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The September Issue:
Excess and Austerity in Fashion
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 03 14-08 2, 2015.
Alexander McQueen. Claire Wilcox, ed. London: V&A Publishing, 2015. Pp. 347. $85.00 (cloth).
Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style. Imperial War Museum, London, 03 5-08 31, 2015.
Fashion on the Ration: Style in the Second World War. Julie Summers. London: Profile Books & Imperial War Museum, 2015. Pp. 232. $96.60 (cloth).

Vogue’s September issue, the annual fashion event of the periodical year, comes out in August; this journal’s September issue probably squeaked out just in time; and the exhibitions discussed here are now like totally fermé, babe. Here in the ivory tower we were shooting for the piece to appear in this journal’s September issue. Then one of the books came to me late, and like most academics I read slowly and think slower. What used to be virtue—the stately pace of considered opinion—is now plight: fashion has no time for virtue, and academic publication calendars are glacial by anyone’s standards, let alone the giddy, vicious impatience of the modern clothing business. Academically speaking, modernism is à la mode, but schmatte ain’t hay. It pays to look ahead, and—you’re hearing this here first—modernism’s relation to fashion is the future.

Since it is in uneasy relation to the marketplace (like all aesthetics), fashion markets itself seasonally by looking forward: fall and winter looks come out the summer before, and if it’s autumn, you’re seeing what spring and summer will look like—that’s The September Issue: of Vogue, and of vogue. Academia could do with some catching up. Fashion may be in a race with death (Giacomo Leopardi said this in 1827; Walter Benjamin copied it as an epigraph for the fashion convolute in his Arcades project), but academia is in a race with fashion. [End Page 219]

That’s the other September Issue: we in academia need to take transience seriously. Modernism has been reckoning with the ephemeral for some time, beginning with Baudelaire (or Marx, or Descartes), and in Anglophone studies, tracking the salon, contemplating the role of popular entertainment, the Little Magazine, and then more sweepingly with the rise of periodical studies and the issues regarding institutional art that would turn into happenings. Ephemerality embodied, fashion hits all the marks. The “transitory, fugitive element, whose metamorphoses are so rapid” that Baudelaire marked as half of modernity goes hand in glove with “the eternal and the immutable.”1 At the scholarly level, the transitory is here to stay, and it’s time to catch up with what is gone. That’s the future.

So let’s look back. Two things happened in London last spring that had a great deal to do with each other, even though the amateur probably would not put them together, thinking they clash. In fact however, just as fashion and death run apace, excess and austerity are two sides of the same coin.

On the one hand, excess: the Victoria and Albert Museum’s spring incarnation of the Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty exhibition broke all museum records: 85,000 tickets in advance sales, and, the day after visiting, I tried to book tickets online to see what mere mortals went through, having sailed in on someone else’s well-cut coattails. I stood on line online in order to be informed that as a member of the general public I would have to wait until the following month to repeat the experience. While I was dithering with my imaginary schedule—busy, busy, busy—the weekends were vanishing in front of my eyes. By the beginning of summer, advance tickets were sold out. Having for the first time remained open 24 hours a day for the show’s final two weekends, the museum reported that, by the time the show closed in early August, over 480,000 tickets had been sold to what the museum’s website is currently (in this moment of typing) calling the “Most Successful V&A Exhibition Ever.” Meanwhile, the Imperial War Museum’s Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style show entailed pretty much, as in precisely, showing up whenever we (I travel in packs) wanted and immediately being admitted by the same nice young woman who would later sell us a postcard.

That season, five years after the London designer’s 2010 suicide, you couldn’t turn around without knocking over McQueeniana. The image of the model Magdalena Frackowiak, with madly over-lacquered red mouth and black duck-feathers skull cap, shiny and particulate over a post-racially white face (this is mixed species; not mixed race), had been taken from McQueen’s 2009–10 The Horn of Plenty collection and became the V&A show’s icon, appearing at seemingly every tube station in central London. The model’s mouth, with its lipstick beyond borders, was McQueen’s homage to Leigh Bowery, the traffic-stopping club kid from Sunshine, Australia who took the London underground club scene by storm in the 1980s and early 1990s, dressing to kill even for the London overground (before it was a transit system). Tate Britain showed Nick Waplington’s photographic series “Working Process,” documenting The Horn of Plenty as it was coming together. Or you could go to the War Paint show at the Fashion Space Gallery and learn about McQueen’s catwalk makeup and its prosthetics. Or you could go to the St. James Theatre and see the play “McQueen,” starring a shaven-headed Stephen Wright languorously hell-bent on giving you the backstory to The Girl Who Lived in the Tree, another McQueen collection (F/W 2008–09).

Austerity meanwhile was officially the name of the game beginning in wartime Britain, and it was being revisited in 2015 London just as the general election was happening. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury’s parting note, “I’m afraid there is no money,” had been flourished by the opposition; cuts loomed. Zeitgeist or no, the Imperial War Museum London’s Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style exhibition demonstrated in the tidy space of seven sections (ranging from “Functional Fashion,” “Rationing and ‘Make-Do and Mend,’” and “Beauty as Duty”) the profound effect of the war and its economy on what Britain wore. Underneath it all ran the current of a nation’s spirit. Far less glamorous than the McQueen, the IWM show and the accompanying book by Julie Summers were and are quiet, trustworthy guides for understanding not just the period under scrutiny but how fashion works, and how it may be worked. As it turns out, austerity and excess do in fact go together, for as both shows demonstrated, creativity can be born from both. Once paired, they allow us to see how for better or worse fashion is an institution. [End Page 220]

With the display of the sartorial firmly at its center, the IWM exhibit employed a range of objects—wall art, paintings, film, posters, periodicals, and audio interviews (piped through wartime telephones on the walls, cleverly conveying a sense of conversational intimacy with the speaker)—to show how governmental austerity restrictions regulated virtually every aspect of the use of materials that could be used for the war effort, with increasingly dwindling resources forcing unexpected forms of innovation. Silk was unavailable after 1940, thus silk stockings were the first to go, and the British housewife drawing a seam up the back of her legs (a difficult trick) became one of the period’s enduring images. Parachute silk (eventually made from nylon and rayon) could be refashioned for bridal dresses; on display was a “bridesmaid’s dress made for and worn by Janet Saunders for the wedding of Ted Hillman (4th Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment) and Ruby Mansfield in 1945.”2 (Its widespread use is a tad hard to believe: as Summers notes, it would take a lot of downed parachutes to account for all those memories.) Many women preferred to be married in uniform, and with one quarter of the British population entitled to wear them, unprecedented numbers of women were kitted out, whether in the armed forces, with the WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) deemed the most chic; or working on the home front as for instance ticket conductresses. The anxiety at the sight of a female in trousers—what had been termed slackers in slacks—decreased considerably.

Even more dramatic cultural change underpinned the introduction of rationing (of most household goods, but here clothing) and the accompanying culture of “make-do and mend.” Clothing costs had skyrocketed, with the cost of living, according to the Board of Trade, increasing 30% by the time of the Blitz (Summers 74). A Limitation of Supplies Order in March 1940 restricted the amount of materials like cotton and linen that retailers could purchase (62). Household-wise, food had been rationed since 1940 and the first Clothes Rationing Order was dated June 1, 1941 (76), so “Coupon Culture” became a mind-bogglingly complicated fact of life. Each household was initially accorded sixty-six clothing coupons for a year in order to force “clothing consumption down to two-thirds of the pre-war levels” (77); each clothing item tallied with a set number of coupons (fourteen for a woman’s winter coat, seven for a skirt or a dress, three coupons for knickers, corsets, or aprons [80]). Babies and growing children meant extra coupons. Time mattered: the coupons were color-coded to demarcate what coupons could be exchanged when. The scheme (despite sounding dastardly to American ears, the English “scheme” simply means “program”) was meticulously planned and relatively few tweaks given, although by 1942–43 the allocation was cut to sixty coupons and extended to cover fifteen months.

The transition to rationing was startlingly smooth, especially given its suddenness; news of it was not leaked in advance to the public, and it even caught Churchill, who had opposed it, off guard (76). Retailers had Whit Sunday and the following Monday’s bank holiday to scramble into readiness. In his June 1 radio broadcast, the President of the Board of Trade, Oliver Lyttelton, who was responsible for the majority of the scheme, told the nation: “When you feel tired of your old clothes, remember that by making them do you are contributing some part of an aeroplane, a gun or a tank” (quoted in Summers 77). “Make-do and mend” had officially arrived. A 1941 Picture Post article, “The Death of a Dinner Gown,” displayed at the IWM, tracked its resurrection as “short black frock”; bedspreads reappeared as coats.

British propaganda scarves would encourage recycling; one on show (by Jacqmar of London and designed by Arnold Lever, who was also in the RAF) reminded the reader-wearer of potential second lives: “Bedsteads into bullets,” “paper into shells,” it proclaims, with images of bicycles, hot-water bottles, and in a particularly complex series of associations ranging from nationality to class, an empty Veuve Clicquot champagne bottle. [End Page 221]

Fig 1. Jacqmar scarf, “Salvage Your Rubber” (1940–45)<br/><br/>©IWM
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Fig 1.

Jacqmar scarf, “Salvage Your Rubber” (1940–45)


If you think a scarf, qua accessory, is frivolous, think again: two coupons let you cover up hair that hadn’t been shampooed, let alone set, in weeks. Or it’s there to keep your hair from catching in machinery; the outfits worn by newly working women in hairnets and overalls were documented in paintings on view like 1943’s “Picture of the Year” by Laura Knight: Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring. While material and certain aspects of design were regulated, color was not; fashion magazines would encourage startling color combinations, evinced by the scarves on display. Rationing and recycling alone, however, would not suffice.

The official emphasis on austerity increased with the introduction of the Utility Scheme in February 1942. While “Utility” would refer to the fabric employed for clothing (including serge, tweed, and certain kinds of cotton), “Austerity” in this context included the official limitation of pleats, pockets, or turned-up cuffs on trousers and sleeves (95). Anything extra was deemed a misuse of valuable resources. Pleating takes time, and a pleat takes cloth.

Officially beginning April 1942 and lasting past the war to 1949, austerity regulations and utility clothing were another means by which the economy and fashion were regulated in the service of the war effort. With utility clothing, designers—and high-end British designers like Molyneux were recruited to generate the outfits—had to reckon not only with the standardization of production but the regulation of design principles that “curbed” what would otherwise be “an orgy of pockets and pleats,” as Homes and Gardens put it, in the service of the “new beauty in austere lines.” [End Page 222]

Fig 2. A British Woman Dressed in Wartime Utility Fashion<br/><br/>©IWM
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Fig 2.

A British Woman Dressed in Wartime Utility Fashion


The paradoxical epigrams on which fashion thrives took on economic force: Harper’s Bazaar pronounced that “Fashion … is out of fashion” (quoted in Summers 104). The IWM displayed a variety of utility fashions, the best of which sported buttons (no more zippers; metals were in short supply) bearing the “double cheese” emblem of the CC41 (Civilian Clothing Order 1941) logo.

Fig 3. “The Cheeses”: CC41 Utility Clothing logo, designed by Reginald Shipp
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Fig 3.

“The Cheeses”: CC41 Utility Clothing logo, designed by Reginald Shipp

[End Page 223]

Summers’s book provides both a bracingly lucid historical trajectory and a wealth of detail. We meet a variety of women living through the war, unostentatiously and tenaciously, with striking documentary voices in evidence through letters, diaries, a dexterous use of the British Mass Observation Project, and overlooked accounts, published and unpublished, of the war. For instance, Zelma Katin and her autobiography “Clippie”: The Autobiography of a War Time Conductress record with directness and poise the effect of seeing a working woman commanding respect and subtly changing social mores: the uniform conveyed authority, and the average Englishman was more likely to address a uniformed female than her civilian counterpart. Another subtle but major contribution is Summers’s reintroduction of Audrey Withers, Vogue’s wartime editor (and the author’s grandfather’s cousin). The role of the periodical in terms of its collaboration with and occasional kicks against governmental regulations is indicative of the potential archival resources still to be plumbed in modernism’s account of periodical culture and, perhaps more interestingly, vice versa.

Summers might have been more explicit about a hinted-at but under-elaborated resistance to the imposition of austerity regulations by the manufacturing and clothing trade; and—more pruriently—some explanation of what precisely constituted the “old methods of coping” with menstruation to which women resorted when sanitary towels (or “Nuffield’s nifties,” named after the British motor manufacturer and philanthropist who supplied the otherwise virtually unobtainable item to women in the forces) became unavailable. We may be at the limits of historical record here, but my grandmother never told me. Nonetheless, this is an unabashed and fascinating account of elements of culture that might at one time have been deemed unfit for consideration. As both Summers’s book and the exhibit made clear, “Supporting Britain’s Women” (a chapter title) ran the gamut from (baggy) utility stockings—and only a slowly diminishing official horror at the prospect of women appearing barelegged publicly—to the knickers known as “passion killers” and easily the most-complained-about item under austerity: the corset. When the use of elastic is restricted, and rubber and metal directed to the war, corset construction suffers, and as the show’s Report from the Board of Trade documented, wearers’ grievances were consistent and loud, possibly because women were able to take a good deep breath before voicing their displeasure (but here again I stray into presentism).

Even as it was deemed unpatriotic to look showy, cosmetics could step in to offset the increasingly scarce clothing resources, as the “Beauty as Duty” section of the exhibition made clear. But Helena Rubenstein’s “Regimental Red” lipstick was available for only so long: cosmetics, too, dwindled, and women melted down lipstick stubs to eke out the last dash of color, stained their lips with beetroot, and—in an ophthalmologically wince-making thought—applied boot polish for mascara. Accessorize! The War Museum showed jewelry and earrings “reputedly made from windscreen of a crashed German plane.” Women were instructed by Yardley Cosmetics advertisements that “Good Looks and Good Morale Go Hand in Hand”: “We have to remember that to yield to carelessness is to lower standards to the enemy.”

The show dealt primarily with female fashion and style, with a nod to the effects on men’s clothing (Summers’s book has a leitmotif concerning the outcry at shortening the allowed length of men’s socks; this presents a museological challenge qua display). Far more interesting (to this viewer) were ideas suggested for “blackout wear”; that “Halo hat” would see you through, as would luminous flower accessories. Also on view were women’s handbags with special compartments for gas masks, and “siren suits.” A woman standing next to me rightly called them the “first kind of onesie”: a capacious one-piece slip-on donned en route to the air-raid shelter, with a drop-down panel in the rear to facilitate use of the lav. The museum’s wall text had Nella Last reflecting, “It’s the maddest, most amusing thing a sedate matron of fifty-one ever possessed.”

The amusement lasted only so long. As the war wore on, store shelves became increasingly bare, clothes threadbare, and the initial patriotic enthusiasm for rationing and utility clothing of the British public wore thin, as both the show and Summers document. By 1945, although austerity style controls were rescinded from women’s clothing, resources remained scanty and frustration was evident even in magazine advertisements. The IWM displayed a 1946 Vogue ad for foundation garments: “We too are thwarted—tantalized. Longing to sell, as you are longing to buy.” Another ad’s woman in her (presumably extremely repaired) underwear is kicking away a magazine, impatient at “advertisers that advertise that we’ve nothing to advertise.” [End Page 224]

When French couturier Christian Dior introduced his New Look in 1947, with its wasp waist and full, pleated skirt, the fashion-deprived had had it. What had first been (time-tested) irritation with the French—“Paris Forgets This Is 1947,” reads a September 27, 1947 Picture Post article—turned to ambivalent envy and aggression. The fashions “were causing such widespread concern today,” even as Dior “is a season ahead of everybody else.” Most damningly, however, was the caption for a photo showing five dressmakers working on one skirt: “This afternoon dress takes nearly fifty yards of material. For British women it would require the hoarded coupons of several years.”

Fig 4. Respirator Carrier Handbag<br/><br/>©IWM
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Fig 4.

Respirator Carrier Handbag


Both exhibit and book end on positive notes, emphasizing the legacy of the period, with its DIY ethos and increased expectations for durability. Uniforms and utility, which ended in 1952, having expanded to encompass household goods, brought poorer women a higher quality of clothing than had previously existed, and a uniform might be the first new piece of clothing a woman owned. This was a sort of democracy in fashion, with wearers now expecting longevity and quality. As Summers writes, “the utility scheme was … unique in that high-end designers were involved for the first time in producing styles for the mass market” (178). Too, the degree to which not just consumers but industry complied bears consideration—the production and consumption of fashion were openly driven by economic forces. As the show demonstrated, at certain moments when “fashion is out of fashion,” you’re far from modernism’s earlier passes at Reform clothing, the recurrent parsings of style as transcendent, or the marketing of resistance; but close to an embrace of economic realities and the literal assessment of the essentials for adorning a citizen, whether by governmental regulators and men with notebooks, editorial oversight, or that clever creature with the sewing machine. [End Page 225]

If Fashion on the Ration was about what to do with less, the McQueen show was about what to do with more. The V&A’s answer was more or less everything. Curated by Claire Wilcox, this incarnation had about one-third more space than the 2011 Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Savage Beauty show (itself record-breaking), adding sixty-six pieces and enhancing, as one says, the show with 25% more objects, mostly in the “Cabinet of Curiosities” gallery, which now zoomed up to twenty feet high. Dizzyingly multisensory, with a touch tour for the visually impaired, its galleries ranged from the new opening room of “London,” emphatically claiming McQueen as the city’s own, to “Romantic Gothic,” “Romantic Nationalism,” “Romantic Exoticism,” “Romantic Primitivism,” and “Savage Mind”—variants on the New York prototype. Labyrinthine, bone-embedded tunnels and vitrines studded the spaces between.

These liminal moments might be moments to breathe or they could be breathtaking, as with the recreation of McQueen’s 2006 Widows of Culloden collection, with Kate Moss appearing/not appearing/disappearing—flowering from hovering apparition in chiffon à la Loïe Fuller, growing to full ethereal scale, then diminishing to a spark—via a 3D rendition of Pepper’s Ghost, the nineteenth-century technology tricked out with mirrors and projection. Sound was everywhere: a mournful violin, a heartbeat, or the creepy staccato of typing emanating from a corner of the “Cabinet of Curiosities” gallery (harking back to Jack Nicholson’s Jack character hard at work during Kubrick’s The Shining’s winter term, the inspiration for 1999’s The Overlook collection), as well as the soundtracks for fashion shows and videos orchestrated by Nick Knight in the two men’s ongoing collaboration.

The eyes had it, though. The mise en abyme of the scopic was literalized by consistent reminders that you were the one doing the looking, forcing both forms of reflection: viz. the foxing on the mirrors before which dresses stood, with the placement echoing nineteenth-century fashion plates as a means of showing the back of the dress and the front of the beholder.

Fig 5. “Romantic Primitivism” gallery, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the V&amp;A<br/><br/>©Victoria and Albert Museum London
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Fig 5.

“Romantic Primitivism” gallery, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the V&A

©Victoria and Albert Museum London

[End Page 226]

Fig 6. Installation view of “Romantic Gothic” gallery, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the V&amp;A<br/><br/>©Victoria and Albert Museum London
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Fig 6.

Installation view of “Romantic Gothic” gallery, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the V&A

©Victoria and Albert Museum London

Fig 7. Installation view of “Voss,” Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the V&amp;A<br/><br/>©Victoria and Albert Museum London
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Fig 7.

Installation view of “Voss,” Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the V&A

©Victoria and Albert Museum London

Even at the time, the show depended on when and where and how long you stood, for objects morphed: a still image of a model covered in snakes would suddenly, writhingly animate, or a dark box could shimmer into a padded-walled recreation of McQueen’s 2001 Voss collection, with its reworking of the catwalk into a one-way mirror box displaying first the audience (in putative rebuke of fashion’s self-referentiality/narcissism: fashion critics like nothing more than being handsomely chastised), then revealing McQueen’s models, who were busy seeking [End Page 227] egress, performing madness, or shedding the razor-clam shells comprising the dress—with Erin O’Connor shredding her hands in the process—but ignoring the box-within-a-box that at the show’s climax fell open to reveal fetish writer Michelle Olley reclining on a swaddled and ravaged divan that had sprouted horns, her naked body (but for a silver, ear-finned mask: ergo naked, not nude) hooked up to a breathing apparatus, a scene recreating a 1983 Joel-Peter Witkin photograph, “Sanitarium,” itself reminiscent of the nineteenth-century electrified adventures in human expression by photographer Adrien Tournachon (Nadar’s younger brother). While Witkin hooked his 1983 odalisque to a taxidermied monkey, McQueen gave Olley butterflies, which fluttered and flew but stayed put: all creatures, great and small, remained caged. No one asked what came of the butterflies—the lepidopteran lobby remained noticeably silent—but the 2001 audience teetered to a standing ovation and the free-range journalists trundled off to exult.

Such mobility of appearance was repeatedly troped at the Victoria and Albert. McQueen was always interested in the body’s permutations, with his 1998 guest editorship of the magazine Dazed and Confused featuring “Fashion-Able” model, marathon runner, and double amputee Aimee Mullins—outfitting her for his No. 13 collection years later in ornamented, boot-like prosthetic limbs inspired by the work of the seventeenth-century woodcarver Grinling Gibbons and made by prosthetist Bob Watts and woodcarver Paul Ferguson. Metonymically mistaking, as was intended, boots for body, people asked Mullins how she achieved such lovely thin ankles. Disembodied, made for walking, the boots came to rest in the “Cabinet of Curiosities.”

McQueen’s account of history was essentially a prosthetic one, strapped on not in order to replace time past but as a means of extending body or mind. And just as the prosthetic can be uncanny, disquiet is key to McQueen. His version of the Gothic, which, as Catherine Spooner puts it in her Alexander McQueen essay, privileges “a late-Victorian confluence of taxidermy and mourning wear,” reflects his own artistic ethos, for “in Gothic texts the verisimilitude of historical setting is less important than the opportunities it provides to explore surface and performance” (143, 141). The designer’s interests were always in technē, or what Lisa Skogh refers to in her essay as “artificialia”: “made by man” as opposed to God (179). These proclivities blossomed and sprouted in the exhibit when the organic met the inorganic; where metal meets skin, skin meets feather and fin (it’s all DNA—whether hair or blood, which in fitting Victorian fashion McQueen secreted about his creations); and when people bled into history. In ascending order of Linnaean taxonomy, McQueen’s interests were empire, race, and species.

Too, past and future are bound in McQueen’s febrile imagination, as the formation of the British Empire, along with Joan of Arc, the Renaissance, the dead Romanov children, Charles Darwin, and Hans Bellmer consort with the future of global warming or of genetics. His final completed collection—2010’s Plato’s Atlantis, featured in the show’s last rooms—brought the two realms together, with the silhouette showing a human evolving to its origins: digitally scaled dresses adorning the newly finned female. The future would be Gaga (a crazy, preverbal, adventurous female with her own body issues), whose “Bad Romance” video features the diva dressed in that season’s silhouette alongside a moment from its thumping runway showing, itself live-streamed past Paris’s velvet rope to the satellites orbiting Planet Democracy. McQueen thus realized the Gesamtkunstwerk. [End Page 228]

Fig 8. Installation view of “Plato’s Atlantis” gallery, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the V&amp;A<br/><br/>©Victoria and Albert Museum London
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Fig 8.

Installation view of “Plato’s Atlantis” gallery, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the V&A

©Victoria and Albert Museum London

At its best, his sensibility was techno-baroque. A spattered dress spun in the “Cabinet of Curiosities,” a wonder to behold. It is a relic of the 1999 occurrence closing the No. 13 collection catwalk: Shalom Harlow and her initially all-white, cotton muslin dress—belted at breastbone and lower spine, blooming with tulle beneath—were sprayed with yellow and black paint by two questing machines as she revolved in place, moving her arms about in balletic postures of confusion, horror, defense and defenselessness, and then something uncomfortably like ecstasy; finally, when the machines had had done with her, Harlow groggily left the line of fire in order to face the audience and, as she’s put it, “splayed myself in front of them with complete abandon and surrender,”3 the dress still dripping.

Fig 9. Installation view of “Cabinet of Curiosities” gallery, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the V&amp;A<br/><br/>©Victoria and Albert Museum London
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Fig 9.

Installation view of “Cabinet of Curiosities” gallery, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the V&A

©Victoria and Albert Museum London

[End Page 229]

The point, if it has one (it has no single “point”; it has many), risks po-faced comment on fashioning women in the third machine age: a comment on the circumstance of being party to machine-made orchestrations of chance (McQueen cited as inspiration Rebecca Horn’s 1991 artwork High Noon: two shotguns firing paint at each other), the politics of female surrender (to being mistaken for an object, to being taken for beautiful), and—if you’re listening to the model talk, a feat of which they are indeed capable—of having a job. Finally, or first, there is our ability to applaud novelty, even if—or perhaps especially if—it comes in the form of sanitized sadism or what may be another phrase for that: immanent critique.

None of this means it wasn’t beautiful. It was. But breathtaking is a killing experience, and McQueen knew that. To what degree is this stuff (originally meaning the material from a dress) misogynist? The question disturbed the designer when asked: emphatically not. But autonomy will have its way, and art does things that exceed intention. It would be useful to face the fact of fashion’s savagery: it is immune. Just as McQueen reveled in possibility, his gorgeous corsets were as much about constraint as they were about release. The book accompanying and documenting the show makes this point repeatedly, but with its contributors emphasizing the liberatory.

Alexander McQueen, edited by Claire Wilcox, is staggeringly beautiful. Nothing seems to have been said about the fact that the art book, and in particular the book about fashion in art museums, has cornered a lower-back-killing market that combines scholarship and the elusive creature called the general public. These books are what lipstick and perfume are to design houses—bread for the demographic who want a piece of the circus but can’t afford the clothing—and is physically fit enough to stagger out with it and hope there’s a seat on the subway for the thing-in-itself.

Weighing over five pounds, sporting a snakeskin cover and abjuring any titular reference to the phrase “Savage Beauty”—branding beyond borders—this number comes complete with a foldout section and a blood-red silk bookmark you can use to mark your place or strangle your last duchess. Its structure is carefully curated, with multiple sections, each sometimes divided into slightly longer first and last essays in a different font from the briefer essays they bookend. Especially useful is the closing “Encyclopedia of Collections” by Kate Bethune, which charts the designer’s career year by year. The “Encyclopedia” is both factual (Highland Rape’s runway had heather on it and was in a tent outside the Natural History Museum) and editorial, with Bethune making plain she is impatient with “accusations of misogyny” (306). Ephemera is no longer so, with the section’s reproductions of show invitations kept by the far-seeing. Overall the level of craft for this book is wonderful—a cross-reference can pull in the image you’ve just wandered and wondered over, or call out to an image hundreds of pages later. Academic presses take note: craft matters.

On the other hand, with some major exceptions, the essays can be slight. Some are meant as hors d’oeuvres: Abraham Thomas’s excellent topic, McQueen’s sketches and their translation into material, is brief but compelling. Other essays, though, can read as truncated; tantalizing topics like makeup and McQueen’s relation to the art world and dance are underserved. There are some wonderful pieces: Caroline Evans—one of the smartest fashion writers, thinkers, and historians out there—takes up the phenomenology of technē in “Modelling McQueen: Hard Grace” and talks to the models, arguing that despite the restrictive demands of the designs—“You are being worn by Lee’s [McQueen] clothes. You are not wearing them,” said an assistant designer (197)—the women within them experienced a form of expansiveness: “[T]hey became a part of us and who we were” (199). Her former co-anthologist (of the far-seeing Fashion and Modernity) Christopher Breward places McQueen’s time as Savile Row tailor in terms of the history of the dandy as sabotaged and made new in “Su[i]ture.” Breward’s eye is acute, and it lingers on the much-remarked focus McQueen put on the base of the spine, connecting it rightly to the ogee curve, queering the straight line. Alexander Fury examines the evolution of McQueen’s catwalks, cleverly tying them to the fugitive, multimedia aspects of the court masque and pinpointing [End Page 230] the trope of mediated engagement, if not isolation, in McQueen; while Alistair O’Neill makes a persuasive connection to film’s ethos grounded solidly in acoustic archivalism and splicing.

A hagiographic aura hovers, however. Andrew Bolton, the New York show’s curator (and now chief curator at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) is one of the few who has had the guts to say that McQueen “produced some rather mediocre collections” (19). Even as the book is a celebration, including scholarly essays suggests two things: That McQueen and fashion merit intellectual investigation (yes); McQueen qua topic will bear truly critical scrutiny (yes).

There is something to be said here about how fashion criticism treats its topics. Critical reverence aside, Alexander McQueen marks a major step forward: it shows us how McQueen was gifted not just in what he dreamed but what he let other people realize. Shaun Leane, Philip Treacy, and other independently gifted artists repeatedly testify to McQueen’s ability to describe and let go, then merge the outcome into a collection’s mise-en-scène. There is a rhyme between a sensibility drawn to prosthetics and the collaborative instinct: the line between self and other can productively, creatively blur. Alexander McQueen conveys crucially the fact that the work is the effort of many, many hands, even as one name went on the brand.

Not only were McQueen’s collaborative tendencies a sensibility, but they can be understood in terms of tracking different institutional formations. The first is how we conceive of fashion. Just as cinema studies moved away from auteur theory to an acknowledgment that Hitchcock worked within a system, and to a focus on the industry that makes film possible, contemporary fashion studies needs to re-examine the treatment of the couturier as artiste. Second, critics need to acknowledge the fact of modern couture as institutional. And there can be a downside to collaboration when it literally incorporates. Dana Thomas suggests in Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano that corporate culture killed McQueen. While this is blundering and cruel hyperbole, metaphorizing suicide and the fact of a person’s inner life, the individual’s relation to institutions bears consideration—whether it’s Molyneux and the British government mid-war or McQueen to the fashion industry at the fin de siècle. Edwina Ehrman’s essay on the designer’s relation to Givenchy, for which he worked in the late 1990s, is the more interesting because it openly confronts the tension between the artist and a corporation—and besides Bolton’s, it’s the first account that is less than dazzled, with a reference to McQueen’s “truculent reputation” (105). Similarly, the critic writing about McQueen should be free to pass judgment, which is less possible when you’re working on commission. Couture is indebted to company policy, but criticism is not—or at least there’s more slack on the leash between critic and master.

Any fashion critic worth her salt need be wary of cozying up to the object of her affection. The luxury-goods conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy recently opened its Fondation Louis Vuitton, housed in a spectacular building located in the Bois de Boulogne, bringing together couture, a public art collection, and intellectuals. Geographically, this is exactly where Zola begins and ends the second novel of his Rougon-Macquart series, 1871’s La Curée (The Kill). The final scene has the maniacally fashionable female protagonist surveying Tout Paris before lapsing into a well-dressed but degenerate stupor, which (spoiler) kills her. The last line, with its barely roman-à-clef reference to the father of haute couture, English-born and French-made couturier Charles Worth, adds up the cost of her dresses. “Worms’s bill came to two hundred and fifty seven thousand francs.”4 It’s a high price to pay. What fashion criticism can afford, and what—or whom—we owe, warrants serious accounting.

Jessica Burstein
University of Washington


1. Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life,” in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, ed. and trans. Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon Press, 1995), 13.

2. Imperial War Museum, extranet caption for image EPH 3218.

3. “Dress, No. 13, spring/summer 1999,” in Met Blogs: Alexander McQueen, Savage Beauty, May 4–August 7, 2011, http://blog.metmuseum.org/alexandermcqueen/dress-no-13/#sthash.y2aVNG8M.dpuf. The site features both Harlow’s words and a film of the runway sequence.

4. Émile Zola, The Kill, trans. Brian Nelson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 264. [End Page 231]