Sunday, 24 November 2013


In the world of fashion, it isn’t unusual for designers to base an entire collection on one influential woman. It also isn’t unusual for designers to source inspiration from history. However, it is more unusual for a designer to manage to successfully tell a story with their collection but with his A/W 1998 collection ‘Joan’ (see in full here), Alexander McQueen achieved just that. Speaking in an interview, the designer explained “I don’t really get inspired by specific women, it’s more in the minds of women in the past. People where were doomed, Joan of Arc or Colette. Iconic women."

The make-up for the show itself was extremely severe, and loosely based on McQueen’s own make-up for a photoshoot with Nick Knight for the iconic ‘The Face’ magazine. Eyebrows were shaved, eyes were fitted with blood-red contact lenses and heads were shaved and decorated with a succession of intricate braids which wrapped around skulls and led into a cascade of flowing blonde hair. The two opening looks matched the severity of the make-up – both were engineered in chain mail and whilst the first was a short look with a plunging backline, the second was a classic full-length gown that elegantly swept along the sparse runway. The aggressive chain mail material marked the beginning of Joan’s story, representing the armour that she wore as a military leader.

The preceding looks all kept to the military theme, essentially making up the first chapter of the story. Models strutted down the runway in full-length tailcoats made from thick grey wool, each adorned with several tiny black buttons that fastened all the way up into a funnel neckline. More glamorous variations of the tailcoat were also shown – one example featured religious iconography emblazoned onto a black background illuminated with the glimmer of thousands of tiny sequins, whereas another was realised in futuristic silver and once again imbued with shimmer thanks to the metallic fabric. The colour palette for the opening section flitted between sci-fi silver and dark burgundy – the mood of the collection was dark, gothic and aggressive. Most of the looks were also heavily androgynous, a reference to Joan of Arc’s choice to always wear masculine clothes – the heavy overcoats were made to completely swathe her figure and act as a defence against molestation.

By telling the story of Joan, McQueen essentially chose to move away from his usual tactic of using exposed flesh to provoke his audience. As opposed to many of his collections, the aim for this collection was sensuality as opposed to sexuality – the eroticism came from the way that the clothes clung to the body and subtle ruching was designed to emphasise curves. Unlike in previous collections, the emphasis was on the suggestion of sex as opposed to parts of the body being explicitly on show, and although there were still a few sheer dresses on show (as well as a black mohair turtleneck fitted with a sheer panel that exposed its wearer), the collection showed a new side to McQueen and demonstrated that he didn’t have to rely on nudity to shock or interest his viewer.

As the show progressed, the looks started to become decidedly more delicate, a reference to Joan’s execution for which she agreed to dress in a more feminine manner. The colour palette steered away from burgundies and moved almost exclusively to black and red – the black meant to symbolise death and the red meant to represent both the imminent danger as well as the blaze of the flames that would soon kill the show’s heroine. Full-length black coats were slashed at the sides to reveal shocks of crimson fabric underneath, and the collection’s most famous look (worn by Lady Gaga at the 2009 VMAs) consisted of a short red gown complete with a red lace veil that completely obscured the face. Glimpses of flesh came more frequently – the nudity represented vulnerability, and it became evident that we were coming ever closer to the show’s climax.

Finally, after 20 minutes of non-stop fashion, the lights began to dim and the music faded out completely. After a minute of darkness, a masked woman made her way into the centre of the runway and began to dance slowly as the show reached a fiery crescendo – a circle of flames engulfed the masked heroine as she posed defiantly amidst the flames. Arms raised, chest forward and legs open, the final blaze of glory depicted a woman that had remained strong right up until her execution – she was the quintessential McQueen woman, protected only by the armour of her clothing. This finale lasted long enough for the iconography to be firmly embedded in the viewer’s mind, proving that a McQueen show is never about trends. The designer himself has stated that the shows are always about providing ‘that one moment in time’ – it is a statement perfectly encapsulated by this incredible collection.

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