A garment from Alexander McQueen’s Fall 2008 collection. Photo by TheSmartStylist.com.
When new trends, foods, entertainment, etcetera, from other countries come to the attention of the Americans, society as a whole assesses its suitability into our culture by accepting or rejecting it accordingly. When we experience “culture shock” it’s because we can not immediately accept aspects of other cultures into our own. Even with cultures similar to ours, American society puts all foreign cultural contributions through this ringer.
Canada, Britain, and many other western cultures may be comparable to ours in terms of what we can exchange. There is usually a relative strata of lower, middle, and upper classes, with variations in between. These cultures tend to value and trade between easily transferable commodities, ideas, luxuries, and morals (for the most part). Americans accept things like cultural cuisines, rock bands, and party trends (the rave, for example, came from London). We tend to reject certain contributions, whereas cultural tendencies and artifacts that we don’t know how to categorize, we’re simply fascinated by.
Alexander McQueen’s fashion design work is one of those fascinations. The American culture is so stunned by his art that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City featured an exhibit of his work that more than 660,000 people showed up to see, making it the most attended fashion exhibit ever held at the Met. We’re so impressed with the boldness of his style that the media’s attraction to it has become the sole marketing tactic for popular icons like Lady Gaga and Sara Jessica Parker. It could also be said that society has perpetuated this by making that boldness the reason for their celebrity in the first place.
The exhibit in NYC highlighted his fashion lines, of which the names themselves cause discomfort. After a hard-working life as a young London boy in the tailoring industry, McQueen completed an MA program in 1994 with a graduate collection called Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims. The following year, he produced a controversial line called Highland Rape. If the names weren’t enough to make Americans uneasy, the outfits themselves were stiff, angular, sometimes a body suit or a ripped lace dress, and were made out of unique materials like balsa wood, ostrich feathers, or fresh flowers. McQueen’s headdresses, neckpieces, other body adornments, and shoes were, despite being accessories, just as unique and visually arresting.
McQueen dressed in a far less eccentric outfit than his models. Photo by Ed Kavishe of Fashion Wire Press.
Not only did he break the mold of what it meant to build a fashion collection, he completely changed what it means to put on a fashion show. Never would you see a McQueen model walk straight down the catwalk, turn around a few times and walk back. His models were actors in his great fashion production while he was the director. They danced. They fell into pools. Besides the holographic Kate Moss show, his other popular stunt included a terrified model in the midst of a robot shooting match. Her simple, white strapless dress was eventually covered in green, black, and yellow paint thus creating an entirely unique dress – a real work of art.
This powerful and subversive combination of elements made it difficult for the America to accept McQueen’s work as high fashion until later in his career, when it was half-sponsored by Gucci and worn by many celebrities. The remarkable popularity of the Met exhibit that opened a little over a year after McQueen’s February 2010 death indicates few things: a) People were finally overcoming their initial culture shock in response to his designs, and by doing so were able to notice the phenomenal stitching and tailoring work of McQueen as an artist; b) Were he alive today he might’ve been enjoying a prospective career peak, our culture’s admiration of only dead geniuses not withstanding; and c) McQueen’s work, with all its British and French influences, has finally found a comfortable space to call its own within American culture.
We’ll know for sure when people start wearing armadillo shoes and antler hats.