When David Foster Wallace killed himself in the fall of 2008, I, like so many others, was hurt and disappointed but not surprised. I’d always read Wallace’s literary project as an attempt to convince his readers, along with himself, that life was worth living despite all the shit. After he abandoned that project, I carried a lack around with me. When Alexander McQueen killed himself sixteen months later, it shocked me. McQueen was someone whose work I had been following for longer than Wallace’s, but my relation to McQueen and his work was not so profound that I felt his suicide in my bones.
McQueen’s inner darkness is now evident in his work. After he hanged himself, he was memorialized as a tormented artist, not unlike Wallace. Judith Thurman, writing for the New Yorker, described McQueen as a designer who used couture as a “medium for self-revelation” and a “form of confessional poetry.” She called him an “archetypal Romantic.” This was in her review of Savage Beauty, McQueen’s barely posthumous blockbuster exhibition at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That show was the first opportunity I had to see McQueen’s clothes up close and it was so devastating, I cried right there in the Met, surrounded by strangers (McQueen’s Met show was so popular, the lines lingered into the hours and you were obligated to shuffle through a space at capacity). At 661,509 counted visitors, Savage Beauty became the eighth biggest show on record at the Metropolitan Museum, following obvious hits like Mona Lisa (1963) and Picasso (2010), and showed what an appetite there was for fashion in the museum.
Fashion can be art. It is psychology, sociology, history, identity (religion, sexuality, gender), politics, and commerce. It is the material of the everyday and a vehicle for profound human performance; shelter and superfluity. Fashion—garmenture—is, literally, significant. So why is it so hard to talk about? This is a question that I have grappled with my whole life. When your favorite childhood game is dress up and you grow up in a feminist household that sees fashion as capitalist frivolity, when that game follows you, obsessively, into adulthood, a crisis is inevitable; there still exists this notion of being “too smart for fashion.”
We are at a point in cultural history when once disparate mediums and fields of production are collapsing into each other. We look at paintings on screens and print digital photographs onto t-shirts. Film, music, literature, painting, sculpture, photography, along with “new media”—like the blogroll or interactive video, even holograms—are all just avenues, often cofunctioning avenues, used to 1. explore thought, 2. create beauty, and 3. accrue capital. Fashion is part of this network. Think artist collaborations, museum exhibitions, filmic costume design, and the rise of the fashion film. And yet, outside of the academy (where the study of fashion is flourishing), fashion still has trouble with the “explore thought” part. We don’t yet have much in the way of a popular critical discourse on fashion. It’s about time (and I’m repeating myself here) we integrate fashion into our elitist tradition of cultural criticism (and, hopefully, actually, dilute that elitism somewhat.)
Here is what I want to know: How come it took a suicide and the museum for me, an avid fashion consumer, to understand the depths of McQueen’s work? Why, in a field bloated with words, with innumerable fashion magazines and blogs, is most everything stagnant and disposable? Why, when I speak with dedicated fashion types, do I—I of all people—continue to be surprised by their intellect and breadth of knowledge? More productively: How can we write and think critically about fashion? And can we imagine new ways of looking at it?
In researching this piece, I consulted with several esteemed fashion writers, including Valerie Steele, the current director of the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology and pioneer in the academic field of fashion studies; Jenna Sauers, writer, Jezebel fashion editor, and co-founder of The Model Alliance; Sarah Nicole Prickett, the woman I always wanted to be when I grew up—a friend, feminist femme, and prolific writer on many topics, including fashion; Serah-Marie McMahon, editor and founder of the Worn Fashion Journal; and Darrell Hartman, a New York-based journalist whose travel/leisure/fashion/culture writing is regularly featured in The Wall Street Journal and on Style.com, as well as in Art Forum, Book Forum, The Financial Times, and The Daily.
I want to thank all of these incredible people for their time and thoughtfulness. As grateful as I am, though, I’ve also caught myself cursing them. Not the-people-them, but the conservations we had, and only with regards to their impact on getting this piece done. Because with every conversation, I grew more overwhelmed and tripped out on my chosen spirit journey, caught in the infinity net of questions like “what is fashion?”. There are no simple answers to the questions I have proposed. Each interview was so rich, it could have been an article unto itself. What follows is essentially a list of those ideas that, between interviews, repeated and converged. Where original, I’ve cited the idea with the person but this was truly a collaborative effort.