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Alexander McQueen and the Neo-Victorian Femme Fatale

Andi Harriman ARTH 702 Spring 2011 R. Bagnole

She is unapproachable and intimidating; harboring on the abruptness of death and the existentialism of pleasure, the femme fatale seduces her victims through her penetrating stare and confident stride. She is the object of lust and wonder. Fashion designer, Alexander McQueen, incited notions of the femme fatale by encompassing her attitude and blatant sexuality in order to reconstruct the social stigmas thrust upon the female in the mid-1990s. Once again, the woman was to be feared; revamped from the antiheroine of the late nineteenth century, McQueens models embodied the spirit of the femme fatale on the catwalk, creating a contemporary incarnation of new femininity. Not merely a designer but an artist of great skill, Alexander McQueen defined high fashion at the turn of the twenty-first century. McQueens collections fascinated and alarmed viewers, entrancing them by his brilliance and through the horror of his imagination. Each season, the totality of his vision was fervently executed the concept and production of his runway performances were always considered as important as the garments. In fashion the show should make you think, there is no point in doing it if its not going to create some sort of emotion.1 The environment created in his shows developed his fantastical narrative that engaged the audience fully, dragging them into his parallel universe of strong, terrifying women. Though his concepts varied each season beginning with his graduation show, Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims at Central St.

McQueen, quoted in Andrew Bolton, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 12.

4 Martins in 1992, until his posthumous collection, Autumn/Winter 2010-11, the connecting thread of tension between beauty and decomposition were always evident within his work. Im making points about my time, about the times we live in. My work is a social document about the world today.2 The interplay of contrasting ideas within his collections referenced historical aspects of fashion and society while consecutively remarking on contemporary cultural issues. Attitudes evolve during the finalization of a century apocalyptic anxieties fuel changes in cultural boundaries. The fin-de-sicle, a term created in the late 1800s, which translates to the end of the century, refers to the imminent fear of the worlds unavoidable annihilation and the state of mind the fear incites. With the progression of the industrial revolution of the late 1800's, mass production became ever more popular and, in turn, stripped society of the hand-made with new-found focus on the progression of the machine. A century later, in the 1990s, society was faced with their own triggers of the fin-de-sicle: the greenhouse effect, terrorism and the Y2K.3 The crises of the fin-de-sicle are more intensely experienced, more emotionally fraught, more weighted with symbolic and historical meaning, because we invest them with the metaphors of death and rebirth that we project onto the final decades of the century.4 The progress of

2 3

McQueen, quoted in Bolton, Savage Beauty, 12. Elaine Showalter, Sexual Anarchy (New York: Penguin, 1990), 2. 4 Ibid.

5 the machine in the 1800s daunts contemporary society by way of the computer. Which will rule the world, man or machine? In addition, pollinizations of sexually transmitted diseases are among the apocalyptic signifiers. Syphilis and AIDS have both been transgressors that generated moral panic at the end of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The parallels of these two diseases are strikingly similar: both are transmitted through sexual contact and both threaten the life of the diseased.5 Because of the violation of the natural sex laws, the contaminated became known as the cause as well as the embodiment of the disease.6 Showalter, in her book Sexual Anarchy, says, Both are symbolic sexual diseases that have taken on apocalyptic dimensions and have been interpreted as signaling the end of the world. The impact of the AIDS epidemic is all the greater because it coincides with the end of a century.7 The risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease heightens the anxiety that has already created a foundation within the cultural imagination. Even more so, the sexual apocalypse within the fin-de-sicle is strikingly similar to McQueens conceptual statements. Showalter believes that in periods of cultural insecurity, when there are fears of regression and degeneration, the longing for strict border controls around the definition of gender becomes especially intense.8 The severe need to define the roles of the male and female within society heightens the
5 6

Showalter, Sexual Anarchy, 189. Ibid., 190. 7 Ibid. 8 Ibid., 4.

6 passion of those who resist. In the late 1800s, feminists rose against the oppressions of men, claiming celibacy as a response to mens behavior towards them.9 Similarly, modern women struggle against the social constructs of success. The sexual anarchy of women seeking higher education, serious careers, and egalitarian spouses had engendered its own punishment.10 As reprieve to the stigma towards the feminine sex, McQueen particularly sought to prove women were strong enough without men and, subsequently, sex in order to fulfill their lives. These revolutionary changes of sexuality and feminism seem to occur at times of the fin-de-sicle, giving rise to the predator man should fear most: the femme fatale. The formation of the femme fatale began in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, the word literally meaning, man devourer.11 Femme fatales operate on the mishaps of men who attract to her like moths to a flame; she is strengthened by the power gained from her sexuality.12 Men are fearful of her, ineffectively avoiding the unlucky fate of others who are seduced by her magnetic beauty.13 The battle between fatal attraction and disgust are represented in the fashions of the late 1800s modern women during this time aroused the anxiety and curiosity of others. The avant-garde attitude towards sexuality was

Ibid., 22. Ibid., 35. 11 Eddy de Klerk, The Femme Fatale and Her Secrets From a Psychoanalytical Perspective, in Femmes Fatales: 1860-1910, ed. Henk van Os (Wommelgem, Belgium: BAI, 2002), 44. 12 Ibid., 43. 13 Ibid.

7 reflected in the destructive power of the femme fatale fashion. Actresses during the finde-sicle thrived on erotic garments, clothing that traditionally had been confined to the bedroom or to prostitutes.14 However scandalous her appearance, the fin-de-sicle female managed to maintain the prestige and elitism of high art by turning the fashions of the time into her own form of artistic expression.15 Womens dress came to defy the moral implications of domesticity through the performance of aesthetic fashion: a newfound individualism was born and the fashionable woman was liberated.16 In turn, men began to see fashion as a trait of femininity and felt threatened by the New Woman who, as Valerie Steele says, selfishly ignored her familial duties in pursuit of her own pleasures.17 Fashion became essential to the New Woman because it reflected the growing participation within modern life, even though womens roles were still fairly restricted at the time.18 Promoting power and sexuality, seduction and art for the modern woman, fashion visually constructed the femme fatale. McQueens reincarnation of the femme fatale was meant to be eroticized, yet condemned by the male sex. Evoked by, as he says, a desire to strip romance to the

Valerie Steele, Femme Fatale: Fashion and Visual Culture in Fin-de-sicle Paris, in Fashion Theory 8, no. 3 (September 2004): 317, 003/art00005 (accessed April 9, 2011). 15 Ibid., 318. 16 Mary W. Blanchard, Boundaries and the Victorian Body: Aesthetic Fashion in the Gilded Age America, in American Historical Review 100, no. 1 (February 1995): 22-24, (accessed March 31, 2011). 17 Steele, Femme Fatale, 322. 18 Ibid.

8 truth,19 McQueens femme fatale waylaid her victims in the form of entrapment through lustful hunger. The skewed idealizations of the late 1800s and the fin-de-sicle were simply faades much like the present, the past was not romantic nor did it take on any form of perfection. Such presentations of romance were developed to feign the reality of viciousness; sexual experimentation, syphilis and women's progression were among the taboo subjects of the time. McQueen's woman symbolized his view of the world a dangerous yet decadent embodiment of desire and deathliness (Desire 204).20 His models invoked fear through their appearance, her garment suggesting a look so fabulous you wouldnt dare lay a hand on her (Inspiring 77).21 This fabulousness is embodied through the resistance of normative social structures. Alison Bancroft suggests, Where fashion is usually expected to oblige, in some way, McQueen instead chooses to show how it can also resist by referencing a history that addresses the destructiveness that civilization has wrought during its supposed rise.22 This juxtaposition is made through the femme fatale in regards to the male gaze. As an object of desire to men, the woman cannot speak for herself her dress must become her envoy


Caroline Evans, Desire and Dread: Alexander McQueen and the Contemporary Femme Fatale, in Body Dressing, ed. Joanne Entwistle and Elizabeth Wilson (New York: Oxford, 2001), 206. 20 Ibid., 204. 21 Alison Bancroft, Inspiring Desire: Lacan, Couture, and the Avant-garde, in Fashion Theory 15, no 1 (March 2011): 71, 001/art00005 (accessed April 9, 2011). 22 Bancroft, Inspiring Desire, 78.

9 and speak in her place.23 The female, bound by cultural stigmas, is left with the visual of aesthetics and fashion in order to evoke her innate power. Such inner power resonated through the carnality of Gothic fashion that became crucial in the aesthetics of the late nineteenth century. Reflective of Gothic Revival architecture, styles were appropriated with a focus on the appearance of illusion and deception.24 Gothic garments are characterized by artificiality and ornament rather than naturalism. Their exaggerated features mislead the eye, so that the body is subordinated to the outward effect.25 Referencing the mourning and funerary aspects of fashion, fetishistic value was placed on Gothic clothing which included muted, colorless fabrics often in black and deep purple, as well at jet jewelry, veils and momento mori symbols of skulls and crucifixes. The femme fatale transforms herself from a natural being into the realm of artificiality through her Gothicized dress. In the fin-de-sicle, fashion was rich in ornamentation, luscious materials and complicated draperies,26 thus altering the females appearance into a new form of femininity. The newly inherited femininity of the femme fatale partook in an illusionistic form of beauty. In an attempt to cheat death through the transformation of the body by means of dress, the visual simulations of youth and

23 24

Ibid., 77. Catherine Spooner, Fashioning Gothic Bodies (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004), 4. 25 Ibid. 26 Steele, Femme Fatale, 319.

10 idealized beauty replace ghostly visions of the aging body.27 Narcissistic elements of the woman with her obsession towards outward appearance tantalize and repel the onlooker. Even further from the organic body, the unnatural mask that is presented has become inscrutable and mysterious.28 The characteristics of the femme fatale line up with the notions of death, which furthered the Gothic attributes of the New Woman. They are both mysterious, ambiguous, unrepresentable, silent and threatening mans sense of wholeness and stability.29 Feminine sexuality and the inherent evil of appearance are brought to the surface, exhibiting the spectacle of danger and seduction.30 The transformation relies on the prosthetic and the dramatic aspects of fashion. Through the apprehension to reveal the natural self, fashion signifies death. The femme fatale denies death by living through her vanity, arousing the temptation of decay by changing and destroying appearances.31 The crippling constraints of McQueens clothing symbolize the decay in the Gothic aesthetic. Out of McQueen's collections, none were more representative of decadence and death than his 1996 collection, Dante. The show was set in a church and a skeleton sat in the coveted first row among the fashion


Rebecca Arnold, The Brutalized Body, in Fashion Theory 3, no. 4 (November 1999): 495, 004/art00006 (accessed April 9, 2011). Ibid.

28 29

Efrat Tseelon, The Masque of Femininity (London: Sage Publications, 1997), 113. Arnold, The Brutalized Body, 495. 31 Tseelon, Masque, 118.

11 editors.32 Several momento mori symbols were present on the runway: a jet encrusted headpiece, black face masks inset with crucifixes and silver thorns that grew out of models faces and wound dangerously around their arms. Signifiers of blatant Gothic imagery included the styling of models with deep wine colored lips and chiseled facial features, which hinted at the vampiric allure of woman.33 His clothing, in the mourning palette of black, mauve, grey and bone set the mood, revealing the dramaticism and luxe fashions of the late 1800's. One model wore a corset in mauve with black lace overlay and embroidered jet crystals, capturing the fetishistic essence of Gothic death and mourning. The lapels on her corset extend over her face, confining her head to remain in one position much like a neck brace. The femme fatale, erect and restricted within her clothing, facilitates an unnatural pose that distorted any organic outward appearance, her form seemed artificial and the strong cuts of her garment and cheekbones became reminders of her dominating terror. Such extremities of fashion are comparable to the fashion of the 1880s in which female evening dress silhouettes emphasized the sexually dimorphic curves of the female body.34 Stuck in the constraints of society, McQueen's

According to Savage Beauty, It was later reported erroneously that the location was deconsecrated. In a letter to the Guardian, the churchwarden at the time, Fay Cattini, wrote: It [Christ Church, Spitalfields] is not, and never was deconsecrated. Your reporter assume (always a dangerous thing to do) that no consecrated church would allow a fashion show to be held in it McQueens rep (a very nice lady) had assured us that nothing would be done in the church that was unsuitable, i.e.,: the dresses would be modest! Anyway, whats done is done, from Susannah Frankel, Introduction, in Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, ed. Andrew Bolton (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 20. 33 Evans, Desire and Dread, 205. 34 Steele, Femme Fatale, 317.

12 femme fatale provides a reference to the deadly desire evoked in men and the attraction to her dark sexuality. Ultimately, she becomes the victim no matter how deathly she may appear. Soon after the Dante collection, McQueen began to focus less on the victimization of women and more about the predatory traits women behold. These are clothes for strong women.35 In McQueens second couture collection for Givenchy in July 1997, titled Eclect Dissect, the concept of the production originated from the femme fatale as a ghost of vengeance. The idea of the story came from McQueens set and accessory designer, Simon Costin. He dreamt up a fictional fin-de-sicle surgeon who collected many objects from traveling the world.36 Of his exotic objects were women in which he brutally cut up and reassembled.37 The runway show was set as a stage for the resurrected women who, dressed in exotica from foreign places originally collected by the surgeon, stomped down the runway with vengeance.38 The parallels between the surgeon and McQueen are evident: the designer can be viewed as an anatomist, dissecting conventional fashion to impose on the viewer a more deathly and sexualized view beneath superficial layers.39 The Gothic artificiality of the women, her body parts not completely belonging to herself, emphasize the horror of modern day obsession toward body

Quoted in Sarajane Hoare, God Save McQueen, in Harper's Bazaar (June 1996), 148. 36 Evans, Desire and Dread, 209. 37 Ibid. 38 Ibid. 39 Ibid.

13 modifications in order to glorify youth and prevent decay. The most outstanding ensemble from Eclect Dissect is a dress constructed in black leather. Woven and tight at the bodice, the small waist is emphasized; the neckline is decorated with blood red pheasant feathers that are formed up the models elegant neck, once again acting as a brace. A resin bird skull sits on each shoulder, their beaks long and menacing as if they could pluck the eyes out of their prey with little difficulty. Red vengeful eyes, feathered eyelashes and eyebrows enhance the exotic quality of the models appearance all enhance the terrifying yet lust worthy allure of the New Woman. All natural appearances the femme fatale once possessed have vanished. The collection for Fall/Winter 1997-8 continued McQueens recurring theme of supposed victimization of the female; but existing on her animal instincts she became the predator roles have been reversed. Survival is like a jungle human life can be discarded easily, which is why power and force is needed for existence.40 Contradictory to the fatal passivity of a delicate gazelle, McQueen created a hide jacket with pointed shoulders from which horns of a gazelle emerged and twisted sinuously around the models head.41 Styled with the models metallic contact lenses and black animalistic eye makeup, she became only half human. Instead of focusing on the soft vulnerability of women, McQueen portrayed the terrifying power of the femme fatale.42 This power

Caroline Evans, Fashion at the Edge (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 153. Ibid. Ibid.

41 42

14 represents the state of mind one hundred years before in the fin-de-sicle where women began to protrude from the societal norms set upon them. In order to express strength, the manner of artistic dress speaks for the femme fatale, brandishing the unfortunate consequence of her victims and the animalistic terror she beholds. McQueens use of corsets and luxurious materials reference historical fashions of the fin-de-sicle but are altered into a dark beauty, often times with a powerful statement in the cut, the accessorizing or by the destruction of the fabrics. His femme fatale depicts the fears and desires of the contemporary woman in the 1990s. She is a split representation, in which she appears as purity and lust, as victim and destroyer and in which the feminine serves as a cipher conjoining the threat of sexuality with that of death.43 As the catalyst to McQueens vision, the femme fatale carried the story, evoked emotions from the viewer, fostered death, decay and the threat beauty can behold. The Gothic and fin-de-sicle symbolism and imagery in his collections proved to be a precursor to McQueens suicide in 2010, ending his life from the strain of the world and the harsh trials that eventually defeated him. When speaking about death itself, McQueen alludes to the very nature of Gothic ideals. It is important to look at death because it is a part of life. It is a sad thing, melancholic but romantic at the same time.44


Elisabeth Bronten, Over Her Dead Body: Death Femininity and the Aesthetic (New York: Routledge, 1992), 212. 44 McQueen, quoted in Bolton, Savage Beauty, 73.

15 The femme fatale, liberated through fashion, fought the unjust social structures that bound women during fin-de-sicle times. Reflective to society and the apocalyptic danger of destruction, the she is both representative of the freedom woman has fought towards and the confinement of the female in social stigmas. With her power, she must distance herself through her outwards appearance, becoming her own fetish and living off her own beauty.45 Alexander McQueens garments accentuated the femme fatale beauty; the legacy of his work resonates in contemporary society when considering the anxiety of beginning the thrust of a new millennium. But the femme fatale will endure, strengthening herself through McQueens fashions. When you see a woman wearing McQueen, theres a certain hardness to the clothing that makes her look powerful. It kind of fends people off.46

45 46

Arnold, The Brutalized Body, 497. McQueen, quoted in Bolton, Savage Beauty, 60.

16 Bibliography Arnold, Rebecca. The Brutalized Body. Fashion Theory 3, no. 4 (November 1999): 487-502. 0004/art00006 (accessed April 9, 2011). Bancroft, Alison. Inspiring Desire: Lacan, Couture, and the Avant-garde. Fashion Theory 15, no. 1 (March 2011): 67-82. 0001/art00005 (accessed April 9, 2011). Blanchard, Mary W. Boundaries and the Victorian Body: Aesthetic Fashion in the Gilded Age America. American Historical Review 100, no. 1 (February 1995): 21-50. (accessed March 31, 2011). Bolton, Andrew. Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011. Bronten, Elisabeth. Over Her Dead Body: Death Femininity and the Aesthetic. New York: Routledge, 1992. Buci-Glucksmann, Christine. Baroque Reason: The Aesthetics of Modernity. London: Sage Publications, 1994. Evans, Caroline. Desire and Dread: Alexander McQueen and the Contemporary Femme Fatale. In Body Dressing, edited by Joanne Entwistle and Elizabeth Wilson, 201213. New York: Oxford, 2001. . Fashion at the Edge. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. Frankel, Susannah. Introduction. In Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, edited by Andrew Bolton, 17-27. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011. Hoare, Sarajane. God Save McQueen. Harper's Bazaar (June 1996): 130, 148. Horyn, Cathy. Remembering a Renegade Designer. The New York Times, September 21, 2010.


Klerk, Eddy de. The Femme Fatale and Her Secrets From a Psychoanalytical Perspective. In Femmes Fatales: 1860-1910, edited by Henk van Os, 43-52. Wommelgem, Belgium: BAI, 2002. Menon, Elizabeth K. Evil by Design: The Creation and Marketing of the Femme Fatale. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006. Showalter, Elaine. Sexual Anarchy. New York: Penguin, 1990. Spooner, Catherine. Fashioning Gothic Bodies. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004. Steele, Valerie. Femme Fatale: Fashion and Visual Culture in Fin-de-sicle Paris. Fashion Theory 8, no. 3 (September 2004): 315-328. 00003/art00005 (accessed April 9, 2011). Steele, Valerie and Jennifer Park. Gothic: Dark Glamour. New York: Yale University Press and The Fashion Institute of Technology, 2008. Tseelon, Efrat. The Masque of Femininity. London: Sage Publications, 1997.