"It's a Jungle Out There." Bodysuit by Alexander McQueen. Brown leather with bleached denim and taxidermy crocodile heads. 1997-98.
Contemporary Theatre Review‘s uniformed delivery boy was at my door at six this morning, bearing with him the new issue 21.4; my review of this summer’s Alexander McQueen exhibition at the Met appears in the “Backpages” section of this new issue, along with an essay on “New Women Playwrights” by Aleks Sierz, a history of Martin Crimp’s plays in Australia by Vicky Angelaki, and Philip Hager’s discussion of the protests in Athens. Indeed, this issue of the journal is just packed with goodies: before you get to “Backpages,” there is an extensive discussion of Tim Crouch’s play The Author, with contributions from Helen Iball, Chris Goode, Stephen Bottoms, and Crouch himself. The issue is available online here. My academic friends may be able to access this through their institutions — I’m afraid I can’t help the rest.
I first wrote about McQueen on 9 May 2011; that post is below.
People find my things sometimes aggressive. But I don’t see it as aggressive. I see it as romantic, dealing with a dark side of personality.
Elegance, glamour and couture are anathema to the progressive collectivist; in fashion, they exploit the individuality of the body, not its absorption into a mass; especially couture, clothing fitted for the specific individual and resistant to mass reproduction. In the 1990s many designers — several of them British — used fashion and couture to examine the close relationship of the body, eros and death, as several British dramatists used the theatre and drama to explore the same relationship. In her 2007 book Fashion at the Edge, Caroline Evans wrote about these designers:
[Fashion] can be a symptom of alienation, loss, mourning, fear of contagion and death, instability and change. Like psychoanalysis, it “investigates the domain and configuration of incoherence, discontinuity, distruption and disintegration.” …
Fashion, with its affinity for transformation, can act out instability and loss but it can also, and equally, stake out the terrain of “becoming” — new social and sexual identities, masquerade and performativity. … If the imagery of late twentieth-century fashion seemed dark or bleak, it may be because it signalled an attempt to chart new social identities in a period of rapid change, while reflecting contemporary concerns with death and decay.
This description especially applies to the work of Alexander McQueen (1969-2010), whose career is now being investigated and celebrated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the exhibition Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, running through 31 July. The resemblance of fashion to drama in McQueen’s dark but highly sexualized and erotic collection was noted even by The New York Times‘ Holland Carter in a review of the show last week, headlined “Designer as dramatist, and the tales he left behind.” “Clothes [in McQueen's later career] become costumes,” Carter writes, “with sensuous, sumptuous lives of their own” — an admission of the erotically transformative effect of couture, clothes making the woman as well as the man. Carter also writes:
Mr. McQueen repeatedly said, as have many other designers before him, that his intention was to “empower women” through his designs, though the impression often is that he’s hobbling, even tormenting them. And while his insistence on political content is one of the more intriguing aspects of his work, it is also one of the slipperiest and least resolved.
Both fashion and theatre are fetish and metaphor, the object standing in for an abstraction. Carter above touches on but does not resolve or investigate the darker reaches and redefinitions of the empowerment of the bodies and individuals within these costumes, for it’s an empowerment and imagination that touches and even exceeds at times the taboo. There is a torment in the furthest reaches of ecstasy and desire: a giving-up of the self; through costume and theatre we play with the imaginations of this torment, as well as its furthest reaches of associated pleasure. In constriction and restraint there is a coursing of ecstasy in the body that, because restrained, can’t be released in gesture; instead it flows, again and again, over and over, circulating endlessly through the flesh, without respite. Far from objectifying the wearer, in the theatre the spectator, male or female, can participate in the erotic and subjective reconstruction of the wearer, provided they are open to the empathetic imagination. (If women can imaginatively participate in the “male gaze” that Molly Haskell identified in cinematic spectatorship in 1972, it’s certainly possible for men to participate in a similar “female gaze”: a more difficult project, however, for it requires an ever greater repudiation of a conventional sexual consciousness embedded in the Culture Industry and its products.) Erotic tragedy requires a costume designer who acknowledges the elitism of couture; the darker intersections of politics, culture, eros and death; and the possibilities of imaginative erotic expression through the clothed body.
There are other theatremakers, such as Jan Fabre in Belgium and Piotr Tomaszuk in Poland, who recognize couture’s erotic and tragic contribution to theatrical presentation. It is no surprise that the British dramatist closest to McQueen’s sensibility is Howard Barker. Barker, who designs the costumes for his own productions under the pseudonym Billie Kaiser, is keenly aware of the nexus of fashion, drama, tragedy and eros; his costumes, too, strain against the regimented conformity of everyday fashion in an attempt to touch on the tragic and erotic streams that run beneath experience and can empower new human possibilities of imagination. He acknowledges that this attempt requires a daring eroticization and surrender of the self through its cultural representation in clothing — one gives one’s self up to what one wears in a process of erotic transformation. In a 2010 interview with Mark Brown, included in the recent collection Howard Barker Interviews 1980-2010: Conversations in Catastrophe, Brown asks Barker about the subject of high heels in Barker’s work (“about which things have been written,” Barker laughingly responds):
BROWN: I’m intrigued by the use of high heels in much of your work. It subverts the vapid use of them as a mere fetish. It elevates physically, of course, and enhances, for many actresses, their capacity for elegance.
BARKER: There are two stage aspects to this garment. One is that it gives height, obviously, and posture, because it alters a woman’s shape profoundly. Women have been wearing high heels since at least the third century BC; it’s well recorded. So, they’re inherent in European culture; there’s something profoundly historic about this garment.
You might say it has a symbolic relation with sexuality and its opposite, appearing and disappearing with climates of erotic expression and repression. Also — speaking purely artistically, purely of the stage and film — heels have a tremendous sonic value. The actress appearing and disappearing — announced and then the sound slowly decaying — must recall every child’s memory of the passage of women on the pavement, one of the deep resonances of infancy, and embedded in the sexual imagination.
BROWN: Some actresses seem to grasp this from your work, almost instinctively. I discovered this recently, whilst working on … [a] reading of your (Uncle) Vanya. The young actress Nicola Daley — although she was, in fact, playing Chekhov — talked about her sense that she required high heels. Even playing a male role, she sensed from the play the need for her, as a woman on the stage, to have that elevation and authority. It wasn’t being required of her; she herself suggested it.
BARKER: … There was a generation of feminists who regarded high heels as the purest manifestation of enslavement to a sexual stereotype. These ideas seem less influential now. A new generation of women just sees them as part of the great cultural tradition of being a woman, which, first and foremost, elevates your arse.
The metaphysical and ideological implications of arse-elevation aside, Barker’s comments can be interpreted to encompass more of couture than footwear, of course. There is a fine online preview of the Met’s exhibition here.