Art-à-Porter: A tribute to Alexander McQueen and ‘No.13’

Today, when people mention the name Alexander McQueen, one of the most celebrated and successful designers of the past few decades, many are reminded of his clothes that often featured skull prints and patterns. The British couturier, however, has left an incommensurable legacy to the fashion world that cannot and should not be restricted to a single print, which happened to enjoy exceptional commercial favor.

One of the most iconic designs McQueen sent down the runway was the look worn by athlete Aimee Mullins. On the occasion of his Spring-Summer show of 1999, “No. 13,” the fashion virtuoso custom-designed a brown leather corset, a white lace skirt and a pair of wooden prosthetic legs for the American sprinter, who was born with a medical condition that compelled her legs to be amputated when she was one year old. The wooden legs are carved with dreamy floral motifs, ending in heels that made Mullins 6’1” tall.

What I love about this look is the way in which it glorifies and celebrates a female body with features not commonly seen on runways. The fashion industry constantly perpetuates ableism through its catwalks, so it was important that McQueen indirectly started the conversation on these ableist standards. The corset Mullins wore, which in fact resembles more of a metallic armor, elevates the model to a dazzling amazon, towering above the audience. Nonetheless, achieving this effect came at the cost of comfort; Mullins herself said McQueen’s designs were “hard and strict and unrelenting, as life can be sometimes.” This shows that the Englishman’s intent was more to make art, rather than to create clothes that would sell well.

“No. 13” also featured what is arguably the one moment for which Alexander McQueen is most remembered. At the end of the show, model Shalom Harlow walked down the runway wearing a simple white dress, stepped on a circular platform that started rotating, while Harlow got sprayed painted on by two arm-like robots. This moment was the main reason why Vogue rightfully referred to “No.13” as “not a fashion show” but “performance art.” This last piece, which ended the runway show, inevitably draws comparisons with 1950s process art and Pollock’s paintings above all. The pattern created on the white dress by the spray paint was actually quite reminiscent of works like “Autumn Rhythm,” especially because the American painter was known to employ different kinds of paints in his pieces, including paint used to tint aircrafts.

It is also interesting to think of this final look in terms of artist and musician John Cage’s fascination with the aleatory elements of art making. If the model had moved in a different way on the platform, how different would the final outcome have looked? To what extent can McQueen claim intellectual ownership of the dress, and to what extent can it be considered a result of Harlow’s creative movement? Cage would probably argue that, since McQueen came up with the idea for the performance, he is to be given all credit for the artwork, but it is also possible to argue that the model had a big role in determining what the dress looked like.

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