John Galliano graduated from Central Saint Martins in 1984, and eight years later Lee Alexander McQueen followed suit. Two of their collections from the mid- nineties, Galliano’s Princess Lucretia (spring/summer 94/95) and McQueen’s Highland Rape (autumn/winter 95/96) use women’s bodies as a medium beyond clothing. Both use historical narratives to emotional and aesthetic effect, and both are fascinated with hierarchical power dynamics and violence against women.
Galliano’s show was built on an invented fairy-tale narrative, inspired by a Vanity Fair article which detailed a DNA connection between the Romanovs and the Duke of Edinburgh. Galliano’s Princess Lucretia runs away from the 1860s crinolines and hoops skirts of her Russian upbringing to Scotland. On her escape train, she meets a polka-dotty duke and duchess, who introduce her to parties. She becomes “naughty”, drinking, smoking and gambling, before falling in love with a lord and living happily ever after in reimaginings of Madeleine Vionnet’s bias-cut dresses. This magical realist narrative allows for the corseted, extremely unwieldy shapes of the mid-nineteenth century to metamorphose into the lithe and figure-hugging silks of the nineteen twenties in one performance.
Galliano’s show also follows the narrative of the seeming emancipation of a young woman’s body after the First World War. However, the ideal boyish figure of the twenties was by no means less restricted. Though it took up less space than the hoop-skirted silhouettes we see at the beginning of the show, the binding of breasts and pushing down of hips through corselets was hardly comfortable or natural. By the nineties, these techniques of reducing the appearance of secondary sexual characteristics had been internalised through dieting, exercise, and, at times, starvation. Where Galliano’s show foregrounded a fairy tale narrative featuring the recognisable historical shapes of crinolines and bias-cuts, McQueen’s story was far more abstract. His historical starting point was the eighteenth-century Jacobite rebellion, reinvented as a tale of masculine English domination and violation of a Scotland that is codified as feminine and natural.
In Highland Rape, the beginning of McQueen’s fascination with what Stephen Seely terms the “becoming non-human of the wearer’s body” is visible. Such de-humanising has long been used as a method of patriarchal control, as evidenced in the consideration of undergarments from the 1860s through the 1920s. For Seely, however, this can also “problematize the privileged Western binaries of human/animal, organic/inorganic, real/artifice, and male/female.” These binaries are made evident in the lace that McQueen features throughout the collection. At times, it is a matte pale blue, that trains off in tendrils down the model’s legs, resembling a cornflower meadow turned upside down. At others, it is painted over with iridescence, like the scales of a fish. Later, the lace becomes dark green and seems almost moss-like, matching up with the clumps of scrub which decorate the edges of the catwalk, through which the photographers’ cameras leer, like predators waiting to pounce.
Using rape as metaphor in art is uncomfortable and risky, particularly when that art involves real women’s bodies in varying states of nudity as part of the performance. When it was suggested to McQueen that the collection was misogynous, he was deeply upset, stating that he was “very close” to his oldest sister who had been abused by her husband. “All you want to do is make women look stronger (…),” he said, “I want to portray the way society still sees women in some ways, not the way I see women.” McQueen’s focus on personal experience over public narrativization is key in Highland Rape, but it is also problematised by his use of lesser-known models who, given the precarious nature of their occupation, might not have able to give full consent in the use of their bodies in the show.
This was not the case for Princess Lucretia. In Catwalk, we see Galliano directing Kate Moss backstage. The tiered blue skirt billows out behind her as she runs, her torso emerging childlike from the top, tiny in comparison to the sea that swallows the rests of her body. The name “Lucretia” has obvious connotations of rape (the tale of the Roman woman’s assault has been retold many times), but there are other signs of vulnerability. The soundtrack of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé is cut through with the sound howling wolves, the threat of the traditional wolf whistle transferred from man to animal. Galliano instructs Moss that, when she hears the wolves, to “stop” in order “to make the dress go really forward”. The suggested whiplash of fear in her heart is communicated through the momentum of the dress.
In both shows, the models wear matted hair extensions, mismatched and straggly. These accentuate their jerky and uncomfortable movements, adding to the sense of the physical suffering they have endured. Where Galliano’s models look back behind them as they come out onto the runway, the women in McQueen’s show stare at the audience as they return. Certain models were given sclera contacts lenses which cover the whole eye and make it black. These empty-seeming eyes evoke the blank stare of a survivor’s dissociation. The lenses also act like black mirrors, reflecting the onlookers’ faces. These models glare back at the audience, challenging them to examine themselves and their assumptions.
By Alexandra Sive