues that contemporary fashion shows, featuring as they do “elaborate costumes, lighting, props, music, and sets,” can be considered as “theater without a plot.” Indeed, “fashion shows function as a crucial site at which … symbolic meanings are circulated around the fashion product, offering an environment within which the elements of performance metaphorically clad the very clothing that clads the models on the runway.” There may be no better example than McQueen’s shows of the fusion between fashion as a concept—the way clothing simultaneously disfigures and enhances the body, and fashion’s conceptual dance with death and desire—and fashion show as live PR performance par excellence. The shows offered a sensory experience that frequently served to shock or discomfit the audience while revealing the designer’s mutual mastery over the fashion design and the creation of experiential worlds in which to realize his creative vision.
In the early 1990s, when McQueen was starting his own label, London Fashion Week was in dire straits. Many prominent British fashion designers were showing their seasonal collections in Paris, and within the industry the event had colloquially become known as “London Fashion Five Minutes,” as it was only of three and a half days’ duration. In October 1992, in an effort to support local talent and reinforce the offering of London Fashion Week, the British Fashion Council sponsored six young designers (one of whom was a recent graduate of Central Saint Martins, Alexander McQueen) to display their work in a group show at the Ritz. The work was exhibited on coat hangers on rails, a far cry from the dynamic, arresting shows that would later become McQueen’s signature.
From October 1993, McQueen would show the collections for his own label in locations that often reflected the themes that inspired him: forgotten and dark histories, the abject, and the tension between sex, violence, strength, and power. These show locations literally set the scene, offering a context that immediately situated his work. They included the Bluebird Garage on the King’s Road, Chelsea, which was built in 1924 in the art deco style and at one point was Europe’s largest garage. Since its heyday, it had become run-down, offering a shambolic locale for McQueen’s second postgraduation collection, “Nihilism” (spring/summer 1994). Models walked to a soundtrack featuring Cypress Hill’s “I Wanna Get High” wearing underwear made of plastic wrap underneath semisheer clothes splattered with red dye to emulate blood. The setting seemed to influence how the audience read the collection, including critic Marion Hume, who made a connection between location and collection in a review for The Independent: “Models … look as if they have recently experienced serious traffic accidents, in sheer and sweaty cling film knickers, with what appeared to be bloody, suppurating, post-operative breasts visible through muslin T-shirts.”
Other locations favored by McQueen for his shows included Café de Paris in the West End, a historic nightclub in which Noël Coward, Marlene Dietrich, and Josephine Baker, among others, had performed in the mid-twentieth century; Bagley’s, a party space in the heart of the red light district in King’s Cross; Borough Market, deliberately chosen for its disquieting atmosphere; and Gatliff Road bus depot, which was rumored to be a storage facility for the city’s refuse.
These locations are significant because the setting of a live performance immediately sets the audience’s expectations. McQueen deliberately chose venues that he assumed his industry guests would be unfamiliar with, and shocked by, playing on what performance scholar Gay McAuley has called the audience’s “horizon of expectation” to suggest an equivalence between their discomfort and his collections’ themes. The often dim, cavernous interiors of the sites of McQueen’s shows offered a space already laden with connotations of the questionable, the discarded, and the underworld. Significantly, these connotations threaded into the historical and artistic references his work made to figures who might be called to, or move through, that world: Jack the Ripper, for example, the inspiration for McQueen’s graduate collection “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims” (1992); or the dissector McQueen invented for his spring/summer 1997 collection, “La Poupée,” who traveled the world collecting women and splicing them together.
The sets created to house the presentation of McQueen’s shows were initially quite simple, relying more on the show’s venue and simple effects, such as white lines painted down the runway for “The Birds” (spring/summer 1995) to emulate a road. These shows were masterminded by McQueen, but realized on a very limited budget in collaboration with a team of friends who each oversaw particular aspects of his shows, and persuaded models, lighting directors, and others to give their time or services for free. Simon Costin did the sets and occasionally supplied jewelry; Australian makeup artist Val Garland did the makeup; Shaun Leane collaborated with McQueen to create bespoke sculptural body jewelry; McQueen’s friend and hairstylist Mira Chai Hyde did the hair backstage; and Katy England started working with McQueen as his creative director from his spring/summer 1995 collection, “The Birds.”
While McQueen continued to work with most of these collaborators after he signed with financial backers Onward Kashiyama in 1996, the budget for his shows grew to tens of thousands of pounds per show, which resulted in the sets becoming more lavishly realized. An example of this is McQueen’s show “Bellmer La Poupée” for spring/summer 1997, which drew on the connotations of the uncanny and abject suggested by the collection. The collection was inspired by the German artist Hans Bellmer, who dissected life-size dummies and reassembled them, styling them in tableaux vivants that he then photographed. Working in the 1920s and 1930s, his work was a critique on the Nazis’ fascist ideal of physical perfection.
The preoccupation with surfaces, interiority, and exteriority provoked by Bellmer’s work was evoked in a set designed by Simon Costin and inspired by the artist Richard Wilson’s 1987 installation 20:50, which was continuously on display at each of the Saatchi Gallery’s venues between 1991 and 2015. The work featured a narrow platform that protruded into what looked like a holographic spatial field, which was actually a pool of highly reflective sump oil, providing an immersive visual experience. Surfaces were shown to be similarly deceptive in Costin’s set, in which the catwalk was a actually a custom-made plastic and wood frame lined with black and flooded with water to make it look like a black mirror. What seemed solid was shown to be liquid when the first model walked out, causing ripples to emanate from her high, Perspex wedge heels to create the effect that the models, in the words of The Times’s Iain R. Webb, “appeared, quite literally, to walk on water.”
A common assumption from audiences when viewing a live performance is that all elements of the staging are deliberate: the areas marked as the site of performance—the proscenium stage, the catwalk—become spaces where we expect to make meaning from what is displayed. Occurrences that are accidental but do not interrupt or prematurely end the performance are frequently accepted as intentional by the audience, which looks with the expectation of seeing a cluster of signs that collectively communicate a unified, if ambiguous, message. This worked in McQueen’s favor during the staging of “It’s a Jungle Out There,” his fall/winter 1997 collection. The show was held at Borough Market, the area intended for the performance demarcated by heavy black curtains that were guarded twenty-four hours a day by security guards. Simon Costin had sourced two salvaged cars to frame the runway, and he smashed them up, intending to light them with “flame” to emulate a famous scene from the 1978 thriller Eyes of Laura Mars, in which Faye Dunaway’s fashion photographer character shoots a group of models in front of a backdrop of burning cars.
While the cars were a deliberate reference to the film, Costin did not actually plan to set them alight; however, when a group of students from Central Saint Martins forced their way into the show, one accidentally kicked a fire pot over, setting one of the cars on fire. The audience assumed it was part of the show, continuing to watch the models stalk the runway. Costin later joked that he should have checked that the gas tanks of the vehicles were empty before the show.
Fashion scholars generally agree that contemporary fashion shows provide a performative space to display new collections for the apprehension of the fashion industry, which will circulate the messages of the collection to those who will eventually buy it; also, since the digital era, designers have been able to communicated directly with consumers themselves through instantaneous social media coverage and live streams. The shows’ function is mostly promotional in this sense, evident in Nathalie Khan’s argument that the sole purpose of fashion shows is for the label “to be noticed.” The more visually spectacular or shocking the show, the more likely it will generate press coverage; McQueen himself admitted in 1997 that he “deliberately courted press attention by staging shows designed to shock.” Yet reviewers tended to note that the more mature McQueen’s work grew, the less gratuitous shock value there was in his shows: they still evoked an awestruck or horrified response, but the effects were more in the service of the collection being shown rather than serving as a performative middle finger to the industry.
It is interesting that at times, the clothes functioned as elements of the performance, being both part of the collection and created solely for the purpose of the theatrical effect their unveiling would create. In this way, these few showpieces sat between costume and collection, as they became iconic of the shows in which they appeared but were never intended to be worn beyond the context of the performance. For example, at “The Hunger” (spring/summer 1996), a show staged in an official London Fashion Week tent outside the Natural History Museum, model Stella Tennant wore a transparent piece of body armor that covered her from neck to navel, filled with the red, etiolated bodies of live worms. In “Voss” (spring/summer 2001), one of McQueen’s most famous shows, Erin O’Connor wore a dress made of razor clam shells that had been gathered from a beach in Norfolk. As she sidled through the enclosed glass box of the set, she pulled at the dress with her hands, causing the delicate shells to splinter and break, a spectacle likened by Judith Watt to “a snake sloughing off its skin.”
These pieces, and others such Shalom Harlow’s paint-streaked dress, created in an electrifying finale to the spring/summer 1999 show “No. 13,” exist most fully within the show: to shock, to prompt wonder and awe. They were not intended for sale, but neither were they accents solely added for dramatic effect. Rather, they seem to communicate the ephemerality of fashion, and indeed of visions of fashion, that exist in the moment of realization before being superseded. Within McQueen’s visual world, in which victim becomes predator and fragility has a razor edge, these garments seem to symbolize fashion itself. These pieces were displayed alongside clothing that could be more readily separated from the drama of the styling to be sellable, a point that reviewers often made, as if extricating the commercial from under the glamour and ferocity the shows overlaid onto these clothes.
McQueen’s collections communicated his skill as a designer, and the craftsmanship of his work as well as its unique blend of historical references and allusions to sadomasochism, abuse, survival, and the ethereal. Yet at the same time, they often epitomized wider themes about fashion: the death and resurrection at the heart of its never-ending cyclical nature, and the ephemerality of life and, indeed, of fashion itself. Rather than having a collection complete and ready to be dressed on models backstage, McQueen customized and altered his garments to communicate more closely and holistically with the show, which revealed them to his audience.
While McQueen meticulously envisaged his fashion shows, sartorial elements that were carefully, if quickly, constructed—such as trousers, which McQueen could famously cut and sew to precise proportions without a pattern—were juxtaposed with elements that were improvised or tailored backstage. The plastic wrap panties that so horrified Marion Hume were made by rolling the plastic onto the models’ bodies backstage—when McQueen and his team realized they hadn’t bought any underwear to style with the sheer muslin garments about to go out on the runway. John Boddy, a student from Central Saint Martins on work placement during the “Highland Rape” show (fall/winter 1995), was instructed by McQueen to shred dresses with a utility knife and spray paint on them backstage, while McQueen himself took to lacy dresses with a pair of shears. Fully dressed models backstage for “The Birds” (spring/summer 1995) had car tires dipped in black paint rolled over their bodies, leaving tracks across their décolletage and hips as if they had been run over before being sent down the runway. This demonstrates the inextricability of McQueen’s shows from his collections: they were not simply theatrical spaces in which to circulate symbolic meanings around the new collection, as can be the case for other designers. The clothes were modified to speak more fully within the context of the show, which itself extended the intended meaning of the collection, and its possibilities to speak of and for the body.
As has been intimated thus far, the effect of McQueen’s shows on the audience was a key factor influencing their design. The designer said in 1997 that: “Shows are about sex, drugs, and rock and roll … I want heart attacks. I want ambulances.” By showing models in pants stained with bleach at the crotch to look as if they’d wet themselves in fear, or running, terrified and bloodstained down the runway as if fleeing from an attacker, McQueen deliberately interrupted the romantic, somewhat bourgeois vision of fashion—and of femininity—that was dominant when he started his label.
This vision was not always appreciated or understood by his reviewers who, at times, labeled his work as misogynistic. Yet McQueen maintained that his work was about feminine strength, about the tenacity and ferocity of survivors even as they were a critique of the actions of the powerful: England’s oppression of Scottish Highlanders, for example, in “Highland Rape”; or the role of religion in wars, invoked in “Dante” (fall/winter 1996).
What is notable is that McQueen’s shows often seemed to prompt a visceral embodied reaction from the audience, perhaps most evidently in his show “VOSS” for spring/summer 2001. Held at the Victoria bus depot near the Thames, the audience entered the venue to encounter a mirrored glass cube. There they waited for over an hour for the show to begin, confronted with their own reflections while listening to a soundtrack of a heartbeat and labored breathing. McQueen was watching the audience backstage, later telling fashion journalist Sarah Mower: “I was looking at it on the monitor, watching everyone trying not to look at themselves. It was a great thing to do in the fashion industry—turn it back on them!”
As the show began, the lights rose to reveal the interior of the cube, furnished with white floor tiles, padded walls, and a tarnished metal box in the center. Kate Moss appeared, her head wrapped in white bandages, dressed in a pale, putty-colored top and skirt with asymmetrical ruffles, walking from point to point within the cube, coming into brief contact with each mirrored surface as she did so. She did not seem able to see the audience on the other side; the effect was that of a patient enclosed in a sanatorium. There were seventy-six looks shown in themes, the more commercial dresses and signature trousers punctuated by showpieces that became increasingly influenced by the organic forms and materials of nature: plumes of feathers sprouted from Jade Parfitt’s shoulders above her naked breasts in one look, while in another a model seemed to have vivid green foliage protruding from her torso. “Look No. 10” featured an embroidered gray frock coat with the arms fastened across the front of the model’s torso, like a straitjacket crossed with the neat drape of a kimono sleeve. The models walked with dazed looks, at times dragging their arms across the mirror between them and the audience, at other times staggering aimlessly across the space.
As Erin O’Connor walked the final look off the stage, the lights dimmed, momentarily revealing the reflections of the audience in the glass again, before a spotlight lit the tarnished metal box, which had sat enclosed for the duration of the show so far. The front and back of the box slowly lowered to reveal a cloud of moths flying around journalist Michelle Olley, a voluptuous nude, reclining with her face covered by a winged mask with tubes attached to the ceiling through which she breathed. She later wrote in her diary: “I am what most of them fear the most—fat.”
By juxtaposing the fashion models with Olley, the fresh-cheeked beauty of their makeup with their strange movement, the live moths with the shells and feathers of animals long gone, “VOSS” invoked a number of tensions, as Andrew Wilson has observed, between “beauty and ugliness, sex and death, sanity and madness.” The collection itself spoke to these themes, with their references to Victorian shapes, to garments that restrain, and in silhouettes that cut away unexpectedly to reveal the calves through vents in trousers. Yet the show itself, by placing the audience in the position that would have been assumed by an asylum’s medical staff, made a spectacle of the show while implicating the audience.
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