Alexander McQueen: a career in pictures

The late designer showed that fashion can also be art.

Having worked in fashion, I tend to agree with George Pitcher's opinion in the Telegraph this morning that it can sometimes feel like a "pointless and sordid industry". But that's about as far as we agree. A truly creative mind like that of Lee "Alexander" McQueen, who died last week, cannot fail to be inspirational.

McQueen showed that fashion can also be art. The tributes that poured in over the weekend stressed his ability to shock, surprise and awe with spectacles of insurmountable beauty.

His understanding of fabric and its relationship to the human body was fine-tuned as an apprentice on Savile Row. It was this perfect understanding that brought us low-slung "bumster" jeans, a trick of tailoring that elongated the torso and exposed the lower back, which he thought of as the most erotic part of the body.
 
As much a showman as a designer, McQueen forced his audience to look at things differently. The genius lay in his wacky and stunningly original concepts. Once he ordered car spraying robots to cover the model Shalom Harlow in paint as she stood on a rotating disc. This was long before that advert featuring the machines appeared on TV.

"You find a lot of ideas from my shows in adverts now. I find it a compliment," he said later in an interview with Sarah Mower at US Vogue. In other shows he had models dragged on to the catwalk by wolves and surrounded his audience in mirrors. "It was a great thing to do in the fashion industry -- turn it back on them!"

He did not, as the Daily Mail's Liz Jones says, merely create clothes for us to marvel at but not to wear. Unlike younger British designers such as Gareth Pugh, who has undoubtedly been influenced by McQueen's dramatic and sculptural aesthetic, he transformed his art and passion into a workable and very profitable business.

Fashion labels don't survive because ethereal, long-legged beauties buy their clothes; they profit when ordinary people buy in to that vision with their cold, hard-earned cash.

Below is a selection of highlights from McQueen's career.

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Alexander McQueen and Sarah Jessica Parker attending the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Benefit Gala in New York 2006. Evan Agostini/Getty Images

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McQueen's ready-to-wear spring/summer 2010 show in Paris. FRANÇOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images

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McQueen salutes his audience for the last time, during men's fashion week in Milan. DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/Getty Images

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One of McQueen's signature hats at his ready-to-wear spring/summer 2008 show.

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Models at his autumn/winter 2009 show.

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With the stylist Isabella Blow in 2005. Blow, a close friend, committed suicide in 2007.

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The ready-to-wear autumn/winter 2009 fashion show at Paris Fashion Week.

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With the models Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss at a charity auction and fashion show in London, June 2004.

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With his mother, Joyce, who died shortly before Alexander's suicide.

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McQueen receives a CBE from the Queen, one of many awards honouring his contribution to fashion.

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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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