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Comme des Garçons SS97
Comme des Garçons SS97via

Five 90s runway moments that challenged beauty clichés

From McQueen to Comme des Garçons, the times designers pushed us into new comfort zones

In fashion, image is everything – but the industry would be nothing if not for the game-changers that dared to push boundaries and redefine what’s seen as normal or accepted. While today, the narrow standards of beauty that once ruled the runways seem to becoming obsolete (the last year alone has seen steps forward for trans models, disabled models, diversity, and better size representation) it’s worth remembering the original pioneers whose statements have led us to this point. Here are five memorable 90s runway moments that urged us to reconsider traditional beauty ideals, and embrace a new rubric.


When Ève Salvail emerged on Jean Paul Gaultier’s runway for SS93, it was her shaved head as much as the Chinese dragon tattoo on her skull that shocked many in the audience. Two traits considered traditionally unfeminine, Gaultier amplified the statement by dressing her in a trailing gown. Her striking looks were undeniable though and, in this way, the designer forced people to consider the beauty in the unexpected – Salvail went on to be one of the defining faces of the decade.


It wasn’t Kate Moss or another runway veteran of the 90s who opened Alexander McQueen’s show for SS99, but Paralympic athlete Aimee Mullins, who featured on the cover of the designer’s guest edited issue of Dazed. Wearing a leather bodice, she donned a pair of hand-carved wooden prosthetics crafted from solid ash. McQueen made a point of not putting Mullins in her usual running prostheses, because, he said, “The point is that she was to mould in with the rest of the girls.” She did this so well that Björk ran backstage and said she wanted to buy the boots – believing they were shoes. 


Martin Margiela soon became known for his rule-bending antics, but it was one of the Maison’s earliest presentations that really set the tone for what was to come. Held at Paris Metro Station Saint-Martin, an abandoned pre-war facility and former shelter, models graced the catwalk both dirty and dishevelled. Streaked with paint and adorned with incongruous details like tiny rhinestones in the corners of their eyes, the girls represented the very antithesis of the high-voltage glamour of the past supermodel-defined decade. It challenged that era’s definition of beauty and ushered in a new way of thinking about femininity.


Rei Kawakubo’s explorative mind never fails to disappoint and SS97 – the Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body collection –was no exception. Here, the designer distorted the female figure by imposing lumps and bumps throughout gingham garments, using bulbous padding that masked models’ body shapes beyond recognition. The fashion-standard model figure was purposefully warped, the fabric choice (associated with a stereotypical domestic womanhood) only adding to Kawakubo’s critiques on the line between the body and the garments that clothe it.


McQueen's VOSS show was yet another example of his genius at work. Staged in an asylum-style mirrored cube with a mysterious box in the centre, models’ heads were bandaged  and make-up was eerily stark. For the finale, the large box fell open to reveal a woman, journalist Michelle Olley — who was naked and wearing a mask complete with breathing tubes. Glass shattered everywhere, as moths and butterflies flew all about the room – as Olley wrote in her diary, “ample flesh and moths – surely the two most terrifying things in the fashion lexicon.” It was a true McQueen-style paradox and explored powerful ideas about the relationship between body image and mental health.