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Savage Beauty

Harriet Bell

A look at the undeniable beauty of the ‘Spine Corset’

Savage Beauty originally exhibited in The Costume Institute at the

Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011 and was reignited as a retrospective

by the V&A in 2015 reminding us of the fascinating mind and works

of McQueen and his extraordinary and entirely refreshing view on beauty

and it’s boundaries.

McQueen, throughout his career, has frequently and fearlessly presented

to the viewer other, new ways to perceive and understand the debated

definition of beauty. Considering clothing’s usual constraints being bound through society expectations, McQueen looks beyond clothing having any purposes of utility and into ideas of individual identity. This allows the viewer to delve ever deeper into the awe-inspiring possibilities that our clothing, image and perceived value of beauty has the potential to portray.

‘Beauty can come from the strangest of places, even the most disgusting of places’

McQueen’s collections are known to provoke reactions; the ‘Spine Corset’ definitely followed this typicality of his. Undoubtedly a number of other pieces in the collection had the very same effect yet there was something special, in my view of the collections, about McQueen’s collaboration with Shaun Leane, the jeweller, for this piece. Perhaps this uniqueness and certain admiration are solely due to the design of the corset, or perhaps due to the thoughts that it then provokes for exploration. The corset embodies a hybrid creature, part-human and part-animal being; this body sculpture shows McQueen’s fascination with not only hybridity but also the spine, exposing bone structures on the exterior defining a profound beauty that is never usually considered.

His fascination (fixation?) on the human anatomy led to this designing technique, ways to manipulate the human body and play with our pre conceived understanding of what it ‘should’ look like. The infamous design of McQueen’s ‘bumster’ trousers set out to extend the body in a bold and individual way. The corset also sets out to show the body with individuality and the construction of it was intricate, Leane used a human skeleton as a cast and each bone was individually crafted by hand. Expanding on the original design, a tail was added after McQueen had visual inspiration watching Richard Donner’s horror film The Omen (1976). Yet other traditions that are drawn upon include memento mori, the idea that individual parts of the skeleton are incorporated into garments to remind the wearers (as similarly viewers) of their inevitable death. These inspirations play on McQueen’s usual themes, opposites popular ones being light and dark, life and death.


The notions of opposites are highlighted through the corset, not only in memento mori’s ideas of mortality but the aesthetic opposites of interior and exterior spaces that the corset creates. The outside on the inside, McQueen is forcing us to look at an object we are not used to seeing so blatantly and boldly. When worn on the catwalk it was presented on top of a black, glittering dress: a complete opposite to and in such definitive contrast from the structural nature of the corset. Through this juxtaposition of the dress and corset, McQueen invites us to look at the contrast between societies ideology of beauty, the glittering feminine dress against the harsh exterior corset yet somehow they work in perfect harmony and of course, McQueen gets it so right, they far from clash but compliment each other to the highest degree.

‘It’s the ugly things I notice more. Because other people tend to ignore the ugly things’

McQueen’s spectacles of catwalks for these collections forces the viewer to look at varied inspirations and ideas transformed into garments which, at times, don’t make for comfortable viewing. Yet this is a designer who doesn’t necessarily care if we subjectively like him, his work or what shoes he wears. He doesn’t even seem to care if we definitively dislike his designs, as long as we, as the viewer, react and feel something. Upending what we thought we already knew, our notions of beauty, what and to whom something is beautiful he expresses this entirety through one unique and entirely unforgettable piece.

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