Clothed in a simple white muslin dress, Shalom Harlow rotated on a turntable as mechanical arms to both her left and right awoke from a motorized slumber, investigating Harlow as they stretched. The performance was theatrical, Harlow cowering and recoiling, and the mechanical arms growing more curious and aggressive, until finally spraying black and yellow paint directly at the dress. Once complete, the model staggered, presenting herself to the audience’s loud applause.
Inspired by installation artist Rebecca Horn, and concluding a collection largely influenced by the arts and crafts movement, Alexander McQueen’s 1999 spring/summer finale embodied the fashion spectacle (Dress, No. 13, spring/summer 1999 2011). Described by Shalom Harlow as an “aggressive sexual experience”, and a dance involving “violence and surrender” (Dress, No. 13, spring/summer 1999 2011), the show’s ending has been frequently listed as one of fashion’s most memorable spectacles.
McQueen was not the first to inject theatre and performance into the catwalk experience. The 1990s saw an increase in the spectacle phenomena, where shows integrated thematic collections, lights, sound, sets and grand finales to attract the attention of contemporary fashion media, as well as producing seductive narratives and fantasies (Duggan 2001). Just one year prior to ‘No. 13’, Galliano’s Fall collection for Dior had similarly employed theatre, with the show opening with a steam train (‘the Dioriant Express’) bursting through a wall of orange paper as it pulled into Austerlitz station, models adorned in “a jumble of Native American and European dress” (Evans 2002).
The lavish and theatrical nature of catwalk spectaculars are driven by the desire for lasting impressions, sometimes at the cost of fashion’s more commercial imperatives (Duggan 2001). Such catwalk shows may not feature a single viable product; with importance instead placed on satiating audience appetites for novelty and presenting fantastical visions that embody the designer or fashion house’s brand identity (Duggan 2001).
Such displays can be compared to the likes of nineteenth-century department store and world fair displays, which immersed consumers in fantastical worlds miles away from the reality of their transactions (Evans 2002). The newest available technologies were integrated within dioramas, cinéoramas, maréoramas, and illusions to encourage consumption and heighten these “vision[s] of luxury” (Evans 2002). This is not unlike the technological labour that realised McQueen’s dress ‘No. 13’, with the mechanical arms reportedly taking weeks to program (Dress, No. 13 spring/summer 1999 2011).
While the finale of McQueen’s 1999 spring/summer show remains highly acclaimed, some fashion journalists remain critical of catwalk spectacle. Most frequent accusations are ones of frivolity and the great expense of such productions, while others find concern in the emphasis of theatre over the clothes themselves (Duggan 2001).
Nonetheless, productions like the spring/summer 1999 finale firmly placed McQueen in the realm of spectacular fashion, leading to the expectation of “outrageous, extravagant productions each season, which, together with his enfant terrible reputation” (Duggan 2001, p. 250) made the designer one of the most significant commodities and recognisable identities in fashion over recent decades.
Bolt, A 2011, Alexander McQueen S/S RTW 1999, No. 13, video recording, viewed 12 October 2014, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VnA3XR5apQg>.
Dress, No. 13, spring/summer 1999 2011, blog post, Metropolitan Museum of Art, viewed 11 October 2014, <http://blog.metmuseum.org/alexandermcqueen/dress-no-13/>.
Duggan, G 2001, ‘The Greatest Show on Earth: A Look at Contemporary Fashion Shows and Their Relationship to Performance Art’, Fashion Theory, vol. 5, no. 3, pp. 243-270, viewed 11 October 2014, via ProQuest Central database.
Evans C 2002, John Galliano: Modernity and Spectacle, viewed 12 October 2014, <http://showstudio.com/project/past_present_couture/essay>.