Fashion archetypes, the collective unconscious and Alexander McQueen

by Halina Brunning

Fashion is perhaps the single most visible indicator of cultural zeitgeist at any given time. If we consider fashion in the twentieth century, there is a tendency to distil trends into ten-year divisions, and we talk of the fashions of the 1960s, 1970s and so on. Arbitrary as these demarcations appear to be, within each period, central themes emerge, unique to the social and cultural context at that point in history. These emergent motifs can subsequently be interrogated, making use of the tools of psychodynamic theory in order to ascertain some general insights into the ways in which unconscious impulses are expressed through fashion”. This was the main conclusion reached in 2012 by Anna Konig, senior lecturer in fashion at the London School of Fashion, contained in her book chapter entitled the Psychodynamics of the Fashion System. (Ref 1)

In their recent documentary (2018) Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui deal with life and oeuvre of Lee Alexander McQueen, British fashion designer of the late 20th and early 21st century. Located as he was at the junction between the two epochs McQueen’s work represents a prophetic take on our troubled society, a phenomenon more clearly visible from a perspective of several decades. Retrospectively, we can unlock the meaning contained in his famous fashion shows over a period of time.

Alexander McQueen: the unlikely genius of our Times

Just by looking at the names of the shows he conceptualized and created during his career as a designer we see much more than strange and unusual fancy costumes. In fact, we get a glimpse of something rather different: of his visionary talent to predict the next zeitgeist that will impact the world and especially the UK.

How was it possible for this young man to predict in the late 1990s that a historic disquiet rambling for centuries between the two nations Scotland and England might in 2014 lead to the first Scottish Independence Referendum? The provocative title of his show entitled Scottish Rape could lead us to the conclusion that hostilities that run deep might one day erupt…

Jack the Ripper, his first ever show, was a theatrical reenactment of the ubiquitous hatred of women that goes to the heart of the current gender war, even more visible today eight years after his death and three decades after it was first staged.

The show staged inside The Asylum goes to the heart of what we currently observe as the epidemic of mental illness that affects our contemporary society.

The Robotics was his next show. It positioned two robots as the oppressors acting against a solitary human being, isolated and fragile, unable to escape the menace of the obliterating robotic arms. The theme of AI is being debated currently with an equal measure of astonishment and dread. The ambivalence regarding the power of robotics has surfaced within contemporary society, yet McQueen captured it two decades ago.

The inevitable escape from this madness was attempted in his next show Atlantis where a search for utopian salvation was attempted but found to be inadequate to stop the damage, ravage and human destruction of the ecosystem.

His final show was on a theme of the Horn of Cornucopia piling a golden heap of rubbish upon hedonistic citizens exhausted, confused, atomized and above all, unfulfilled by omnipresent consumerism.

Even if I missed a show or two the pattern is visible. This working class, poorly educated man was the Seer and a Visionary getting to the very heart of our troubled world. His visions not only described the specific times we were living in but crucially anticipated the next epoch ahead of all the clever sophisticated commentators and arrogant politicians. His vision of the world is our current dance macabre in which we are immersed with neither a leader nor an institution able to get us out of this madness.

So, how was it possible that this poor working class young man – who used his dole money to buy materials with which he transformed his visions of our world into a theatrical spectacle -was able to be in touch with these themes? I can only see him as the lightning rod for the collective social unconscious erupting in this mad creative way. Was he the prophet without anybody really acknowledging it at the time?

Indeed, I recall the long queues for his retrospective V&A exhibition in 2015. Yes, we were all enthralled, indeed hypnotized by the savage beauty that he created out of cloth. Only after seeing this film did I suddenly see how his genius, not just as a creator of unusual costumes, but as a commentator of our contemporary turbulent world, managed to lighten the stage with a message for our civilization.

Would we perhaps rather prefer to see just the unusual costumes instead of the serious dramas these costumes were enacting? This film forces us to reconsider. I see McQueen now in a new light not just as a genius designer but as somebody who expressed the un-expressible matters that exist beneath our collective skin.

There must be a price one pays for this conduit of images and associated meaning. Perhaps it is too easy to just to say that he was a member of the Gone Too Soon Club of talented artists who died young of drug and alcohol addictions who failed to deal with the unresolved childhood trauma and chose their creativity to express their psychic pain.

No, McQueen’s pain, in addition to his own personal pain, was also the collective societal pain we did not wish to see for ourselves.

Perhaps he overdosed on our pain too?

Halina Brunning

Konig A. (2012) the Psychodynamics of the Fashion System in  Brunning H. (Ed) Psychoanalytic Reflections on a Changing World, Karnac Books