Alexander McQueen and Disability Arts

Alexander McQueen and Disability Arts


The fashion world is a multimillion-dollar global industry that prides itself on exclusivity and promotes unattainable ideals of not only the perfect but the normal. Designers enable this ideology through the clothes they design and the bodies of the models they choose to represent their work. The fashion industry is an exclusive club creating rigid guidelines on what is beautiful; this often ostracizes disability as an “other,” as “not beautiful.” Alexander McQueen was a British fashion designer, active in the early 1990s until his death, at age 40, in 2010. To this day, he has been one of the only designers to push back against these outdated narratives.

Lee Alexander McQueen was well-known for his controversial artwork in the fashion industry. McQueen did not start life in affluence; he lived on his parents’ small income along his five other siblings. Ian Bonhóte and Peter Ettedgui’s 2018 documentary titled Mcqueen explores the designer’s life and sheds light on his childhood and early artistic development. At a very young age, Alexander McQueen began demonstrating inklings of his talent in art and fashion, creating dresses for his sisters. At the age of sixteen, he decided to pursue his passion in fashion and dropped out of school to work in a tailor shop. The rigid guidelines of the tailor shop allowed McQueen to develop his skill and realize he wanted to create his own structures; he decided to go back to school and further develop his skills. From the start of his career, McQueen had always pushed boundaries right from the beginning, saying, “I didn’t care about what people thought of me and I didn’t care what I thought of myself, so I would go to the far reaches of my dark side and pull these horrors out of my soul and put them on the catwalk.”1 Mcqueen’s work redefined the body in new and revolutionary ways.

The body is a strictly regulated commodity in the fashion industry. Models are expected to adhere to the standards of what a select group of people consider beautiful. McQueen was less concerned about the arbitrary standards set on bodies by the fashion industry and focused more on artistic expression. Clothes can be whimsical and traditionally beautiful, but there is also a reality outside of the beautiful and whimsical life that is often only portrayed by other designers and McQueen always told life as it was, exploring the harsh realities such as abuse in his art even if the world wasn’t ready yet. Disability art is more than just art about disability; it is also a statement and a framework and call for change. McQueen’s work was a departure from the mainstream fashion designers. He broke away from the “confinements of the fashion industry norms” and used his work to redefine the body. No. 13, in 1999, was McQueen’s thirteenth show. It featured several disabled models on the runway, which was quite unheard of at this time. American athlete and model Aimee Mullins, a double leg amputee who was one of McQueen’s muses, was featured in this show. Her ensemble consisted of a brown leather corset, a cream silk lace skirt, and prosthetic legs made of carved elm wood. Mullins told the press later on, “The fact is, nobody knew that they were prosthetic legs. They were the star of the show—these wooden boots peeking out from under this raffia dress—but in fact, they were actually legs made for me.” 2After the show, people were clamoring to buy these “boots” that were actually prosthetic legs; their popularity is a significant indicator of how much McQueen challenged traditional standards of beauty. In an interview, McQueen said, “it is always about pushing to the extreme, the human body, human nature. As a designer you’re always working with cutting up the body to different proportions, different shapes. This is what a designer’s job is, to transcend what fashion is and what it could be.”3 His pieces were often created in a manner that allowed the model’s body to be distorted, raising the question, How is beauty quantified? Is it quantified by symmetry? There is no one correct way to quantify beauty, and McQueen acknowledged that through his designs. The garments were avant garde; they did not adhere to the guidelines of what was considered beautiful, but they were still beautiful.

Disability arts and culture expresses a politics of self-representation often unavailable or severely limited within mainstream artistic, cultural, and performance traditions. Representation in the fashion industry for bodies that are not “normal” is scarce. The 1998 special issue of the Dazed magazine titled “Fashion-Able?” was a celebration of disabled bodies in mainstream media that had not been explored before. McQueen was a special guest editor of this issue that broke boundaries. Alexander McQueen believed that “beauty can be found in extreme difference and individuality.”4He took this appreciation for difference, an idea that was not held by many in the fashion industry, and publicized it. The magazine issue includes models each with a different physical disability decked with ornate garments. For example, “Helen Mcintosh, a person of restricted growth, wears a tweed draped dress by Roland Mouret.”5 It is in the history of disabled people to be on display while being erased in social and political aspects, and to some extent McQueen understood that. Stylist and McQueen’s longtime collaborator Katy England, who worked on the “Fashion-Able” feature, says that “it was very important to him that they felt at ease and could trust our vision, knowing that we all wanted to achieve something artistic and beautiful.”6 McQueen had a pattern of breaking arbitrary stereotypes and with this special 1998 of Dazed magazine he did just that. He showed that there is beauty even in the differences. One of the most memorable moments across all of McQueen’s shows was the end of No. 13: Model Shalom Harlow stood on a rotating circular platform wearing a plain belted white petticoat-style dress while being sprayed by yellow and black paint from both sides by robots. Some might say this garment was ruined by the paint, while others disagree and say the paint added value. Who’s to decide which viewpoint is right? McQueen told The Guardian, “The idea is to show that beauty comes within. You look at all the mainstream magazines and it’s all about the beautiful people.”7In society, disability has always been viewed with an “us” and “them” mentality and it is no different in fashion. McQueen used his privilege and high standing in the fashion industry to make a statement and that is what disability art is about.

Disability arts is characterized by principles of transgression, resisting, critiquing and starting conversations around the policies that invite oppression to the “other.”  McQueen always made a statement with each show. A lot of his early fame came from the controversy that surrounded his shows; it was nothing like anyone had seen before, everything paled in comparison. The themes were vulgar and shocking and McQueen put his traumas into his work to create beautiful garments. The 1995 Highland Rape collection, one of McQueen’s earlier collections, featured dresses ripped, torn and sheer in all the places to suggest the models had been raped, for which the collection faced incredible backlash in the media. The darkness and vulgarity of the collection was misconstrued as Mcqueen’s advocacy of violence and lack of empathy for women, but this was far from his intent. McQueen defended his work, saying,

“I was very close to my oldest sister who was badly beaten up by her husband, and when you’re eight-years-old and you’re seeing your sister strangled by her husband (who’s now dead, thank god) all you want to do is make women look stronger . . . So if people see misogyny in my work it’s because I want to portray women in the way society still sees women in some ways- not the way I see women.”8

It came out later on in his life that McQueen was sexually abused by his brother-in-law at a very young age.9 All these instances could give an insight to the anger and violence in McQueen’s work. McQueen made garments that expressed his truth; collection by collection, the clothes he made offer insight into his life. His designs were an outlet to let all that trauma out and disrupt the normal traditional ways. In his own words, “I really don’t like the normal. I don’t think it’s— you just don’t move forward,”10 His work was transgressive in nature but was also progressive because it started the conversation. In  an interview with The Guardian McQueen said,“I know that I’m provocative. You don’t have to like it, but you have to acknowledge it.”11.

The fashion industry is one giant spectacle; designers and models alike constantly find themselves in the spotlight and under pressure to produce and be perfect. McQueen embodied a new age of designer that understood his supposed role and broke out of  those expectations. He once stated, “You’ve got to know the rules to break them. That’s what I’m here for, to demolish the rules but to keep the tradition.” 12McQueen’s 2001 show VOSS  directly interrogates the stare in the fashion industry. The set was a giant mirrored cube resembling the padded rooms typically inside mental health institutions. The mirrors were one-way windows, allowing the audience to see in whereas the models could not see out. The show started by the audience being forced to stare at themselves for two hours at the mirrored cube. As Suzy Menkes, a Vogue international editor recalled, “Nobody especially at the end of the day after weeks of fashion shows wants to look at themselves; everyone was already discomforted.”13 With his set alone, before the show had even started, McQueen was already making big statements about the power of the stare. When the show started, and the audience could now see the runway, the models appeared decked in flowy and soft garments with a color scheme of pink, black, grey to match. However, their actions were quite a juxtaposition to the clothes: They behaved confused, crazy, helpless—clawing at their faces, pressing their faces up against the glass and caressing the glass. The models had bandages wrapped around their heads to convey this “slight feeling of sickness, unease and bedlam feel.14The sounds were haunting to match the theme: wild laughter, screaming, groaning as the models moved through this enclosed box. However, the most shocking thing came after the models had left, in the finale. One single light came on as the rest went out, illuminating the center box in the runway. Slowly the lights came in as the walls of the box come down in the background, to the sound of a heartbeat beating faster and faster. When the walls of the box finally shattered, there was the sound of a flatlining heart monitor and the gasps of the audience. Inside the box lay journalist Michelle Olley, nude on a couch, baring an iron mask with feeding tubes in her mouth and moths fluttering around her. 15For the final image to be one of a large woman on such a large scale like this is unexpected because Olley possesses the type of body that the industry has ostracized and made people believe was not beautiful. While being overweight is not a disability, “Like disabled bodies, fat bodies, especially those belonging to people of color, are routinely disciplined by means of the stare.”16 McQueen used his privilege to display variation in the human body and call attention to the fashion industry’s discriminatory predilections.

Throughout, VOSS  conveyed a voyeuristic sense: The models were watched, in vulnerable states, but not being able to see. There is a long history of  able-bodied people putting disabled people on display for their own entertainment and made profit, as in the case of “freak shows.” VOSS  is different. The archetypes that are presented to us in the media condemn individuals with mental illnesses as crazy sending them to mental health institutions, they are exploited in the media yet the realities of mental health remain taboo. McQueen’s work did not allow the audience to ignore reality. When pitching the idea to Olley, McQueen told her that the show was about beauty, death, regeneration and re-birth.17 The death of these outdated narratives and a rebirth of seeing beauty in places and bodies considered “abnormal.” McQueen was more than just a fashion designer, he transcended fashion; he was an artist in its truest form. While it is not documented that McQueen identified as a disability artist when he was alive, a lot of his work directly aligns with the discourses of disability art and culture.

The transgressive nature of his work and the power and influence that McQueen held calls to question whether his work was an appreciation or exploitation of the disabled body. Was he utilizing disability as a metaphor to elevate his artwork, or was he viewing disabled bodies as simply a variation in the human body? Disability is often left out in fashion, both through underrepresentation in the media and through the lack of accessible clothing. Alexander McQueen designed  intricate pieces that were tailored in unnatural shapes and demanded much out of the model’s bodies. The Armadillo Boot, from 2010 collection Plato’s Atlantis, is one of Mcqueen’s most notable footwear creations. As The Museum of Savage Beauty describes it, “The design is not a conventional shoe, but appears as part of the wearer, elongating and extending the leg and combining a claw-like menace with the beauty of a ballerina’s en pointe.” 18Although McQueen himself had a mental disability struggling with depression, he was able-bodied passing in his appearance, and that can hold a lot of privilege. The clothes Mcqueen created were strange and innovative but oftentimes they were inaccessible for disabled people , shoes like the armadillo boot would leave the models in an uncomfortable position. It is not always but can be transgressive when someone that is a part of the minority group creates work that further perpetuates the harmful narrative of the majority especially considering the intended audience. It is unclear whether McQueen ever identified himself as disabled when he was alive but, “his aim—which he repeatedly stressed during numerous interviews conducted with him—was to reflect the prejudices and limitations of the audiences’ aesthetic judgments rather than caging women in unnatural conditions.”19

The fashion industry is not one that is very welcoming to people who do not fit its particular standards, and McQueen’s purpose was to push against that. Later in his life, his struggles with anxiety and depression were more apparent. The pressure of his work and producing all these collections seemed to become a burden for McQueen, who then resorted to harmful coping mechanisms, such as drugs. His friends say the darker he seemed to go the more genius his collections would be.20 Even McQueen, who seemed like the antichrist to the fashion industry and what it stood for fell victim to its arbitrary standards of beauty and got liposuction. Of the decision, he said later on, “I changed myself. It was the wrong thing to do, because I completely lost touch with who I was.”21. McQueen’s personality was changing, and though people close to him noticed, not much was done. The stigma around mental illness unfortunately leads to lack of accommodations which could greatly help so many people like Alexander Mcqueen. Unfortunately, Alexander McQueen did not receive the help that he needed and committed suicide in his home in 2010.

Alexander McQueen was a disability artist. McQueen pioneered in influencing other designers to attack the normal and combat controversial issues through design. Artists are always outsiders, they view the world differently than the rest. A simple seemingly meaningless trash bag being made into a dress, McQueen saw the beauty in everything. McQueen was one of the first designers to acknowledge the beauty in disabled bodies and place them on the runway and in the media and decades later the first model to descend the runway in a wheelchair was a black trans woman by the name of Aaron Philip. Displaying clothes only on able bodied people removes and ostracizes physically disabled people. McQueen embodied disability aesthetic throughout his work finding beauty in things that society deemed as “abnormal.” The legacy of Alexander McQueen lives on as we enter this increasingly digital age where consumers are more vocal and the industry is more accessible to the masses, new designers are not conforming to the subjective standards created by a limited group of people. From the dismantling of the Victoria Secret fashion show, a brand that represents an incredibly secular and patriarchal view of female beauty to more disabled models walking down the runway, McQueen’s work lay down the foundation for future designers to rewrite the rules.

  1. McQueen, directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui (New York: Bleecker Street, 2018).
  2. Aimee Mullins, “Aimee Mullins: What does a Beautiful Woman Look Like”, Fashion Lady, October 2013.
  3. Wilcox 2015, 33.
  4. Natalie Rigg,“The Dazed History of Alexander McQueen,” Dazed, March 2015.
  5. Cayte Williams, “Fashion Breaks the Last Taboo,” The Independent, October 22, 2011.
  6. McQueen in Rigg,“The Dazed History of Alexander McQueen,”
  7. Lottie Jackson, “Does Fashion Care about Disabled People and the Purple Pound?The Guardian, September 4, 2017.
  8. “Alexander McQueen,” Masters of Style, Season 1, Episode 1, Aired September 28, 2001.
  9. McQueen, 2018
  10. McQueen, 2018.
  11. McQueen quoted in Jackson, “Does Fashion Care about Disabled People and the Purple Pound?
  12. McQueen, 2018
  13. McQueen, 2018
  14. McQueen, 2018.
  15. McQueen, 2018
  16. Anna Mollow, “Disability Studies Gets Fat,” Hypatia, vol. 30, no. 1 (2014).
  17. McQueen, 2018
  18. Armadillo Boot,” Museum of Savage Beauty.
  19. Wilcox, “Alexander Mcqueen,” 33.
  20. McQueen, 2018.
  21. McQueen, 2018.
Back to Top