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18th February 2020

Alexander McQueen’s legacy: VOSS

A decade after his death, Isabella Sharp shines a light on one of Alexander McQueen’s most weird and wonderful collections
Alexander McQueen’s legacy: VOSS
Photo: Sandstein @ Wikimedia Commons

Last week marked the tenth anniversary since we lost the fashion mind of a generation, Lee Alexander McQueen. What could encapsulate his legacy more than the dizzyingly disturbing collection VOSS, aka S/S 2001? The reason McQueen means so much to so many is that he truly understood women. Voss may seem like an odd choice to illuminate this, but McQueen’s ability to see both the hideous and the beautiful in the female form, and understand that they co-exist, was his great power.

VOSS, as a collection, hurts before it even begins. There’s the set, harshly lit by ice-white light, the strange mirrored glass which allows the audience to peer in at the models. They jerk and contort around the runway, or else move as if tranquilised. Their heads are covered with bandages, incongruous against the smartly cut dresses and suits which are every inch the successful modern woman. At least, ostensibly. The clothes unravel with each look, in sharp and subtle ways.

A painfully thin model has slits in her trousers which glide up her calves and touch the soft flesh behind the knee. Another wears gauzy thigh highs which on closer inspection resemble bandages. A few more wear lace dresses that leave them almost naked, the tissue as thin as new skin. Forms turn from daring to distended. Dresses skim the base of spines like backless hospital gowns. A scarlet, one-shoulder gown scoops right down to the hip, like an anatomical figure exposing muscle.

Outlandishness sets in firmly from this point. A sort of metal exoskeleton, resembling obsolete medical apparatus, pokes at a girl’s lip while she leers through the glass. Waistlines bloom obscenely, and a huge gown made of razor clams rattles as a model runs her hands down it, shattering a few in the process. The clinically white floor becomes littered with natural detritus. There is a tenderness and fragility to the whole affair that is like seeing Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar brought to life. When, at the end, the ominous box of opaque, dirty glass at the centre inches open and then smashes, it reveals a startling sight. A plus-size woman, naked, on a respirator, butterflies escaping their confines around her.

VOSS accomplishes more than simply recreating Joel-Peter Witkin’s Sanitarium. It shows us a restrictive, painful beauty that is little more than a fragile cast over the true self, neglected and sequestered. McQueen understood what it meant to be a modern woman- the strain, the control, the pressure, and the strength. It’s easy to see why two words have settled his legacy. Savage Beauty, to the core.

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