by Ashley Cox
Lee Alexander McQueen was a British fashion designer known for his irreverence, bad temper, and even worse mouth. Famous for his extremity, which included sewing real human hair into his runway collections, the British fashion designer often drew on dark themes and his own internal struggles with mental health for his designs. The collection that launched him into fashion stardom, The Highland Rape, was a textile expression of anticolonialism and a commentary on the harsh British rule over their regional siblings, Ireland and Scotland. The Highland Rape was McQueen’s autumn/winter 1994 collection and just two years later in the fall of 1994, his collection Dante would cement his membership to the ever-exclusive club of fashion royalty.
Dante, a collection named for the 14th-century Florentine philosopher Dante Alighieri, plays with themes of religion, war, and the toxicity of institutional power. The show took place in Christ Church in Spitalfields in London. Not only does Spitalfields hold significance, as it is part of the White Chapel district once haunted by Jack the Ripper, but it is also in the East End, where McQueen grew up. Christ Church itself dates back to the late 1700s and was believed to have been built by a secret Satanist. McQueen chose to show this collection in a church because in his words, “religion has caused every war in the world”. The chapel was regaled with images from the Vietnam and Somalian wars taken by war photographer Don McCullin, and as the models began their trek down the runway audio from The Rolling Stones, Apocalypse Now, LL Cool J, and a collection of gunfire mixed with Gregorian chanting filled the air.
In this look, McQueen uses traditional Victorian clothes for inspiration for the corset. Each stage of mourning in Victorian society had a different dress code, half-mourning was lilac. This lilac corset with black jet beading, also consistent with mourning, was paired with a patchwork denim maxi skirt in all of its 90’s glamor. While a collar that is reminiscent of gothic spires encloses the model in a corseted prison on top, the bottom half of the look seems as though it could have pulled right off of the most current 90s it-girl.
Using black lace purchased from notoriously cheap street markets, perhaps a way for McQueen to comment on the excess of consumption in fashion, he constructs a shroud/veil garment held up by an antler headdress. This blurring of garment type, shroud or veil, encapsulates McQueen’s creative prerogative and reflects the tension of this particular show. Life versus death, beauty in death, and eternal life are what he is grappling with in this collection. The idea that the dead are never really gone, a particularly gothic idea, is consistently reflected not only in McQueen’s designs but in everything that accompanies them from the settings of his shows to how they sound and more.
McQueen borrowed from photographer Joel Witkins for this crucifixion mask first seen in Witkins self-portrait taken in 1984. The mask accompanies many different looks and has been read in a variety of different ways. Resurrection, ego, and the ‘mask’ of religion are a few ways this can be interpreted and there is probably truth in all of them. After all, McQueen loved collapsing two contradictory ideas, lifestyles, opinions, etc., into a single garment.
The blending of modernity and traditionalism in this collection speaks to the heart of what McQueen was trying to convey. In the same way that Jordan Peele places human history full of pain, suffering, and struggle into a modern American context in his film Get Out to remind the audience that human pain does not go away, it only transforms, so too McQueen reminds his audience that the dark parts of history we would all like to confine to the past are all too present if only taking on different shapes and sounds. People of color may not be so afraid of the hull of a slave ship but they are of a police car. Gregorian chanting may not strike the same chord of adrenaline as it once did but images of war-torn Vietnam and sounds of machine gun fire may.
Gothic ideas of confinement, the blur between life and death, and the return of what was once thought gone forever are all present in Alexander McQueen’s 1996 Fall/Winter runway collection. A gothic figure himself, McQueen struggled his entire life with severe mental health issues. His genius and breadth and depth of influence make him one of the most compelling creatives of modern times. This collection may have catapulted him to the status of fashion god, but he continued to put out a rich body of work, not only in his designs, but in their presentations as well, that has yet to be rivaled.
The Era-Defining Alexander McQueen Show That Took Fashion to Church (AnOther Magazine)
Gods and Kings (Dana Thomas)
Alexander McQueen Fall 1996 Ready-to-Wear Collection (Vogue, Condé Nast)