Image 1: “Bumster” Trouser. Highland Rape A/W 1995-96. Black silk/cotton
Lee Alexander McQueen was an outstanding tailor and couturier. His education began with an apprenticeship on Savile Row, known for traditional bespoke tailoring for men. He then graduated from the prestigious Central Saint Martins in 1992 with his collection Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims (1992).
In 1996, G. Bruce Boyer described tailoring as “the knowledge and art… of cutting and sewing cloth.” He provides a historical account of how the tailor came about, when the pattern maker and sewer became important members of the community, until eventually “the art and science of tailoring became a highly specialized, complex, and jealously guarded craft.” (1996, Boyer).
McQueen acknowledged how essential tailoring was to his designs “I spent a long time learning how to construct clothes, which is important to do before you can deconstruct them.” (Self-Service, 2002 S/S).
Quickly mastering the skills of this firmly established medium, he took them further to express issues important to him, producing bold, sharp cuts and unprecedented tailored forms to subvert the norms of couture – traditionally more concerned with covering the body (Bancroft 2011, 80) – while upholding traditional tailoring techniques.
In the words journalist Corinne Julius, “McQueen is associated with the extreme, the outrageous, the daring, the sadomasochistic and also with perfect tailoring, meticulous craft, but above all with spectacle and performance.” (2015, 72). McQueen found the balance between tradition and anarchy and made it his signature style. His garmets are a true testament to this balance (image 2). McQueen said he would design from the side “that way i get the worst angle of the body… That way i get a cut and proportion and silhouette that works all the way round the body.” (Bolton, 2011. 36)
Image 2: Jacket
Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims (MA Graduation Collection), 1992. Black silk lined in red silk with encapsulated human hair..
From the collection of Isabella Blow courtesy of the Hon. Daphne Guinness
At his first show after graduating (Taxi Driver A/W 1993-94) he presented the Bumsters, (image 1), “pants that sat so low on the hips they revealed the buttocks” (Bolton 2011, 13). He also designed a Bumster Skirt for the more traditionally feminine client (image 3).
Image 3: “Bumster” Skirt
Highland Rape, autumn/winter 1995–96 (re-edition from original pattern). Black silk taffeta
Courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce
McQueen claims, “I wanted to elongate the body, not just show the bum. To me, that part of the body – not so much the buttocks but the bottom of the spine – that’s the most erotic part of anyone’s body, man or women.” (The Guardian weekly 1995, July 6). His interest in this area, the ogee curve at the bottom of the spine, is sustained throughout his oeuvre, and exquisitely showcased in the “Spine” corset (image 4) for Untitled (S/S 1998).
Image 4: Shaun Leane for Alexander McQueen
“Spine” Corset Untitled, spring/summer 1998
Aluminum and black leather
image location: http://blog.metmuseum.org/alexandermcqueen/spine-corset-untitled/
For me this proves that while the bumster cut undeniably put him on the map in terms of fashion industry interest and press, they were part of a greater artistic investigation that was constantly revisited throughout his career. On a conceptual level, they offered an alternative, less obvious and non-binary zone for sexual attraction, that wasn’t gender specific.
Interestingly, McQueen also contextualizes them as art, “It was an art thing, to change the way women look, just by cut, to make a longer torso” and in doing so “The girls looked quite menacing, because there was so much up the top and so little bottom, because of the length of the legs.” (Stella September 10 2006)
Alsion Bancroft’s reading of McQueen considers Lacan’s psychoanalytical theory of objet a, the unattainable object of desire, symbolically identified as the feminine. According to Bancroft, instead of positioning women as objet a, what he does “is a form of protest and resistance to such positioning.” (2011, 77). She is powerful, strong, and “menacing”, not a passive object to be consumed.
As Caroline Evans suggests, “Precisely because femininity is an unstable sign this imagery can segue from glamour into horror”, the representation of “gender instability” (2003, 127).
This styling of women as menacing appears throughout McQueen’s oeuvre, who was mistakenly criticized as a misogynist after Highland Rape. For me, his garments (and runway show) are evidence of his intention to empower women, “I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.” (American Vogue April 2010).
While I’ll never try on a Bumster, for the sake of my self-esteem, his designs certainly have that effect, on and off the runway. Through bold tailoring, sharp cuts, anatomy defying forms and a general ‘back off’ (for want of a better word) attitude – be it to the industry, the traditional binary notions of sexuality or that creep in the club.
American Vogue. 2010. April (in Bolton, Andrew. 2011. Savage Beauty. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: New York.)
Bancroft, Alsion. 2011. Inspiring Design: Lacan, Couture and the Avant-garde”. Fashion Theory. 15:1, p67-82.
Bolton, Andrew. 2011. Savage Beauty. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: New York.
Boyer, G. Bruce. 1996. “The History of Tailoring: An Overview” http://www.lnstar.com/mall/literature/tailor4.htm
Evans, Caroline. 2003. Fashion at the Edge. Yale University Press:London
The Guardian Weekly. 1995. July 6. (in Bolton, Andrew. 2011. Savage Beauty. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: New York.)
Julius, Corinne. 2015 “Savage Beauty: The Performance Fashion of Alexander McQueen.” Arts and Crafts international. Vol 94
Self-Service. 2002. Spring Summer (in Bolton, Andrew. 2011. Savage Beauty. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: New York.)
Stella. 2006. September 10 (in Bolton, Andrew. 2011. Savage Beauty. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: New York.)