This is a version of a speech I gave at the 2018 Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), in response to the documentary film McQueen (directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui). This speech doesn’t include any spoilers per se, but does include a reflection on some of the themes raised in the film and on McQueen as a designer more broadly.
As feminist theorist Susan Brownmiller is often quoted, “To care about feminine fashion, and do it well, is to be obsessively involved in inconsequential details on a serious basis”. Many feminists like Brownmiller have rightly condemned the dictates of the fashion industry for enrolling women in a world of consumption, gendered styles, and bodily obsession.
Yet, Lee Alexander McQueen’s vision of the possibilities of fashion to affect us on a profound emotional level juxtaposes such critiques. Tracking the autobiographical aspects of McQueen’s design, this documentary offers us a sense of artistry that cuts through ordinary understandings of fashion in terms of trends, mass production, and surface.
McQueen’s early work was seen by many as explicitly misogynistic, as he explored themes of sexual violence, rape, and genocide through fashion. Yet, as we see in the documentary, McQueen explores his own fragility through the collections – the vulnerability and strength of femininity, the power of masquerade, and the armor of clothing. As he once suggested, “I want people to be afraid of the women I dress”.
However, this empowered vision of femininity that McQueen offers does not simply recover the fashion industry from critique. As we see in the narrative of McQueen’s life, the edgy and artistic possibilities of fashion are limited by broader economic machinations.
McQueen described his shows as “what’s buried in people’s psyches”. One of the things that I love most about this documentary is the use of home footage from McQueen himself, which offers us an intensely intimate glimpse of the designer. We not only get a sense of McQueen’s mind – and his obsession with death, life, and beauty – most importantly I think, we get to see the tyranny of maintaining creativity despite the stifling economics of fashion.
As feminist fashion theorist Elizabeth Wilson suggests, “Capitalism maims, kills, appropriates, lays waste. It also creates great wealth and beauty, together with a yearning for lives and opportunities that remain just beyond our reach. It manufactures dreams and images as well as things, and fashion is as much a part of the dream world of capitalism as of its economy”.
McQueen struggled to fit in to the “posh” world of fashion, and to find the funds to finance his collections. The documentary also reveals the extreme pressure to produce, and how boundless creativity is funneled into measurable output.
McQueen once said, “My sister is an amazing artist. My brother is an amazing artist. Amazing. Much better than I am. The difference is, they thought they had no chance but to do a manual job. That really upsets me”. To survive as a designer early in his career, McQueen had to live on almost nothing, and hide his fashion work from the dole office so that he could continue receiving benefits.
We might imagine a world where everyone is supported to push the boundaries of their creative potential. More broadly than this, we might think about what fashion could look like if freed from the structures of mass production needed to finance couture collections that only the most elite in society can adorn themselves in.
But, importantly, McQueen is not a story of being a victim to fashion. While this film depicts how McQueen endured immense pressure to produce fashion for profit, we also see his interminable resistance to the distortions of the fashion world. Amid his intricate tailoring, he offered garments that were the antithesis of “ready to wear” that could only exist as they were embodied in the production of the collection shows – such as a dress of fresh flowers literally decaying on the runway. His fashion stages became theatres for musing on and digesting the cruelty of the world, with rain and snow bearing down on models, padded walls, and piles of fashion “junk” collected on stage in dramatic heaps.
To quote Elizabeth Wilson again, “Out of the cracks in the pavements of cities grow the weeds that begin to rot the fabric”. In other words, while we might hold reasonable ambivalence about the nature of fashion in terms of the expectations and norms that it reproduces, fashion can also provide an experimental and resistant space for a creative reimagining of identity that “rot[s] the fabric” of these same rules.
Certainly this documentary paints a picture of McQueen as an unstoppable creative force emerging through the cracks in the otherwise cloistered world of fashion.
McQueen’s fashion cuts to the quick of our worst fears, but hints at imagining another world, another way of seeing, the romance of what lays beneath the skin. McQueen ultimately offers us an invitation to resist, to look directly at the world in all its ugliness so that we might light up the beauty at the heart of it all.