On Alexander McQueen’s Beautiful Monsters

In my opinion, good art transcends criteria for beauty and ugliness established by social norms. If you’ve read my first post about the subject  you know how I feel about the relationship between art and fashion creations. In the light of the  media storm created by the death of the celebrated designer Lee Alexander McQueen, I thought I should write about him sooner rather than latter. (I won’t use the word “genius” to describe him and if anyone’s curious about why I refrain from ever using the term, please consult Linda Nochlin’s essay “Why have there been no great female artist?” as she explains the issue a thousand times better than I can.)

McQueen’s unorthodox use of the mediums made available to him by the fashion industry is what made him a creative force to be reckoned with and an artist in his own way. He orchestrated every aspect of a collection and it’s presentation to create fashion shows that were a spectacle. He was a master of the mise-en-scene, using technology of lighting and sound as well as multimedia to create an art total production.

The first McQueen show that had me completely enthralled was the Spring 2005 collection which was presented as a giant chess game. I thought that if I were to become a fashion designer, I would want to also be an entertainer and have my work featured in a fashion show that would be on par with an Opera production. Not only were the clothes beautiful, but the presentation was dramatic in itself.

The only one who can top McQueen is McQueen himself, and this spring’s collection entitled Plato’s Atlantis was again an example of art total. An eerie atmosphere was created by Knight’s opening video of Raquel Zimmermann, lying on sand, naked, with snakes writhing across her body and the presence of two sinister movie cameras sliding and rearing on the runway on gigantic black booms (style.com) before the models started walking, looking like hybrids between reptiles and humans.

It’s not his mastery of the mise-en-scene that awes me the most. I think what was most fascinating about McQueen’s work is that he was able to defy traditional expectations of what beauty should look like. One of the spring 2010 shoes are reminiscent of a spine, twisting and writhing in a most unnatural way and another reminds us of an insect’s carapace . How does an object so reminiscent of the sordid become revered as amazing fashion? How does something essentially so ugly become admirable in our eyes? 


The McQueen paradox is strengthened by the fact that the fashion industry is obsessed with beauty and perfection and he has more than once surprised the world by sending down the runway creations that were not only out of the ordinary, but completely conflicted with traditional definition for the beautiful. In fact, these past seasons, McQueen has been sending more and more “ugliness” down the runway while still being credited for being an astounding designer. Who could forget the grotesque “blow-up doll” faces painted on his models for fall 2009.

Perhaps McQueen felt the need to expose fashion’s dark underbelly. Afterall, his Atlantis show was far from an allegory to female beauty and elegance. The models were transformed into supernatural creatures by insect and reptilian like structured dresses and engineered prints. The shoes grotesque hooves, conflicting with the natural shape of the body and transforming a elegant gait into an aggressive stomp. He mutated some of the most beautiful women in the world into eerie monstrous creatures far from our ideal of what beauty should look like.

His ingenious designs, entertaining fashion shows and superior craftsmanship  are all things that made him a fascinating actor in the fashion industry. But what made him an artist in my eyes was his capacity to completely defy our expectations of what fashion and beauty should be by delivering us objects reminiscent of the gruesome and distasteful all while conserving an aura of undeniable fierceness and mystery around them. In McQueen’s world, even the ugliest of subject matters became a thing of beauty to be envied.

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  1. Nice.

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