Since the election, I’ve thought a lot about Alexander McQueen. McQueen killed himself in 2010 at age 40. His best friend, Isabella Blow, committed suicide and three years after that his beloved mother died of cancer; McQueen took his own life nine days after his mother’s passing. He left a note to make sure his dogs would be cared for. McQueen, had he lived, would have dominated the twenty-first century fashion landscape: as it happened, his ideas have influenced trends in the 2010s, such as the persistence of asymmetrical clothing (how many dresses with a waterfall ruffle down one side have you seen? Girls, it’s been 20 years since McQueen featured this cut!). Thank goodness his bumsters, trousers cut to show the top half of the derriere, fell out of fashion about the time Britney Spears rebelled and re-structured her relationship to stardom.
Photograph from Metropolitan Museum of Art, Retrospective of Alexander McQueen’s work in the exhibition Savage Beauty May 4-August 7, 2011. Coat, Dante, autumn/winter 1997, property of Hon. Daphne Guinness (collection of Isabella Blow), photograph by Solve Sundsbo.
McQueen designed clothes that were not about making women comfortable in their own skin, or designing clothing that was easy to wear, or frankly, creating clothing intended to be worn. So many of McQueen’s designs were meant to tell the world what he saw, what he knew: that women were simultaneously wracked with power and vulnerable to attack; that within femininity lay immense strength and unbelievable masochism. He wanted women to see, to really see for themselves what kinds of power and what kinds of dangers lay in being female.
So, this jacket. Dante’s jacket. It’s a showoff piece. McQueen was famously extraordinary with scissors, cut without patterns (if you have watched Project Runway you know for most humans that path leads to failure as a designer), and did fittings with scissors. He “saw” the fabric as a plane of points and seemed, to his colleagues, preternaturally attuned to where the fabric would fall. So here, the amazing waterfall curve of the tail of the jacket, the extraordinarily smooth line of the jacket’s lapel and upturned collar. It walks the line between a celebration of the shape of a woman’s body — or rather, the tailoring shapes the body within it to take on the curves of an idealized female body — and it exalts the lush reveling in the harder edges of military clothing. The jacket strangles the body high up on the rib cage, the long tail forces movement to slow, the upturned collar inhibits sideways movement of the gaze.
Two dominant 1980s pop stars, Prince and Michael Jackson, explored the tension of the feminine and masculine in their own bodies. Both relied on military-inspired performance looks but each man also used costuming (or lack of costume) to assert a femininity of self. They were the same age, both born in 1958, and each rose to stardom in the 1980s (Jackson, a child star, found his footing in the early 1980s as an independent pop star; Prince rose out of the ruins of the disco era of the late 1970s).
Jackson, 5’9″ and weighing only 136 pounds at his death by drug overdose, spoke in a wispy falsetto. In the 1980s he wore military-inspired jackets laden with sequins, beading, and elaborately shiny materials. As seen in the images above, he also played with symmetry, wearing a sash across his chest and a glove on one hand. He was off-kilter, bedecked with jewels, playing a game with the overtly masculine messages of such jackets. In the middle image he wears elongated chaps and an iridescent jacket on top. He was set to piss people off, if those people demanded men play the rules of “real men”.
Prince’s Purple Rain Coat, Ruffled Blouse, and high-waisted black pants, Minnesota Historical Society.
Prince was 5’2″or 5’3″, and weighed around 110 pounds at his death, give or take a few. He wore a size 0 or 2 in women’s clothing. His Purple Rain performance coat (he wore a motorcycle-styled version of the same jacket when he rode the motorcycle in the film) is very much a costume, and bears little resemblance to McQueen’s later coat. Prince’s style is usually identified as “Edwardian” or at least “Victorian”; as Charles Murphy said in his hilarious basketball skit, those are blouses, man. Prince used several different designers, all of whom created custom-made outfits for concerts and performances. It is a dandy outfit, and intriguingly, like Jackson’s outfit, has deliberately emphatic asymmetrical detailing.
Prince’s jackets were either very long or very very short little boleros. Ruffles of chest hair or cascading white linen, tight-fitting pants that flared out at the hem, high-heeled shoes or boots: Prince’s regular dress. He also played with nudity and near-nudity in a way that utterly undermined 1980s and 1990s assumptions of what “real men” were supposed to be like. Prince’s persona, singing dirty-minded songs about sex with women, pranced about in his high heels and bare bottom. Note in the image below that the button detailing echoes the side-slash of buttons on his pants worn with the long version of the Purple Rain coat.
If McQueen was exploring in his clothing what women carried with them in the culture, Prince and Jackson were exploring what men ignored about themselves. Both men were provocative because they were willing to ask whether masculinity, as defined in their decades, was too narrow, was hypocritical, was masking truth. McQueen, I think, wanted to reveal truth to women — and, in turn, to men. All three men, geniuses, lonely, happy, creative, and sad men — all three men were interested in exploring just what men had to give up to be “men”.