At its close, earlier this month, “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty”, a retrospective of the late fashion designer’s works, broke records at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), by becoming the London institution’s most visited exhibition ever. The visual spectacle of McQueen’s creations were worth the trouble of acquiring a ticket to the popular event, especially since I had been unlucky on my first try as the exhibition had sold out for the day. Yet, what was also interesting was the manner in which the V&A had attempted to manage the Scottish designer’s critique of British imperialist history as manifested through his creativity.
In one of the first rooms of the exhibition, viewers saw pieces from McQueen’s Autumn/Winter 1995 collection titled “Highland Rape”. Controversial not only for its title, the clothes were inspired by the designer’s ethnic heritage, particularly in regard to the atrocities meted out to Scots during the Highland Clearances in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. On a runway symbolically littered with heather and bracken to represent the Scottish highlands, McQueen’s models appeared to be visibly distressed, a feeling echoed in the deliberately revealing garments, some in tartan and with shapes mirroring bodice designs of the previous century. Sometimes described as an example of ethnic cleansing, the clearances saw a dramatic change in the pastoral lives of many Scots, with relocation to other parts of the world being a related outcome. The theme of this legacy of the struggles of the Highlanders would also be echoed in the Scotsman’s collection just over a decade later. His 2006 collection, titled “Widows of Culloden”, also made use of tartan, and specifically the MacQueen (sometimes referred to as McQueen) Clan tartan. But where the previous “Highland Rape” appeared to epitomise the victimisation of women as representative of Scottish history, “Widows of Culloden” would instead exemplify women as survivors.
At the V&A exhibition, pieces from McQueen’s 21st century collections were showcased in a section titled “Romantic Nationalism”, with a note on the wall explaining the designer’s cathartic evolution from the “anti-romanticism” of the “Highland Rape” ensembles, in which he voiced his “defiantly political” view that “[w]hat the British did [in Scotland] was nothing short of genocide”. As evidence of McQueen taking a different approach to his designs later in his career, the description went on to cite his 2008 collection, “The Girl who Lived in the Tree”, as proof that “[d]espite [his] heartfelt declarations of his Scottish national identity, McQueen also had a deep interest in the history of England…” This, the note went on to state, could be gleaned from the designer’s influences drawn from legacies of the British Empire and a trip to India, which had resulted in “The Girl who Lived in the Tree” being his “most romantically nationalistic” collection.
Clearly, the V&A had attempted to seek in McQueen’s use of Indian elements in his 2008 collection a nationalist tone that would serve as a salve to the rawness of Scottish history as evoked in the designer’s previous collections; this, because he could also look beyond his own ethnic background and bask in the glory of empire past as a Briton who then called England home. But it is rather difficult to see McQueen’s employment of Indian design traditions as testament of nationalistic pride given his vehemence against British overlordship in Scottish history. For example, a silk crepe, jacquard, and tulle dress from “The Girl who Lived in the Tree” collection makes vivid use of Indian embroidery and a style of draping synonymous with the way a sari is worn. However, the deep red of the fabric used in the dress bears visual continuity with the MacQueen tartan seen in the garments of the “Widows of Culloden” collection. The sanguine colour choice functions not only as a shared visual cue across collections, but also as a marker of shared histories of colonisation, and sometimes of bloodshed due to empire, across continents.
Even as his fashion provided commentary about the history of empire and its effects on women, McQueen’s clothing of women’s bodies was neither devoid of the objectifying of those bodies nor an indulgence of orientalism. While one of the final sections of the exhibition, titled “Romantic Exoticism” quotes McQueen as musing about how “[f]ashion can be really racist”, not least because it “[looks] at the clothes of other cultures as costumes”, it also lauds his exoticism as being “a form of creative translation”. Quoting the designer again, an exhibition note chronicles how he would “[take] elements of traditional embroidery, filigree and craftsmanship from countries all over the world … and interpret them in [his] own way”. Offered with no irony about the apparent co-optation, nor any awareness of the colonial elements inherent in such claims of cultural knowledge, the note was a reminder of how the exhibition both explored McQueen’s genius while being uncertain about how to manage the unwieldy afterlife of imperial and colonial influence.
From The Goan.