Spectacular Transgressions

Spectacular Transgressions


Aesthetics and Ethics in Alexander McQueen’s Voss

In the history of fashion, few designers have been as experimental, as avant-garde, or as legendary as Lee Alexander McQueen (1969 – 2010). As a designer, McQueen was artistically and conceptually transcendent, known for pushing fashion to its very limits, shocking and horrifying his audience with the products of his dark imagination. McQueen was trained in London and Milan as a tailor before attending Central Saint Martins for fashion design.1 McQueen was indisputably gifted at his craft, and his talent for tailoring, combined with his ingenuity for design and sense of conceptual wit, brought him much attention within the industry from an early age. McQueen’s shows were equal parts stunning and staggering, and were consistently the subject of controversy within the industry as he pushed the boundaries of the ideas and definition what of the fashion show is meant to be.

McQueen’s Spring/Summer 2001 collection, Voss, is considered both one of his crowning achievements as a designer and also one of his most controversial shows. As Michelle Olley recounts in Ian Bonhôte’s 2018 film, McQueen, when guests arrived at the show, they were seated in front of a mirrored glass cube. For an hour, the audience was forced to stare at their own reflections while room was filled with the sound of a heartbeat slowly increasing in speed until finally, the cube lit up. The interior of the set was fashioned as a padded cell, inspired by insane asylums, and as models processed out, this connection became obvious. From the interior, the models could not see the audience, which instilled the set with a further sense of unsettling voyeurism. The clothes were inspired by the idea of the asylum and by McQueen’s obsession with nature.2 Models’ heads were wrapped in bandages as they were decked out in taxidermy birds, mussel shells, razor clams, and ostrich feathers. In addition to their garments, models took on the exaggerated personas of insane patients, colliding with the walls of the cube, laughing uncontrollably, and dismantling the  McQueen’s collection by pulling off the shells and feathers,. Once the models exited the cube, it went dark, revealing a second smaller cube lit within it. The walls of the glass cube unfolded and shattered to the ground, revealing a plus sized woman, wearing only a gas mask and surrounded by moths.  The imagery used is a recreation of Joel Peter-Witkins’ 1983 photograph, Sanatarium. From start to finish, the show was deeply psychological, and had a profound effect on the audience and models, earning its place as one of the most iconic runway productions in fashion history.

McQueen was never a designer focused on pleasing his audience. From the beginning of his career, he wanted to shock, excited, and even disturb his audience. In an early interview, McQueen stated, “I don’t want to do a show where you walk out and it feels like you’ve just had Sunday lunch. I want you to come out either feeling repulsed or exhilarated, as long as it’s an emotion. If you leave without emotion, I’m not doing my job properly.”3 The ethos of McQueen’s work lies in its ability to force his audience out of their comfort zones and into the dark and mysterious world his collections evoke. It is impossible for this innate desire to astonish and alarm to exist without calling ethical complications into question. Voss is profoundly beautiful and conceptually brilliant, but it raises ethical questions related to McQueen’s commodification of female hysteria and the female body, as well as als his intent to shock and the politics of the spectacle itself.

The asylum aspect of Voss produces ethical dilemmas: The show aestheticizes mental illness, depicting female hysteria in a commodified form. In a 2017 interview, Erin O’Connor, one of McQueen’s models for the show, recalled his instructions as being, “you’re in a lunatic asylum. I need you to go mental, have a nervous breakdown, die, and then come back to life. And if you can do that in three minutes and just follow the crescendo of the music.”. This request produces a result that is commonly recognized visually as “hysterics,” which diagnostically been used by men as a way to medically and psychologically oppress women. In his article Hysteria and its Historiography, Mark Micale describes the history of hysteria:

For centuries, hysteria has served as a dramatic medical metaphor for everything that men found mysterious or unmanageable in the opposite sex. The wildly shifting physical symptomatology of the sickness was thought to mirror the volatile and unpredictable nature of women. The exaggerated emotionality of the hysterical woman was understood as a pathological intensification of natural feminine sensibility. And the hysterical fit was seen as a sort of spasm of hyper-femininity, mimicking as it did both childbirth and the female orgasm.4

The actions of the models in McQueen’s show embody this description. Their convulsions and collisions with the cube suggest the spasm that Micale denotes. McQueen’s representations of mental illness are complicated by his own struggles with depression and anxiety, which eventually led to his suicide. Voss may be, in part, an expression of his own experience; however, the entirely female cast and the performative nuances of Voss still project a problematic social vision of women.

In addition to the ethical questions raised by its representation of women, Voss also brings up the ethical issue of commodifying hysteria or mental illness by aestheticizing. Much of McQueen’s ethos as a designer was about finding beauty in the disturbing, and while he consistently made claims that he did not care what the fashion industry thought of his work, it does not mean that his collections were not selling a certain vision. In its root definition, commodification applies to raw materials; however, contemporary understandings of late-stage hypercapitalism allow for non-physical things such as cultures to be commodified by isolating  one or some of their qualities as an aesthetic and reproducing them outside of their sociocultural context sociocultural context. In Voss, McQueen is detaching hysteria from its history by aestheticizing it. The vision of mental illness that McQueen depicts is not necessarily one of beauty; however, by representing it as a commodity for visual indulgence and stimulation, he fails to acknowledge the gravity and problematic nature of its history and the connotations associated with portrayal of women as hysterical beings, reducing it to an artistic entity that conforms with a historical sexualized notion of what it means for women to be mentally ill. Whether he intended to or not, the show and its exploitation of a fraught female history feed fashion as a capitalist industry that works to sell lifestyles and aesthetics as well as clothes.

This problem of commodification in McQueen’s work also applies to the commodification of the female body. While this is not a problem that is unique to McQueen’s show, he is participating in a larger unethical scheme that puts women’s bodies on the market as commodities. As fashion commodities, models’ bodies act as goods that are traded between houses and designers, securing an industry classification objects rather than as autonomous beings.  This lack of sovereignty often leads to the exploitation of their labour without proper compensation. Voss is not the origin of this problem, and McQueen’s intention may not be to misuse his model; however, he is part of this larger problem. Because questions regarding the commodification of the female body apply not just to specific shows but the fashion industry as a whole, the problem is nearly impossible to evade, raising the subsequent question of whether issues of this magnitude should figure in to the ethical and aesthetic consideration of fashion shows or whether they should be considered independently.

On top of the ethical conflicts that arise from the subject and content of Voss, there are also several considerations pertaining to the politics and ethics of the spectacle and the impact of the show’s content on its models. The effect of forcing models into psychologically stressful situations ties back into the idea of models as commodities in fashion, where they often are unable to make autonomous decisions regarding the shows the participate in. McQueen’s intense desire to disturb his audience is of the utmost conceptual importance to Voss, which leaves little to no room to consider the potential mental repercussions that could result from the event, which at its core is meant to unsettle and emotionally engage its viewers. In 2001, there wasn’t an appropriate language to address the possible effect of content on its viewers, they did not have the vocabulary of caution that whose popularity has developed in the nearly two decades since Voss, with words like “trigger warning” and “consent” as they pertain to emotionally charged social contexts.  Unlike physical arts, fashion shows and other performances are ephemeral, and only live on through limited video footage and memories, which makes ethically evaluating them in retrospect difficult. That being said, McQueen’s foremost need to evoke emotions in his audience could mean that even with a fully developed vocabulary, he would not have implemented it in preparation for his show.

Many of choices made by McQueen regarding Voss raise questions concerning the politics of the spectacle. The central dilemma is one that applies not just to McQueen and Voss, but to all arts: As an artist, is McQueen’s ethical obligation to his truth and its manifestation in his art, or is his ethical responsibility to the public and his models? This question is complicated by McQueen’s own vision of his work in relation to the public, characterized by his lack of concern for the public’s attention and his need to contravene the norms of fashion. In his own words: “fashion is a big bubble and sometimes I feel like popping it.”5  Much of the power of art, specifically the spectacle, lies in its ethically transgressive nature. Through pushing ethical boundaries, McQueen was able to attain a higher level of artistic ingenuity that would not be possible without pushing the ethical limits of the fashion show. From this rises another significant question, which is: Is the spectacle only as powerful as its ability to shock its audience? Transgression has the power to stimulate emotions and conversations about subjects that might otherwise be left dormant, but this poses the further question of whether the importance of this function outweighs the consideration of partcipant’s mental health and well being?

When considered using the traditional terminology of ethics, in general, fashion airs on the side of aestheticism. In prioritizing art above all else, the ethical flaws or dilemmas found in Voss do not count against the beauty of its garments and McQueen’s conceptual genius. If Gaut’s theory of ethicism from the Ethical Criticism of Art were to be applied, a critic would be more inclined to consider the ethical faults of the show. As with most complex works of art, McQueen’s prescriptions for his audience are multi-layered. His lower level prescription is that of disturbance, shock, and perhaps even disgust at the deranged and demented aspects of the performance. Traditional fashion shows are predictable and all in all uneventful as models process up and down the runway without much performance aside from the flair of attitude. The horror that arises from Voss is an instinctual response to something bizarre, unfamiliar, and unsettling, meant to “pop the bubble” that is fashion. McQueen’s higher level prescription is the finding of beauty in the obscene. As he articulated, “I think the ugly or the frightening can be beautiful. It’s the way my mind works.”6 In many ways, this higher prescription is a glimpse into McQueen’s mind, where, as dark and as twisted as it may be, there is still room for magnificence.

While Gaut’s prescriptions concern the ethical issues with the spectacle itself, they do not apply to Voss’s content in regard to the commodifying aspects of his show nor the fraught history of hysterical women that is being projected. The stance of the ethicist would hold that because these ethical predicaments exist within Voss, it is necessary to evaluate its artistic merit on their presence. It is not possible to separate the beauty of Voss from its ethical implications when considered from an ethicist standpoint. Moreover, it is likely that an ethicist would take particular issue with the commodification and aestheticizing of hysteria and mental illness in that it that it glorifies things that are unhealthy and often distressing, especially given that McQueen did eventually commit suicide. The extensiveness with which ethical issues shape Voss would likely lead the ethicist to discern more against Voss and McQueen than could be surmounted by the show’s beauty or aesthetic power.

Ultimately, there is no clear answer to the ethical questions raised by McQueen’s show. The majority of ethical theory would find fault with Voss, however the fashion industry’s undying love of aestheticism, the show received widely favourable reviews. Vogue described it as “McQueen at his best” and “in a word: sublime” (Vogue), while the New York Times called it brilliant, going as far as to say “Up until Mr. McQueen’s glorious crack-up, there was no discernible reason to get out of bed for the London shows, much less cross the Atlantic.”7 Within the fashion industry, it is considered to be the pinnacle of McQueen’s career, disregarding the ethical dilemmas of its content and of the spectacle. In Bonhôte’s documentary, McQueen, McQueen’s friends almost universally recognize that his mental state while creating Voss and other shows of the same period was dangerously dark; however, they acknowledge that it was also the period when he was at his creative best. McQueen had no desire to be the golden child of the fashion industry, and in many ways he detested the attention he received. As his creativity spawned success, it led to insurmountable pressure to push both himself and his audience further, which then in turn resulted in this sinister state of mind, creating a vicious circle that was both brilliant and tragic. Voss is the perfect embodiment of this cycle, spun into a spectacle that, as horrifying as it was, was profoundly exquisite.

  1. McQueen, directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui (New York: Bleecker Street, 2018).
  2. McQueen,  directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui.
  3. McQueen, directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui.
  4. Mark Micale, “Hysteria and its Historiography: A Review of Past and Present Writings (ii), ” History of Science 27.4 (1989): 320.”
  5. McQueen, directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui.
  6. Alexander McQueen quoted in Cathy Horyn, “In London, Ho-Hum Ends in Smash Finale,” The New York Times, October 1, 2000, www.nytimes.com/2000/10/01/style/fashion-review-in-london-ho-hum-ends-in-smash-finale.html.
  7. Cathy Horyn, “In London, Ho-Hum Ends in Smash Finale.”
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