Femininity and repression in Alexander McQueen’s ‘Banshee’
By Serafina Lee
To me, Alexander McQueen’s 1994 collection, ‘Banshee’, encapsulates transgressive femininity, rejecting passivity to embrace a powerful new autonomy. In it, McQueen cements his ingenuity as a radical artist with an impeccable foundation of technical tailoring, consolidating cuts and silhouettes that would later become signatures of the label.
One of the main accusations hurled against McQueen is of misogyny, charged with lewdly sexualising models with his brash, unapologetic stance. Particularly after his Autumn/Winter 1995 collection, ‘Highland Rape’, both critics and the media misinterpreted the show, deeming him ‘l’enfant terrible’ of fashion, relying on provocative shock tactics as opposed to the quality of the pieces. Anyone who believes these charges should wholly reevaluate in light of ‘Banshee’. These clothes are show clothes, and the runway is nothing less than a piece of performance art.
McQueen’s inspiration for the collection was ‘Irish folklore about banshees heard wailing when a boat sank’ (Dana Thomas, Gods and Kings, 115), and a more overarching concept of repression. He played on Buñuel’s 1967 film Belle de Jour, explaining his focus was on ‘people who are cloistered and restricted but then all of a sudden they find part of their life that has been closed.' Indeed, myths and folklore heavily feature in ‘Banshee’ as the clothes exude dark romance. Far from being helpless demure women, McQueen endows his models with a ferocious, dangerous femininity. Indeed, there is not just one version of the banshee, as in Irish mythology they are said to appear in multitudinous forms, such as beautiful women wearing a hood or shroud, old women with ragged clothes or spectral ghostly women in long dresses. McQueen picks up and incorporates the idea of a shifting, elusive femininity through his amalgamation of stylistic references. In this way, by having so many influences, ‘Banshee’ resists any singular or restrictive model of femininity.
McQueen also juxtaposes ideals of femininity through navigating the tension between restrictive garments that stunt bodily movement and relaxed fabrics that expose the body, allowing for full movement. After two flowing dresses, a model walks sombrely to mystical pipe music wearing a Plaster of Paris corset strapped to her torso. The corset is roughly constructed from chicken wire and is obviously uncomfortable. The etched nude is crude, evoking a parody of Venus de Milo and the Grecian ideal of the female body. McQueen’s corset, instead of epitomising grace, is heavy and cumbersome, unnaturally distorting the model’s body through the elongated neck.
McQueen counters such stunted movement with loosely deconstructed knitwear that reveals the model’s breasts as they walk. Julien Macdonald, who formulated the knitwear, incorporated mohair with steel wire and even transparent fishing lines in order to transform industrial materials into softer, free forms that compliment bodily movement. Through such an inversion, McQueen beautifully explores the concept of repression through the movement of the clothes, subverting the typically restrictive into a mode of free expression.
McQueen opposed conservative women’s fashion and Christian Lacroix prudism, defined by wasp waists, soft colour palettes and flowing skirts. Of course, those clothes were traditionally made for aristocratic women, therefore also factoring a strong classicism into the attainment of the ‘feminine ideal’. McQueen not only resisted this, but he also wanted to extend the fashion ideal beyond haute couture, grounding his clothes with contemporary relevance to embrace the beauty in the visually uncomfortable. His models are not plastic women; they are theatrical and captivating. His clothes are about feeling and story and can therefore be worn by anyone.
What is particularly interesting to me is that he did incorporate elements of romanticised femininity to further counteract and subvert a woman’s expected silhouette, and therefore expected demeanour. Dana Thomas notes how he included, ‘gowns with tailored bodices, Empire waistlines, and flowing tulle ball skirts- a mix of hard and soft, conflicted and flowing. Some dresses had high cleric-like collars; some had Elizabethan-style scoop necklines; a few had wide cuffs and buntlines trimmed with swooping gold cord, like ecclesiastical robes.’ However, thrown into all this were also his signature ‘Bumster’ trousers featuring an anarchically low waistband. McQueen told The Guardian, “That part of the body – not so much the buttocks, but the bottom of the spine – that’s the most erotic part of anyone’s body, man or woman”.
About a quarter of the way through the show, the wailing of the sirens fades and a woman’s voice (sadly, I couldn’t track down the song) asserts, “Am I a bitch? Yes. Am I a whore? No. You wanna fuck? Let’s go.” A techno beat kicks in as the models walk defiantly. The comment is clear: women’s sexuality needs to be de-stigmatised. Deeming the clothes simply ‘provocative’ and ‘vulgar’ sexually marginalises women, casting their bodies under a male gaze and therefore morphing them into a measure of misogynistic desire. She cries, "Can you handle a bitch? Am I bitch?”.
Far from oppressing women, McQueen's clothes are a symbol of sexual autonomy and power. They confront the audience and compel us to ask questions. We are forced to notice how we are reacting to the clothes, the attitude, the music, the entire experience. Through 'Banshee', McQueen delivers an uncomfortable message about our own preconceived judgements. He dares us to embrace the transgressive and liberate ourselves from antiquated thinking.
Illustrations by Serafina Lee