Alexander McQueen: a commentary on death and decay

Charles 19 Comments

Holographic video featuring Kate Moss which was projected during Alexander McQueen’s 2006 fall/winter collection, titled Widows of Culloden, during Paris Fashion Week. It was a tribute to all the women who lost their husbands in the battle and its aftermath.


Phoebe Hoare, who’s put some really good things our way, suggests it’s time we did something on Alexander McQueen, the fashion designer. She’s quite right. It’s not as if his work does not dwell and brood on death, dying, mortality and moral blackness.

Before becoming a student at Central St Martin’s, McQueen cut his teeth as a Savile Row tailor. There, he made suits for the nobility and gentry. He made a suit of clothes for the Prince of Wales and, on the back of the lining of one of the sleeves, wrote in biro:  ‘I am a c**t’.

He was fearless about flabbergasting people. He wanted people to leave his shows vomiting with shock and gagging for his clothes — and they did. His graduate show at Central St Martin’s was titled Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims and featured a frock coat with human hair between the fabric and the lining.  Throughout his life he carried on giving his adoring public more of the same — Gothic horror and much else.

Zoe Blackler, writer and journalist, says of him: “In McQueen’s world, an exuberant dress of cut flowers becomes a commentary on death and decay. A sculpted dress of black-dyed duck feathers recalls a raven, another deathly image, while accessories evoke the sadomasochistic. And yet, even at their darkest, his creations are never less than beautiful. ‘I find beauty in the grotesque,’ he said. ‘I have to force people to look at things.’” [Source]

Of a jacket embroidered with an image of the crucified Christ, he said: “That’s how I see human life, in the same way. …You know, we can all be discarded quite easily. … You’re there, you’re gone.”

And so he was. He killed himself in 2010, nine days after the death of his mother.

Was he a genius? Not in the opinion of Toby Young:  “Not a “genius”, unless by that you mean a gift for self-presentation.” But many would disagree. Compare him with YBAs (Young British Artists) like Damian Hirst and that tent woman. He was streets ahead.

Or was he? You decide for yourself.


Frock coat from Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims. The panel on the right shows the hair. 


Bone jacket


Raven dress


Note the vulture skulls on the shoulders


Skull scarf


He could do pretty, too


From the Dante show



There’s a good series of photos from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2011 show Savage Beauty here.

There’s a good survey of his oeuvre here.



  1. Charles

    I love it, you’ve summed him up beautifully! McQueen was definitely a genius. He also managed to tell history through his garments, like his highly controversial ‘Highland Rape’ collection. People confused it with the rape of women but it was in fact based on the Jacobite rebellion…England’s rape of Scotland. He took history and told it through the medium of dress, something tangible and wearable, unlike text. If that isn’t genius I don’t know what is!
    Here’s the link.

  2. Charles

    Actually Ru and Charles, I don’t see why Charles shouldn’t call her “that tent woman” – it’s the sort of thing I say all the time when my memory takes a holiday. (It rarely does an honest day’s work, these days) like “the steel angel bloke” or “the shark-halver.”

    And if it’s meant slightingly, well, it’s an opinion. I can’t think of enough rude things to say about the way so-called “BritArt” (as if it in some impossible way represented the nation) has ruthlessly commercialised the art market, and in my own immodest view, much of it that I’ve seen (at second hand, of course) seems clever but trivial, lacking in feeling and lasting resonance. We tend to have strong opinions about the art we identify with – music included. One’s own preferences are just that, after all.

    McQueen’s work, as quoted above, seems to me disturbing and fascinating and sometimes very beautiful, but it’s almost, I feel, like gallery work, not like something you’d wear. And as gallery work, much more rewarding and meaningful than looking at someone’s unmade bed.

    The pencilled obscenity inside HRH’s jacket – was he referring to himself, or HRH? Does knowing that was written in there out of sight have any effect, or is it more like a “BritArt” wheeze?

    Food for thought and further looking.

    Now don’t you tsch tsch me, young Ru, I know I’m bourgeois, I didn’t get where I am today without….er……where was I?

    But – yes, that’s it – that video of a holographic Ms Moss is completely spellbinding, thanks!

  3. Charles
    Richard Rawlinson

    I can think of much ruder things to say about Tracey Emin than ‘that tent woman’.

    The trouble with much BritArt/ConArt is the trendy critics hype the novel idea (pickled shark, filthy bed etc) but don’t seem to care about any lack of evidence of artistic talent in the execution. Emin has ideas but she cannot draw, paint or sculpt, for example.

    I admire Alexander McQueen more although I find the word ‘genius’ is overused. If Emin is an Empress with no clothes, McQueen demonstrated a fine artistic imagination as well as brilliant tailoring skills and technical know-how.

  4. Charles

    Richard, there are (literally) millions of people who can paint, draw, sculpt etc. but in today’s world (and in the past) you have to be exceptionally talented at art or have “brilliant” ideas (or both if you are McQueen) to make it on to the art scene. Emin just happens to have the ideas. Her work is the definition of controversial but she does raise important issues, feminism being the obvious one. She does, however, have another side to her that is more likable. Her is a personal tribute to her dead uncle.


    Uncle Colin is a homage to a favourite uncle who was killed in a car crash. It includes photographs of him, a newspaper page which reports the crash and the packet of cigarettes he was clutching at the time. Binding the elements together is Emin’s poignant letter to him. Such raw, emotional work ran completely counter to the ‘cool’ ethos which was fashionable in young British art at the time. (National gallery of Scotland)

    Here is the image

    Hope this changes your(Richard, Gloria and Charles)opinion, if only slightly!

  5. Charles

    I never said I didn’t like her, the womanTE, I just don’t find looking at her unmade bed etc etc to be in any sense rewarding or interesting. I suppose it depends what you want from art, how you feel it should or could work. Raising issues, feminist or any other, in any direct sense, isn’t particularly what I want, I want some unique vision! Something that pulls together things I can relate to and then by a non-rational process transcends them, makes of them something revelatory. I think it’s the lack of revelation that makes people say of fashionable BritArt that it’s too clever. It’s actually, perhaps, too rational.

    Andy Goldsworthy and Anthony Gormley can do so much more for me. They have vision. For me, effective, significant art is more than purely personal.

    Terrible thing, TE’s father’s death, and seeing her collages, my heart goes out to her as an individual. But -and I’m sorry if this sounds hard, but it’s up the on a public gallery wall – it’s only a personal statement, for me. The cigarette pack is horrifyingly eloquent, but the whole thing doesn’t resonate, for me. Just makes me sorry it happened. Maybe that’s all she wanted. Which is fine. It certainly doesn’t look like an effort to publicise herself and draw attention to the cleverness of what she’s doing, like that shark, it isn’t straining after notoriety or throwing an issue at us. In that sense, it looks authentic.

    It’s like the difference between the ten o’clock news about, say, Syria, and a really good documentary about Syria, and an inspired original film about Syria.Maybe that’s all she wanted. Emin’s unmade bed is the ten o’clock news. The work about her father’s death is like a documentary. Christopher Reid’s poems about his wife’s death -that’s the inspired film, as it were.

    All v interesting, thanks.

  6. Charles

    Yes, art is very personal and people prefer different aspects of it, like visually appealing or thought provoking or both. Duchamp shocked the art world with a urinal, there was nothing irrational about the urinal itself but it was the context it was set in, the same for Emin I think. She doesn’t do it for me but I appreciate her all the same (not that you have to!).If you like Goldsworthy you might like this artist (if you don’t already know him), Patrick Dougherty. He would make some pretty spectacular coffins.

  7. Charles
    Richard Rawlinson

    By taking ordinary objects and turning them into art installations, Duchamp was at least doing something that hadn’t been done before. Emin’s squalid bed is just a variation on an old idea.

    Phoebe, forgive the names-drop but I went to McQueen’s Highland Rape show at London Fashion Week many years ago – as a member of the press. I also interviewed Lee on a couple of occasions, and knew well his muse, Isabella Blow (nee Broughton), who committed suicide not long before Lee.

    Both are great losses and not just to fashion.

  8. Charles

    Wow Richard, just wow!!! Isabella was just as brilliant as McQueen in my opinion, such an inspiring and knowledgeable person, (and muse to the wonderfully talented Philip Treacy, which you know). What did you think Highland Rape? This has made my day.

  9. Charles
    Richard Rawlinson

    WOW Phoebe, love the enthusiasm!!!

    Highland Rape was a memorable event. The link you posted brought back memories. I was about 20 feet to the right of the girls you see on the catwalk shots.

    The show made the ‘enfants terribles’ of the time (Gaultier etc) seem like has-beens. Young McQueen’s shows were not just theatrical but dangerous. Accompanied by the loudest thumping rock music, the models staggered and stumbled down the catwalk, making you wonder if they were just hamming it up for dramatic effect or were truly drunk and high on drugs, or had actually just been raped backstage!

    People always accused him of shock tactics but his design, tailoring and technique showed real substance.

    As for Issie, she was amazing: bright, bitchy, funny, kind, cruel, talented, damaged – an English eccentric akin to Edith Sitwell with the vulnerability of Virginia Wolf.

    I fell out with her once for blabbing a secret to the Evening Standard. But when mutual friends warned me she was in a bad way in the months before she poisoned herself, I let her know I was there for her if she needed anything. I bumped into her soon before her death (she was having dinner with Bryan Ferry in the same Pimlico restaurant as me). She was about to fly to India to style a shoot and seemed fine.

    I really regret those around her didn’t read her better and prevent her death.

  10. Charles

    Thank you for this, it’s amazing to hear about Isabella from a personal perspective, and McQueen’s shows. I first learnt about her in the Philip Treacy exhibition when it was touring Dublin back in 2006 or thereabouts. Such a tragedy that she ended her life, and McQueen. They were both exceptional people…and I usually don’t say that about anyone!They were, and still are, inspiring.

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