Alexander McQueen is a household name in fashion. When we think of McQueen we think “provocative”, “genius”, “rebellious”, “anti-establishment”. Now, there isn’t much room for successful or impactful defiance in the industry as we know it, neither is there an acceptance of the abnormal. However, Lee created it in such a way that couldn’t be refuted. He was an anomaly. In a series of articles beginning with this one, I will be discussing some of his most iconic collections. My reasoning behind starting with this show aside from personal preference is that I aim to abolish the negative light in which this show is perceived.
“Highland Rape” is the first collection that McQueen debuted at the British Fashion Council, thus revealing himself to the world due to its controversy and its meaning. A runway show that garnered worldwide critique and shame yet is now portrayed as one of the most creative and heartfelt runway shows in recent times. This shows background is one of pain and anguish for Lee as he explained that the show highlights the violence of the Highland Clearances and fashion’s appropriation of Scottish culture. However, journalists and reporters portrayed this show in a different light, one of misogyny and glorification of rape.
The title itself references the colonization and destruction of Scotland by England during the “Highland Clearances”, thus the use of wordplay by McQueen. Although, at the time most believed the name to simply be a reverence of rape.
As I watched the show I was fascinated by the emotions each runway outfit evoked in me. It was a mix of disgust and admiration. You could see the worn and torn pieces on the model’s bodies that signified the brutal colonization of Scotland by the brits.
This green dress caught my eye as it has a tear around the chest in the middle referencing the violation of Scotland by England. The shade of green and material also referenced Scotland’s colours. In the same manner, I was attracted to the dress itself the beautiful form it took as the model strutted down the walkway.
In this look, you can see the iconic bumster that later became a statement piece in many people’s collections. I would have to say this piece is what I love most about the look. I personally need a pair of bumsters myself. Similarly, there is also his signature tartan look on the neck which I would interpret as referencing the chokehold England had on Scotland during the “Highland Clearances”.
Some models walked as though they had been violated while others walked as though they owned the show. It created a juxtaposing effect. McQueen wanted to give these women the respect they deserved without taking away from the story of the show. You can see the signature use of Tartan he used referencing his Scottish heritage. There were instances in the show where the breasts of some models would be on display, to which the crowd would revel. Although to me, I saw it as a misunderstanding on the crowd’s part of what McQueen was trying to convey, which was boldness and strength as opposed to lust and desire. This reminded me of a statement McQueen made in an interview where he refuted the journalist’s accusations of misogyny by saying “If people do say I portray women like that, its because I want to portray the way society still sees women in some ways, not the way I see women.”
Shaun Leane, a master jeweller who worked with McQueen on the show even stated,
“What me and Lee did, was that we dressed those girls for battle, but in a beautiful, empowering way. They were warriors, beautiful humans identifying their delicacy, their romance and femininity, but at the same time McQueen made them strong and powerful”.
I believe this show to be iconic due to its impact on the industry at the time and now. Lee once said that he wouldn’t want to have a show that didn’t make the audience feel some emotion, be it disgust or joy and with this show he reaffirmed himself. What made me even more amazed by this show was that it was a statement rather than a sale pitch. These clothes were not going to be sold in stores, it was more of an artistic experiment than anything. Moreover, this likened to my belief in fashion as an art form and not a commodity. People called him a misogynist, perverse yet what he did with this show allowed designers down the line to experiment more with emotion, art and culture. It was a perfect synthesis of cultural history and clothing.