Alexander McQueen had a unique understanding of the dramatic potential of tailoring, as well as of how the actual fabric of a garment is intrinsic both to its shape and historical, cultural, and psychological impact. In the exhibition Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, a retrospective of the late designer's work, we can appreciate the designer's superb craftsmanship up close; from shells to feathers, from traditional embroidery to cutting-edge digital print, we see the dazzling array of textile techniques that cemented his reputation as the most inventive fashion designer of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
As one can see in Savage Beauty, McQueen often used traditional craft techniques such as embroidery, lace making, and metalworking to create his radically modern designs. Opting most commonly for embellished, ornamented surfaces, he used printed or woven textiles only very rarely. Yet one of these fabrics, a tartan of McQueen's own design, appears in several of his collections. His use of this tartan is significant not only for its relative rarity in his work but because of the many cultural and historical associations the textile carries. For McQueen, tartan—the visual signifier of clanship throughout Scottish history—was a reference to his own Scottish heritage as well as to Scotland's turbulent political history.
In the exhibition's "Romantic Nationalism" gallery, McQueen harnessed the powerful significance of tartan in two collections at different points in his career. In both instances, he used the distinctive black, red, and yellow McQueen sett—the technical term used to describe a tartan's color, way, and check.
McQueen's March 1995 collection, Highland Rape, generated fierce criticism due to his use of seemingly violated and distraught models wearing slashed and revealing garments. In conjunction with the collection's title, the presentation of the models led many critics to believe he was advocating violence toward women. However, McQueen intended the term "rape" to signify the nineteenth-century "rape" of the Scottish Highlands by profit-driven English landlords. For the show, the runway was covered in heather and bracken, and many of the outfits, made in McQueen tartan, referenced nineteenth-century bodice shapes. In the breast-exposing, tartan-trimmed jackets and figure-hugging tartan bodices topped with "decimated" lace, McQueen's tailoring expressed the barbarism meted out to the fragile Highland way of life and its ecology.
Many designers who reference history display a form of historical seamlessness in which the past is perfectly and nostalgically recreated in the present. With McQueen, however, the reference is not as comfortable; the suture lines of his much-discussed "surgical" tailoring techniques are still visible as uneasy grafts of history onto contemporary garments.
McQueen tartan reappears in his later collection Widows of Culloden (autumn/winter 2006–7). Here he revisited the earlier anger of Highland Rape, referencing the doomed Jacobite Rebellion that ended on the bloody field of Culloden, as well as more recent conflicts such as World War II—some models wore battle dress jackets with model Spitfire airplanes in their hair. But the resistance to violation evident in the former collection gives way in Widows of Culloden to a more wistful interpretation of the period; the tartan's reappearance is a comment, from a designer at the height of his fame who could have used a range of couture techniques, on the inevitable triumph of fashion. In this collection, models appeared in every variation of traditional Scottish dress, from a traditional draped and belted plaid, or fhéilidh Mor, to the fhéilidh beag, the shortened, tailored kilt we are familiar with today. McQueen used his tartan to suggest how the traditional dress of the Highlander had become commodified and Anglicized as fashion, a point he drove home by presenting in the same collection bustled Victorian ball gowns, 1940s suits and dresses, and skinny trouser suits all in McQueen tartan.
While Widows of Culloden seems especially concerned with loss and the ghosts of the past unable to contend with the march of fashionable progress—after all, the show ended with a spectral hologram of Kate Moss—McQueen was able to use it as the basis for one of his most flamboyant appearances. For the Metropolitan's gala benefit dinner to celebrate the opening of the 2006 exhibition AngloMania: Tradition and Transgression in British Fashion, McQueen and the actress Sarah Jessica Parker arrived together in matching tartan finery. Their outfits, hers a belted plaid dress from Widows of Culloden, and his an approximated fhéilidh Mor teamed with tailcoat, oversized badger sporran, and American West–inspired silk satin tie, stunned both guests and the fashion world at large. The transatlantic fashion bricolage, and the union of British and American fashion "royalty" under the banner of McQueen tartan, was a testament to his talent not only to create enduring fashion, but to make fashionable history.
Dr. Jonathan Faiers is the Reader in Fashion Theory at Winchester School of Art, having taught previously at Goldsmiths College and Central St. Martins London. His work examines the interface between popular culture, textiles and dress. His critically acclaimed work Tartan was published in 2008, and he is currently researching his next book, Dangerous Dressing: Dysfunctional Fashion and Film, for Yale University Press. He has published articles, given papers, and organized colloquia on subjects including formlessness in knitting, classicism in sci-fi film costume, Balenciaga and ecclesiastical dress, tweed and gender subversion, and textiles and the production of space. His art installations have explored cultural commodification and the Kashmir shawl, Huguenot silk weaving and religious diasporas, and the representation of art spaces in mainstream cinema. He acts as a consultant and is a member of the Publications Advisory Board at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.