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Alexander McQueen AW98 Joan
Alexander McQueen AW98via

Alexander McQueen’s most dark and twisted moments

As Halloween approaches, we look back at five times the designer drew on horror

“I find beauty in the grotesque,” Alexander McQueen once said – and, as evidenced by the late designer’s large and heralded body of work, he certainly did. For though McQueen’s collections were a triumph in technique and theatricality, they often left members of the audience with a sense of unease, in a combined state of wonder and repulsion. He rendered models’ eyes blood red, attached skeletons to their ankles and placed one in a glass case filled with moths. He drew inspiration from the dark and the twisted: Victorian mental asylum patients, 19th century serial killer Jack the Ripper, the gothic fairytales of the Grimm brothers, the atrocities committed by the British in Scotland and one of his ancestors who was hanged during the Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692. As visitors to the V&A’s just-closed retrospective of the designer’s work will attest, McQueen’s vision was one of profound but deeply transgressive beauty. With Halloween just a day away, we look back at five times McQueen drew on horror.


McQueen’s dark approach to design was evident from the very earliest stages of his career. His Central Saint Martins MA graduation collection, which debuted in 1992, was inspired by Jack the Ripper – the serial killer who preyed on and murdered prostitutes during the 1880s. Not only did McQueen grow up in the area where these crimes were committed – London’s East End – but one of his relatives allegedly rented a room to one of the Ripper’s victims. Each garment in this collection had a lock of the designer’s hair encased between two layers of acrylic, paying homage to the Victorian custom of exchanging hair with lovers – many people would buy hair from prostitutes rather than taking it from their own heads.


A human skeleton joined the fashion journalists on the front row of McQueen’s AW96 show, which was staged at Christ Church Spitalfields – a building designed by Nicholas Hawsmoor, a known Satanist. The show was named Dante, after the 14th century Florentine poet who was known for his religious iconography and images of conflict. With war and peace as the main themes, male models were dressed like the gangs of Hispanic teens in Paul Morrissey’s 1984 film Mixed Blood. Their female counterparts had antlers and horns sprouting from their heads, one wore a crown of thorns, another’s face was masked in silk with a skeleton’s hand fixed to the side of her head.


As well as one of the most visually arresting shows in terms of its beauty looks – models wore bald caps and red contact lenses – Joan had a darkly political overtone. As the name suggests, the show was inspired by Joan of Arc who led the French army to victory in a battle against the English in the 15th century. She was later captured, found guilty of heresy and burned at the stake. Industrial lamps swung spookily above the catwalk as models walked down it wearing chain mail, armour made from silver-plated metal, elegant dresses, sharp suits and floor-length coats. For the finale, a masked model walked to the centre of the catwalk as a ring of fire burst into flame around her. 


With padded walls and a white-tiled catwalk floor, Voss was a inspired by a Victorian mental asylum. Models’ heads were bandaged, some had their arms pinned down by richly-embroidered coats-come-straight-jackets, others had taxidermy birds perched in their haywire hair. A box stood in the middle of the room and, at the end of the show, its sides fell away revealing a glass case with a naked woman reclining inside. She wore a metal mask fitted with birds' wings and a tube that sprouted from her mouth – the box was filled with moths. Then, the sound of a heartbeat which had been accompanying the show was replaced with an eerie flat-line alarm. “It was about trying to trap something that wasn’t conventionally beautiful to show that beauty comes from within,” the designer commented.


Another show with a frighening beauty look was What A Merry Go Round, which saw models’ faces painted like the clowns from your darkest childhood nightmares. “We show children clowns as if they are funny,” the designer said, expanding on the make-up. “They're not. They’re really scary.” The set for the show resembled an eery children’s nursery, complete with rocking horses, ventriloquists’ dummies and giant teddy bears – all covered in a fine layer of cobweb. A golden skeleton clasped the ankle of one model as she made her way down the catwalk and, if that wasn’t creepy enough, the show was set to the sound of the child catcher’s voice from the 1968 film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang