Now that Alexander McQueen is dead, the question of his legacy — and the ultimate meaning of his work — remains. Did the designer who put models in cages, and whose shows referenced rape and violence, respect women? Interpretations vary.
Writer Joan Smith seems to regard the aftermath of the designer's untimely death as a ripe occasion to broadcast a corrective. It would be a mistake, and evidence of one's weakness for "showmanship" over substance, she writes, to construe McQueen as any friend to womankind:
The word used over and over again was "edgy". McQueen was a showman and fashion editors emerged from his collections stunned by the extravaganza; when you're basically there to write about clothes, what are you to make of models tottering along the catwalk in ripped dresses, looking like blood-stained rape victims? It's not cool to break ranks and ask what's behind such supposedly "ludic" misogyny. [...]
McQueen's work was disturbing from the start. His 1992 graduation show (bought in its entirety by a wildly enthusiastic Blow) was entitled Jack the Ripper Stalking His Victims. Three years later, he defended the title of his Highland Rape collection as a reference to the Battle of Culloden, but his repeated use of images reflecting violence against women was shocking from a gay man.
Why this kind of misogyny — if in fact McQueen was guilty of it — should be more "shocking" because of his sexual orientation is unexplained in Smith's rant.
In truth, McQueen's shows were unusually hard to parse, for fashion. They were intended to make people uncomfortable, and to raise questions that are ordinarily far beyond fashion's remit: about our machine-age codependency (Shalom Harlow being spray painted by automotive assembly-line robots), our obsession with plastic surgery (models with grotesque red oversized lips), our disposable celebrity culture (models with trash can lid hats walking around a pile of refuse). He had shows where the models were circus freaks — and they looked genuinely frightening. And yes, he referenced sexual violence and genocide, most notably in his collection called "Highland Rape." You'd have to be numb (or Plum Sykes) to miss these ideas and just think, "Whatever that girl was wearing inside that cage, it was deep-down chic." Never mind the politics, dahling, these clothes are fabulous! But it takes a flat mind to conflate any reference to misogyny — if that's even the right word — with an endorsement of it.
McQueen's work was all about the mutability of the body — he once laced Abbey Lee Kershaw into a corset so tight she fainted on his runway. (She, along with Sasha Pivovarova and Natasha Poly, refused to walk in McQueen's spring 2010 10-inch "armadillo" heels, citing "health ansd safety" reasons.) And that can be discomfiting. As Robin Givhan put it in an interview with NPR, "Much of what he did often made you scratch your head and ask, 'Is he for or against women?' You weren't quite sure if he was empowering them or if he was subjugating them." Is a bloodied woman on a runway a critique of violence, or a glamorization of it? Is it an apolitical-but-tacky shock tactic? There are some who believe that it's not fashion's project to examine or refer to social issues — that it's essentially a frivolous industry that should stick to making nicer frocks and setting hemline trends. Whatever one might think of McQueen — and I personally think that there is no credible way to read his work and infer misogyny either in intent or effect — it's that last contention that I disagree with the most.