When fashion changes society: Alexander McQueen, Voss and mental health

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What are the clothing items, events, fashion shows or fashion press campaigns that have perfectly reflected, and supported, the major social changes? Alexander McQueen was one of the designers who, in recent decades, has transformed catwalks into spectacular e unexpected social and human reflections: one of these is the fashion show of the collection Spring / Summer 2001, entitled Voss. The fashion show, in addition to being often counted among the most famous of the designer, is in fact one of the collections that have made the history of contemporary fashion, bringing in the spotlight an issue as uncomfortable and controversial as it is fundamental: mental health.

Alexander McQueen often declared the will of make his shows real catalysts for strong reactions, and the parade Voss represented one of the high points of his career in this sense. Like so many of his collections, this too was the result of the overlapping of multiple and disparate themes, united in the unique and revolutionary vision of the designer. Although the title of the collection suggested a celebration of nature, taking its name from one city Norwegian renowned as a habitat for wildlife, McQueen instead used this imagery to tell something more profound, to do with the sensations that often, unfortunately, have the ability to keep the human being in a cage. Bodices, skirts and dresses built with razor clams, mussels and oyster shells amazed with their elegance and ingenuity, while the designer’s love for birds found expression in feather skirts and, moreover, in a headdress made up of stuffed hawks. What was it, then, to suggest that the show was about emotional balance and mental health?

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First, the setting: a ‘huge clinical glass box was the centerpiece of the walkway, built to resemble a cell of a psychiatric hospital, with white-tiled floors and walls formed by surveillance mirrors. A disturbing mood that Alexander McQueen wanted to exasperate thanks to an expedient as simple as it is effective: to make his audience wait for a whole hour, who could see their own reflection in the glass, with the continuous background of a heartbeat. Anguish and feeling trapped were two of the sensations that the designer wanted to give voice to, starting from the inclusion of the public, in a certain sense, in the show.

A reflection, therefore, on blurred boundary between what is labeled as madness and the natural emotions of the human being which, too often, are repressed and placed in a corner as unspeakable taboos. As the models walked inside the glass cube, they tripped and jumped chaotically to reflect the sense of fear, but also the vulnerability, which McQueen wanted to tell and bring out in every spectator, alluding to madness even in the sartorial reinterpretation of straitjackets, and in head bandages.

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One of the most evocative appearances of Alexander McQueen’s message on the runway was that of Erin O’Connor, with a suit consisting of a skirt of dyed ostrich feathers and a bodice of hand-painted microscope slides in blood red. The model shared with Vogue US the designer’s words just before the catwalk, to suggest what to express in the spotlight «So, you’re in a madhouse» he said «I need you to immerse yourself in your mental state, you have a nervous breakdown, die and then come back to life. And if you can, do it in three minutes and follow the crescendo of the music ».

Courtesy Alexander McQueen

Obviously, the ending of Voss could not be outdone: followed by a few rapidly pulsating heartbeats, the central glass box in which the models were caged, shattered to reveal the writer Michelle Olley lying naked, on a chaise longue, with a pair of horns and a respirator, while surrounded by butterflies. A perfect conclusion to leave the audience (present or not) speechless, and give everyone the opportunity to reflect even more deeply on mental health, the importance of listening and listening to oneself and, above all, do not superficially label insanity: that anyone, unnoticed, if suddenly placed in front of an audience, is claimable as crazy?

Other stories of Vanity Fair that may interest you:

– When fashion changes society: Chanel and women’s emancipation

– The small, big fashion stories: that time when Vivienne Westwood gave scandal to Queen Elizabeth

– The small, big fashion stories: that time when Salvador Dalì made lobster a fashion icon

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