Striving to be great

Rhonda Dredge

There aren’t many outfits you could wear to the office in the survey of work by bad-boy English fashion designer Alexander McQueen at the National Gallery of Victoria.

Practical solutions for the working girl were not high on the agenda for this imaginative merchant of cloth.

Pushing buttons was more like it as McQueen strode through history and the Orient for inspiration.

He sides with witchcraft, Scottish nationalism and the warrior ethos to come up with designs that play, according to this exhibition, with the concept of fear.

“I want people to be afraid of the women I dress,” McQueen is quoted as saying.

In his controversial 1995 Highland Rape range, there are slashes through the cloth in revealing places and a red ruffled tartan jacket fails to meet in the middle, behaving more like tempting bolero than a sheath for the wind.

McQueen, who grew up in the East End and was happy to identify as “the cocky son of a cab driver”, studied tailoring in Saville Row.

Some of his first pieces used men’s suit material in women’s dresses with patterns inspired by the Union Jack.

It didn’t take long before the designer was picking up more exotic influences as he was taken up by the fashion industry.

While travelling on a bus on Edgeware Rd in the 1990s he apparently heard some Turkish music and that got him going.

A great little black top and skirt designed for his Eye series incorporates partially detached sleeves and a weighted hemline that might send out a message to the boss.

Not all of his influences were as subtle as a bus riff. The Highland Rape theme referred, he said, to the violence of history and the toughness of life.

“I’m not expecting beautiful women drifting across the moors in swathes of unmanageable chiffon. My star was anti that sort of romanticism.” They were more likely to be showing their buttock cleavage.


Known for his melodrama, one naval style coat cut out of a single piece of cloth would suit those yearning for a return to Empire as would a dress (variation of Look 37) with a skirt made of synthetic horsehair.


Not surprisingly, the Royals were fans, particularly

Catherine, Princess of Wales, who is pictured in many McQueen dresses and jackets at weddings and formal events.

In 2009, just before his death at the age of 41, McQueen released his Reptilia print. The range was launched with a naked model writhing on the floor with snakes.

He had come a long way from the starchiness of Saville Row, incrementally breaking out until his swan song, Angels and Demons, featuring plenty of gold brocade.

McQueen loved the female form and, despite some of his wild imaginings, he created some great little jerkins from historical warrior outfits and some clinging black dresses that could be worn out without looking too regal.

This exhibition portrays the designer as having that peculiarly British mix of irreverence and a desire for greatness.

For all of his historical poses, picking up a Turkish riff on a crowded bus and making something of it is the stuff of life.

Mind, Mythos, Muse, Alexander McQueen, National Gallery of Victoria, until April 16. •


Captions: Naval style coat 1996, and Top and skirt 1999

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