It is often assumed that fashion and beauty are synonymous with one another. Beauty is aspirational, seemingly achievable, and certainly profitable. High-profile designers curate advertisements selling not only a product, but a lifestyle, and men and women alike buy into the fantasy on a daily basis. Fashion rarely explores the grotesque, the ‘ugly’, because it is not profitable and, ultimately, a fashion house cannot survive without profit.
We see designers – new, young designers like J.W Anderson and Christopher Kane, both of which have built their reputation on repurposing the banal. One collection saw Kane using repurposed materials, creating mini-dresses from refuse sacks, whereas Anderson sought to give a high-fashion makeover to the most banal clothing category imaginable; the uniform. This was, in some ways, a radical move as uniform clothing is the antithesis of the fashion industry and its purpose. Fashion is supposed to provide us with choice, whereas a uniform is built for routine. We are supposed to discover our own style based on our preferences, whereas a uniform is rudely thrust upon us – when we are uniformed, we represent an institution as opposed to an individual.
Both designers were successful because they challenged standards of beauty – Kane rebuked the notion that luxury fabrics are imperative to high fashion, whereas Anderson rebelled against the implication of uniformity as mundanity whilst also destroying gender codes (men in heels, anybody?) However, they were also successful because they pushed the envelope just far enough to be marginally radical yet to not alienate potential clients. Kane’s vinyl skirts even landed him huge sponsorship, whereas Anderson’s collection was, despite the male models and their vertiginous platforms, commercially-viable. Both designers ventured outside the expected affiliation of fashion and beauty, but they did not fully explore the grotesque.
The most obvious example of a designer that did fully explore the grotesque was the late Alexander McQueen, a man consistently fascinated by the macabre. Inspired heavily by the Gothic and Victorian periods, McQueen turned heads from the moment he chose to base his graduate collection on infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper. From this point onwards he sought to shock his audience by using blood, grease and even live locusts in a series of early runway presentations which established his reputation as fashion’s enfant terrible.
The McQueen woman was, in essence, not particularly feminine. She was rebellious, storming down runways and flicking the middle finger at anybody that caught her eye. In Highland Rape she was covered in dirt, her clothing ripped and her behaviour feral, whereas in Dante she was a kind of satanic seductress. References to decay and violence were rife throughout the designer’s work, with one woman playing the part of Joan of Arc in the notorious A/W 1998 collection, Joan – the show climaxed with the young model being seemingly incinerated on the runway.
These references to decay, death, the disgusting, the ugly; they are not beautiful, nor are they commercial. The plastic corset with the live locusts underneath was, as you can probably imagine, a showpiece. As were the metal shackles he commissioned for La Poupée, which were attached to model Debra Shaw as she struggled to walk the water-soaked runway.
It is important to note that the risks taken by the designer increased significantly after he secured a position as Creative Director of Givenchy in 1996, famously using his astronomical paycheques to fund his own label and allow his mind to wander free, deep into the depths of depravity. These might have been showpieces, but they certainly rebuked the preconception that something has to be beautiful to be “fashion”. The designer found his inspiration in the depths of ugliness ignored by society and, in doing so, he earned a reputation as one of the most innovative talents in modern fashion. Not all designers have to be McQueen – they don’t have to smear models with mud or cover them in live insects to capture attention on the runway. On the other hand, they certainly don’t have to prescribe to social ideals of beauty either.