“I’m a designer with a cause. I like to challenge history.”
Lee Alexander McQueen
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savage beauty

nationalism

HISTORY & IDENTITY

As a designer who drew perennial inspiration from the past, Alexander McQueen directly engaged with his Scottish ancestry and English history on a number of occasions. The two collections that explicitly address Scottish history and identity politics, Highland Rape (Autumn/Winter 1995) and The Widows of Culloden (Autumn/Winter 2006) sit ten years apart and provide contrasting, if creatively cathartic narratives on two specific historical events. That McQueen incorporated his own family tartan into each, produced by the Lochcarron Mill in Scotland, signalled the importance of the pull the country had upon him.

"I’m a designer with a cause. I like to challenge history" LEE ALEXANDER MCQUEEN
"The reason I’m patriotic about Scotland is because I think it’s been dealt a really hard hand. It’s marketed the world over as... haggis... bagpipes. But no one ever puts anything back into it."
Lee Alexander McQueen
Widows Of Culloden Autumn/Winter 2006 Photograph by CHRIS MOORE
"with this collection, i wanted to show a more poetic side to my work. it was all about... a feeling of sadness, but in a cinematic kind of way. i find beauty in melancholy" LEE ALEXANDER MCQUEEN
The Girl Who Lived In The Tree Autumn/Winter 2008 Photograph by CHRIS MOORE
Backstage, The Girl Who Lived In The Tree Autumn/Winter 2008 Photograph by ANNE DENIAU
"I don’t really get inspired [by specific women]... It’s more in the minds of the women in the past, like Cathering the Great, or Marie Antoinette. People who were doomed. Joan of Arc or Colette. Iconic women" LEE ALEXANDER MCQUEEN
Backstage, The Girl Who Lived In The Tree Autumn/Winter 2008 Photograph by ANNE DENIAU
Widows Of Culloden Autumn/Winter 2006 Photograph by CHRIS MOORE
Widows Of Culloden Autumn/Winter 2006 Photograph by CHRIS MOORE
"I thought, I’ll do this thing on the Queen, and I’ll get the knighthood. I’ll become Sir Alexander McQueen."
Lee Alexander McQueen
While Highland Rape saw the designer reacting against the romantic mythologizing of Scotland as a land of tartan, bagpipes and haggis in an attempted to convey the violence of Highland Clearances by the English in the 18th and 19th centuries, his return to the Highlands with The Widows of Culloden a decade later presented a much more positive view of the country. Intended as a memorial to the widows of the 1745 Battle of Culloden– the last battle fought on British soil – McQueen acknowledged the collection as a counterpoint to the anti-romanticism of the earlier collection. Tartan featured once again, on pieces that recall traditional Scottish dress, and also in trouser suits and jackets with military connotations. The Widows of Culloden also played with accentuated silhouettes through bustles, bell skirts, and silk and lace dresses cinched with Celtic buckles to convey a much grander vision of the country at peace with its place in the British Empire.

The designer turned his attention to England with The Girl Who Lived In The Tree (Autumn/Winter 2008), a collection inspired by The British Empire, queens of England past, the Duke of Wellington, toy soldiers and punk princesses. It was to be one of McQueen’s most romantically nationalistic collections. Centering around a fairy-tale of the designer’s making about a girl who descends from a tree to marry a prince and then become queen, the first half of the collection focused on the girl’s life before she met the prince, and featured designs with a slender silhouette emphasized by jackets with nipped-in waists and S-bend corset tops above ballerina skirts – the punk princess.
The Girl Who Lived In The Tree Autumn/Winter 2008 Photograph by CHRIS MOORE
Photograph by anne deniau
Photograph by anne deniau
Photograph by anne deniau
What followed was an altogether more majestic turn as the princess became queen and is greeted by the riches of the world. Column dresses crafted from patterned sari silks referenced the grandeur of the Raj, and a regal cape of red silk with a high ruffled neck spoke of the British Empire at the height of its pomp. Regimental-style jackets trimmed with gold frogging, feathered gowns, Swarovski crystals, rich satins and crimson velvets were cut around tight-fitting bodices and paired with exaggerated skirts, creating a silhouette reminiscent of the 1950s haute couture worn by a young Queen Elizabeth II.
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