Vogue described Alexander McQueen’s Spring 2001 runway show as “nothing short of monumental” (Vogue 2016). Filled with feathers and flowers, shells and shoulder houses, models driven crazy and one very special appearance, VOSS did more then put on a good show for the fashion industry, it paraded the politics of appearance behind it all.
Andrew Bolton, curator of McQueen’s retrospective Savage Beauty captures exactly what McQueen was addressing in many of his collections and especially in VOSS. Bolton claims, “… one of McQueen’s greatest legacies was how he would challenge normative conventions of beauty and challenge your expectations of beauty –what we mean by beauty.” (MetMuseum, 2011).
The runway began with the audience seated in front of a mirrored box, watching their own reflection and those around them until the show started (image 1). According to Evans, it could have taken anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and half (2003, 94). She describes this scenario as McQueen turning the observers into objects, “turning their own sharp scrutiny of the models back on themselves…”, elucidating the extent to which the models and clothes in runway show are objectified by their scrutinizing gaze (2003, 94)
Image 1: image location: https://au.pinterest.com/pin/290060032223407832/
Linking this back to her previous discussion on Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism and how people displace relationships and feelings onto objects through the commodity (2003, 94) Evans reveals just how pronounced this relationship is at the runway show.
It is in this environment McQueen is able to question the “normative conventions of beauty” as Bolton states (MetMuseum, 2011). According to McQueen, “the idea was to turn people’s faces on themselves. I wanted to turn it around and make them think, am I actually as good as what I’m looking at?” (The Fashion S/S, 2001).
This role reversal with its accompanying transfer of power is also at play in Carolee Schneemann’s performance and body art piece Interior Scroll (image 2) that subverted the traditional roles of women and men in the voyeuristic system known as the male gaze. While I’ll be keeping this blog PG*, Schneemann’s piece is an excellent example of this reversal whereby “she becomes active as opposed to being an object in some male fantasy of a performance” (Battista 2013, 76). I believe this is occurring in VOSS. The audience is not automatically granted their traditionally inherent power as the rightful gazer.
Image 2: image location: http://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/gallery/7928/carolee-schneeman/5 © Carolee Schneemann, used with the permission of Black Dog Publishing, UK, and PPOW Gallery, New York
I am using this example for my case to reveal how these conventional or traditional systems of consuming art are not untouchable, the male gaze, or in the case of VOSS, the elitist or privileged gaze, are fair game to be interrogated and deconstructed. Just as the culturally constructed nature of gender was theorised by feminist theorist like Judith Butler (1990), the cultural construct of elitism and privledge should be considered too. On identifying gender’s construction, Butler questions whether it can be constructed differently, or, if its construction reveals, ‘…social determinism’, that counters opportunities for agency or transformation (1990, 11).
When the show began, the lights turned off in the audience and on inside box (image 3) so the audience now watched the models watching their own reflection, “staging a solitary performance before the mirror that in real life would only occur in the privacy of the bedroom” (Evans 2003, 94), an interesting observation to make when linking this show to feminist art that set out to dismantle traditionally sexist models of viewing.
Image 3: The set at VOSS SS01 Image and caption location: http://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/26688/1/michelle-olley-mcqueen-muse-voss-ss01
Alsion Bancroft (2011, 67-82) reads into McQueen with a Lacanian lens to understand how his chosen medium is a suitable position to critique seemingly established social roles. She argues, “… how couture… can be seen to exemplify conditions of human subjectivity, in particular, notions of the feminine and the constitution of women in the symbolic order.” (2011, 67).
One dress in particular reveals McQueen’s attitude for the collection (image 4). It was made of razor clam shells that had outlived their usefulness on the beach, according to McQueen (Bolton 2011, 146). When it came out in the show, the model pulled at the shells and destroyed parts of it, “so their usefulness was over once again. Kind of like fashion really” according to McQueen (Bolton 2011, 146).
Image 4: Erin O’Connor tore off the shells on her dress in VOSS whilst under a “possession”
image and caption location: https://couturetroopers.com/2014/08/11/erin-oconner-a-models-perspective-on-alexander-mcqueen-springsummer-2001-showstudio-film/
Bancroft, Alison. 2011. “Inspiring Design: Lacan, Couture and the Avant-Garde” Fashion Theory. 15:1, 67-82
Battista, Kathy. 2013. Renegotiating the Body: Feminist Art in 1970’s London.I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd: London
Bolton, Andrew. 2001. Savage Beauty. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: New York.
Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble. London: Routledge
Evans, Caroline. 2003. Fashion on the Edge. Yale University Press: London
Milligan, Lauren. 2014. “Fashion Flashback: McQueen’s Asylum Show” Vogue. Viewed 2 October 2016. <http://www.vogue.co.uk/gallery/erin-oconnor-on-walking-in-alexander-mcqueen-asylum-show>
Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2011 “Voss” Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. Viewed 2 October 2016. http://blog.metmuseum.org/alexandermcqueen/tag/voss
* for more information on this work please visit http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/schneemann-interior-scroll-p13282/text-summary