Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 13, 2011

Savage Beauty: the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the Met

Filed under: fashion — louisproyect @ 5:37 pm

Always looking for an opportunity to disassociate myself from a herd mentality on the left, I have found occasion in the past to write about haute couture designers, including Karl Lagerfeld, Valentino Garavani, and the Project Runway veterans Austin and Santino, who were featured in a Bravo series last year about designing fancy gowns for women in the boondocks who drove trucks, worked in construction, etc.

From time to time, I get complaints from people who read my blog about my failure to address burning issues of the day like the trade union struggles in Madison. I always defend myself by saying that I am not trying to compete with Znet or Counterpunch. I write about what interests me, even if that opens me up to the charge that I am an intellectual dilettante. Or maybe I concur with Karl Marx who concurred in turn with the Roman playwright Terence’s dictum “Nothing human is alien to me.” (Nihil humani a me alienum puto.) After spending 11 years in a disciplined Marxist-Leninist group that functioned more or less like the Borg in Star Trek, I made up my mind after resigning that I would follow my own path wherever it might lead, including a visit to the Metropolitan Museum yesterday to see “Savage Beauty”, an exhibition of the work of Alexander McQueen, the high fashion designer who killed himself in February 2010, a month before his fortieth birthday.

On the occasion of McQueen’s untimely death, I posted a NY Times obit to the Marxism mailing list that included these paragraphs:

In March 1995, at his most controversial, Mr. McQueen dedicated his fall collection to “the highland rape,” a pointed statement about the ravaging of Scotland by England. The models appeared to be brutalized, wearing lacy dresses with hems and bodices ripped open, their hair tangled and their eyes blanked out with opaque contact lenses. This had come on the heels of a spring collection that, paradoxically, was full of precisely tailored suits and crisp shirts.

He was called an enfant terrible and the hooligan of English fashion. The monstrous, sometimes sadistic, styling of his collections became a hallmark, as when he showed models wearing horns on their shoulders. A collection in 2000 was shown on models with their heads bandaged, stumbling inside a large glass-walled room with the audience on the outside as if its members were looking into a mental ward. But many of these motifs were actually based on historic scenes, from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch to the films of Stanley Kubrick. Mr. McQueen once said he had sewn locks of human hair into his jackets as a nod to Jack the Ripper.

Well, call me a dilettante but how in the world would I turn down the opportunity to see the clothing described above with my own eyes?

McQueen was in the news lately when it was revealed that Kate Middleton would be wearing an Alexander McQueen wedding dress. As it turns out, the dress was actually designed by Sarah Burton who was the head designer at the firm founded by McQueen. That being said, it was likely that McQueen would have worked on such a gown if he had been alive. Despite his outsider posture, he understood that his ambitions were inextricably linked to the upper class that he so detested.

That same contradiction exists within the Metropolitan as well. The curators were obviously sympathetic to McQueen’s rebellious nature even though the board of trustees at the Met typifies the tastes of American blueblood society, including the Anglophilia that prevails at PBS television as well. Despite this, the curators did not mince words:

“The reason I’m patriotic about Scotland is because I think it’s been dealt a really hard hand. It’s marketed the world over as . . . haggis . . . bagpipes. But no one ever puts anything back into it.”

—Alexander McQueen

McQueen’s collections were fashioned around elaborate narratives that are profoundly autobiographical, often reflecting his Scottish heritage. Indeed, when he was asked what his Scottish roots meant to him, he replied, “Everything.” McQueen’s national pride is most evident in the collections Highland Rape (autumn/winter 1995–96) and Widows of Culloden (autumn/winter 2006–7). Both explore Scotland’s turbulent political history. Highland Rape was based on the eighteenth-century Jacobite Risings and the nineteenth-century Highland Clearances, and was the first collection to introduce McQueen tartan. Shown on semi-naked, blood-spattered models that staggered down a runway strewn with heather and bracken, the clothes were intended to counter romantic images of Scotland. In contrast, Widows of Culloden, which was based on the final battle of the Jacobite Risings, was more wistful, featuring exaggerated silhouettes inspired by the 1880s. McQueen’s message, however, remained defiantly political: “What the British did there was nothing short of genocide.” Despite these heartfelt declarations of his Scottish national identity, McQueen felt intensely connected to England, especially London. “London’s where I was brought up. It’s where my heart is and where I get my inspiration,” he said. His deep interest in the history of England was most apparent perhaps in The Girl Who Lived in the Tree (autumn/winter 2008–9), a dreamy quixotic fairy tale inspired by an elm tree in the garden of McQueen’s country home near Fairlight Cove in East Sussex. Influenced by the British Empire, it was one of McQueen’s most romantically nationalistic collections, albeit heavily tinged with irony and pastiche.

If you are inclined to see “Savage Beauty”, my suggestion is to go early in the morning and on a weekday unless you are willing to put up with a half-hour wait on line. I am not quite sure why this is such a hot ticket right now but you will get the most out of the show if you are not forced to compete with other attendees for a unblocked view of the clothing on display.

Like Lady Gaga, Alexander McQueen understood that a career in the arts could be advanced by being outrageous. One might be sure that he would have appreciated her showing up at a Grammy show in a meat dress, a move obviously indebted to the McQueen esthetic.

For most of the past century, avant-garde art, including some haute couture designs, has proceeded on the basis that we are in a period marked by decadence. As you walk your way through the McQueen exhibit, you feel as if you have walked into a Poe short story. The dominant colors are black and gray, relieved mostly by the colors of artwork that have been integrated into a dress or a gown. In one jacket, you see an image drawn from “The Thief to the Left of Christ” by Robert Campin, a fifteenth century artist. In another item, you see elements of a Hieronymus Bosch painting of tormented sinners. This is hardly the sort of garment you would see at a cocktail party in the Hamptons, needless to say.

In fact, most of the clothing on display challenges conventional understandings of what constitutes haute couture. Platform shoes have impossibly high heels that threaten to topple anybody wearing them. Dresses made of black leather look like the sort of thing you’d find in an S&M boutique even if they incorporate McQueen’s ravishing sense of style.

This mixture of beauty and decay is what might be expected from a social system that is on its last legs. The artist cannot help but understand that art is resting on rotten foundations, just as was the case in Edgar Allen Poe’s “Fall of the House of Ushers”. In the 17th century the Dutch masters were content to represent the burghers as benign figures, but in the 20th century onwards—after two world wars, countless colonial wars and the threat of nuclear annihilation—it is impossible not to notice the rot all around you, starting from the heads of society: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Barack Obama, David Cameron, et al. In such circumstances, Lady Gaga’s meat dress and Alexander McQueen’s “savage beauty” make perfect sense.

September 12, 2010

Picture Me: “a model’s diary”

Filed under: fashion,Film — louisproyect @ 4:45 pm

As a fan of cable TV’s Project Runway and documentaries about Karl Lagerfeld and Valentino, I jumped at the opportunity to see a press screening of Picture Me: “a model’s diary” last Thursday that was scheduled to coincide with Fashion Week in New York. (The movie opens at the Angelika Theater on September 17.)

However, this film was anything but the kind of free PR that the fashion industry might have expected. It was co-directed by Ole Schell, a documentary filmmaker, and Sara Ziff, his girlfriend—a professional model since the age of 14 who kept a video log of her experience in the industry over a five-year period. Weaving together her amateurish shaky footage with his own interviews with industry honchos, the finished product is a complex, ambivalent and altogether fascinating glimpse into the world behind the photos seen in Vogue and Elle magazines and the mammoth billboards on Times Square.

That is what one might have expected given their background. Ole Schell is the son of famous Sinologist Orville Schell whose first movie was Win in China, a documentary on the country’s entrepreneurial tidal wave. By the same token, Sara Ziff is not the stereotypical bubble-headed model (the movie’s main breakthrough is challenging these stereotypes) but the thoughtful and self-aware daughter of an NYU biochemistry professor and his wife, an attorney.

One day a total stranger approached Sara on the street asked her if she was a model. When she answered no, he set up an appointment with her at a top agency and her career began immediately. She knew that this would take her away from the path of college education and a career more in line with her parent’s expectations but the promise of a glamorous world, travel and buckets of cash persuaded her to take a shot at it. Although the film does not mention it (and really does not need to do so), the third “benefit” (buckets of cash) is exactly what draws young women into exotic dancing, porn films and prostitution.

While the world of runway modeling would seem to have little to do with these tawdry professions, we learn that they now recruit from the same labor pool: the impoverished nations of Eastern Europe such as Byelorussia and Romania, two countries whose representatives are seen in the film.

There is also the same kind of meat market mentality that operates in both realms. Sara Ziff says that the objectification is so extreme in the modeling world that an agency bigwig will often grab a model’s thigh or rear end in his or her hand and comment “She’s too fat” without even asking the model’s permission. For them, the model amounts to the same thing as a head of cattle on display at an auction.

We also learn that sexual predation is commonplace in the fashion industry. A top photographer will have his version of the casting couch, often selecting a young model under the age of 15. It is a sign of the desperation of poor women trying to break into the field that charges are not filed on a regular basis as they were in the Polanski case.

Despite the horrors that Sara Ziff put up with, she freely admits that the money kept her going. She was making more money than her dad and able to buy a fancy loft in Soho. But the longer she stayed in the industry, the more alienated she became. It was also getting to the point when she was becoming “too old”, an astounding verdict given that she was only 23. We learn that the industry is a revolving door, always on the lookout for the next big sensation, ideally a 15 year old just beyond the body of an anorexic.

At the end of the film, Ziff has been accepted into Columbia University General Studies and the closing credits inform us that she is majoring in political science and has begun work to launch a fashion model’s trade union. Good for her and good for Ole Schell for making a remarkable movie.

February 12, 2010

Alexander McQueen, Designer, Is Dead at 40

Filed under: fashion — louisproyect @ 9:31 pm

NY Times February 11, 2010
Alexander McQueen, Designer, Is Dead at 40
By ERIC WILSON and CATHY HORYN

Alexander McQueen, the renegade British fashion designer known for producing some of the most provocative collections of the last two decades, was found dead on Thursday morning in his London home, the police there said. He was 40.

At the beginning of his career, Mr. McQueen became a sensation for showing his clothes on ravaged-looking models who appeared to have been physically abused, institutionalized or cosmetically altered, all while peppering his audience with rude comments. “I’m not interested in being liked,” he said. He once mooned the audience of his show.

But he was enormously creative and intelligent, and he seemed to sense that the fashion industry needed to have its buttons pushed. His fall 2009 collection was the talk of Paris when, reacting to the recession, Mr. McQueen showed exaggerated versions of all of his past work on a runway strewn with a garbage heap of props from his former stage sets. He was suggesting that fashion was in ruins.

“The turnover of fashion is just so quick and so throwaway, and I think that is a big part of the problem,” he said. “There is no longevity.”

In his work, Mr. McQueen drew on Orientalism, classicism and English eccentrics, and also his ideas about the future, combining them in ways that were complex and perplexing.

As designers have done for centuries, Mr. McQueen altered the shape of the body using corsetry and anatomically correct breast plates as a recurring motif. More recently, his work took on increasingly futuristic tones, with designs that combined soft draping with molding, or ones in which a dress seemed to morph into a coat. At his last show, in October, the models wore platform shoes that looked like the hulls of ships.

Lee Alexander McQueen was born in London on March 17, 1969. His father was a taxi driver; his mother was a social science teacher. His father wanted him to become an electrician or a plumber, but Lee, as he was always known, knew he wanted to work in fashion. His father, Ron McQueen, survives him, as do five siblings.

Aware of his homosexuality at an early age (he said he knew at age 8), he was taunted by other children, who called him “McQueer.” He left school at 16 and found an apprenticeship on Savile Row working for the tailors Anderson & Sheppard and then Gieves & Hawkes. In a story he repeated on some occasions but at other times denied, he was bored one day and wrote a derogatory slur in the lining of a jacket destined for the Prince of Wales.

As he struck out on his own, Mr. McQueen was immediately recognized for his brashness. The models in his October 1993 collection walked the runway with their middle fingers extended, and their dresses were hand-printed to appear as if they were covered with blood; some of it looked fresh. He also showed trousers cut so low that they were called “bumsters.” Criticized at the time because some did not cover the rear, the trousers were credited with initiating a low-rise trend that eventually caught on with every mainstream jeans maker in the world.

“His was a hard show to take, but at least it offered one solution to the identity crisis of London fashion,” wrote Amy M. Spindler, then the fashion critic of The New York Times.

In March 1995, at his most controversial, Mr. McQueen dedicated his fall collection to “the highland rape,” a pointed statement about the ravaging of Scotland by England. The models appeared to be brutalized, wearing lacy dresses with hems and bodices ripped open, their hair tangled and their eyes blanked out with opaque contact lenses. This had come on the heels of a spring collection that, paradoxically, was full of precisely tailored suits and crisp shirts.

He was called an enfant terrible and the hooligan of English fashion. The monstrous, sometimes sadistic, styling of his collections became a hallmark, as when he showed models wearing horns on their shoulders. A collection in 2000 was shown on models with their heads bandaged, stumbling inside a large glass-walled room with the audience on the outside as if its members were looking into a mental ward. But many of these motifs were actually based on historic scenes, from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch to the films of Stanley Kubrick. Mr. McQueen once said he had sewn locks of human hair into his jackets as a nod to Jack the Ripper.

“Nicey nicey just doesn’t do it for me,” he said.

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