Savage beauty: searching for feminism in the grotesque

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“I want to empower women. I want people to be afraid of the women I dress,” says the first of many placards quoting the late Alexander McQueen, in the haunting, horrifying and beautifully curated costume show of the year in his honor, Savage Beauty, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I finally made it to the show yesterday (Miriam went a few weeks ago) and it got me thinking about some of the contradictions and possibilities of a feminist politics of fashion.

My obsession with fashion started early, playing dress-up with my friends in my mother’s rather extensive collection of everything from saris to 80s women’s work wear and continues today with several detours along the way. In 1994, I shaved almost all the hair on my head, dyed the rest purple and committed myself to the fashion stylings of riot girl. In 1998, I switched to baggy pants and glitter, the uniform mandatory of the second wave of rave. In 2001, I dreaded my hair, lived in Oakland and did the “punk hippy revolutionary vegan” thing (yikes, that was a rough one). In 2003, I was an aspiring fashion designer–making an entire (rough, very rough) line of clothing from scratch that I wore to warehouse parties in San Francisco and would later wear to Burning Man. And today I have taken a decidedly feminine turn in my fashion expressions: donning heels, pencil skirts and red lipstick, consciously, cautiously and sometimes problematically, embracing a femme self maintenance. Fashion has been for me the heart and soul of my personal, political and artistic expression. It is my signature, it hasn’t always been pretty and for the most part, it makes me feel awesome. (Lori on the other hand, isn’t sure yet if she cares about fashion).

But calling it “empowerment” is too limiting a framework for the complexity that fashionable expression is. Can something that is dominated by corporate production, crappy labor conditions, a clear and obvious class stratification, snobbery, elitism and fickleness be considered empowerment? And as you would expect me to answer this question, I think yes. And no. I might chose to dress and look a certain way, but I would be remiss to ignore the culturally sanctioned necessity there is for me to dress and look feminine. If I am to ignore that, I am to ignore the very real consequences of those that dress against the grain, that play with gender, or express their gender in a way that is unacceptable, even if we can all recognize the performance in gender expression. But there is a power in the self expression and gender play that fashion allows and it is a power that can’t be limited to a class analysis or assumed to be a hobby of the elite–people of all geographic and cultural backgrounds use fashion to express themselves.

And so it is with this lens, the one where I am balancing the act of a feminist self-preservation through fashion expression and a rigorous analysis of power when it comes to the production and promotion of mainstream fashion culture that I was able to interpret McQueen’s work with the complexity it brings us, a complexity I wasn’t able to find in similarly horrifying images in Kanye West’s Monster video (a contradiction, I am still having trouble reconciling, but do feel his artistic attempt was much more obvious in its problems).

“I find beauty in the grotesque, like most artists. I have to force people to look at things, ” says another placard quoting McQueen, the most obvious observation as you walk through his psyche laid bare, piece after piece exaggerating an aspect of human existence, whether it be the wretched or the beautiful. McQueen’s work is clearly that of someone who was struggling emotionally, but also playful, exploratory, creative, constantly referential, but never repetitive. In one collection he goes from mimicking tribal headdresses or prehistoric jewelry to leather and grommets. His use of unusual textiles, be it microscope glass slides, feathers or shells are nothing short of genius. And while I know about fashion I don’t Know About Fashion, so I can’t tell you the exact collections and designers he references along the way, I can only tell you the feelings each of his pieces emote which run the gamut from depression and sadness, to rebirth, happiness and possibility.

Despite his obvious mockery of gender, social convention and traditional fashion, McQueen’s work was not happening in a bubble. Some of his grotesque imagery of women is hard to see as anything but objectification. For example, the controversial Highland Rape collection–which he claimed was a metaphor for the conflict between Scotland and England–was an entire collection of ripped clothing, the ripped clothing of a victim of sexual assault. The accompanying video is so obviously inappropriate, you have to wonder, “what was he thinking?” One reading could be that he is showcasing something terrible that is obviously wrong. But the other, less hopeful possibility, is that he is using rape as a salacious image to intrigue people and try to be avant-guard, using the body of a woman to play out nationalistic anxieties, conflating invasion with the “rape of our women,” a played out narrative that relies on sexist stereotypes.

McQueen’s work is both problematic and groundbreaking. Like most art, there is no one way to understand or consume fashion, but the opportunity for experiment, gender play, cultural, political and personal expression is undeniable. The McQueen exhibit reminded me why I love to play with fashion and it is not (just) because it feels good to look good. It is because it is an extension of myself, a way for me to interact with a world that judges me from head to toe every time I step outside and when I make the choice to dress a certain way and feel awesome about it, I am facing those conventions head on. I am forcing the unknowing to stare at the grotesque, even if they think the image is beautiful.

A few months ago, Jos had been circulating a brilliant piece about moving to a feminism of the monstrous (brilliant read). For me, a feminism of the grotesque is similar to this. It is displaying your inner most self in all its contradictions to the outside unapologetically, knowing it could scare, shock,  awe and even disgust those around you. And while it can be said that this project is one of navel-gazing, something our generation of feminists has been accused of doing to death, the timeless power of authentic self-expression can’t be denied. McQueen’s exhibit reminded me that fashion holds this opportunity. Despite the contradictions embroiled in empowerment, choice and self-expression, one of our most effective methods of story-telling and our most solid paths to connect across difference is to expose, problematize and reconcile our innermost sense of being.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted June 16, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    In 2001, I dreaded my hair, lived in Oakland and did the “punk hippy revolutionary vegan” thing (yikes, that was a rough one).

    I’m thinking there is a better than 50/50 chance that you were at my house in that period.

  2. Posted June 16, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    I studied fashion in college, and I always had mixed feelings about my major. Overall, I think that the fashion industry is generally frivolous, but for a designer like McQueen, it’s an artistic medium. For the wearer, it’s a method of expression and can serve as a form of self-identification, as Samhita demonstrates with her evolving style choices. I suppose fashion is empowering in the sense that it allows you to easily express yourself in a way that pretty much everyone can understand. I also have a very femme style, and I often reflect on my choice to look this way. As long as I’m doing it because of a personal preference, rather than because of society’s gender expectations, I think it’s good for me and I suppose it can be considered empowering.

    Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, McQueen died so that thousands of helpless animals could live. Fuck him.

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