Trigger warning: mention of suicide
Competing Images of The Sage
Religion and philosophy have always inspired art, for many years the majority of art commissioned was for places of worship or for the ruling class. Ancient Chinese philosophy– be it Taoism or Confucianism can be found in ancient and modern art, whether explicitly or not. One of the most interesting mediums for conveying the ideas expressed in both the Tao Te Ching and is through wearable art, otherwise known as fashion. Tao is All, meaning it is art and clothing– Tao is fashion. One of the main issues a reader may have with the Tao Te Ching is that it is inherently contradictory. Because the Tao is everything and anything it can be two contrasting ideals at the same time and still be the truth. Our acknowledgement and acceptance of this conflict allows for us to further explore the infinite spectacle that is the Tao.
The father of Taoism is known as Lao Tzu. The legend goes, Lao Tzu decided to follow The Way and leave Chinese society and all of it’s corruption in order to become closer to nature when the gatekeeper of the city refused to let him pass until he wrote down all of his wisdom and teachings. The manuscript he left with the gatekeeper has become known as the Tao Te Ching or as it roughly translates, “The Way to Virtue”. Lao Tzu did not intend to write down his teachings, he believed it was against his philosophy to learn from reading his work. Lao Tzu did not believe the Tao Te Ching could be taught or should be taught. He believed that it is an experience that comes with time and understanding. The fact that the Tao Te Ching even has a name goes against the philosophy.
The very first passage in the Tao Te Ching reads “The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way; The name that can be named is not the constant name. The nameless was the beginning of heaven and earth; The named was the mother of the myriad creatures. Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets; But always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations. These two are the same. But diverge in name as they issue forth. Being the same they are called mysteries. Mystery upon mystery — The gateway of the manifold secrets” (Chapter 1.) Everything is constantly changing due to the interaction of opposites. This is depicted by the yin-yang symbol.
The symbol is constructed of one circle, half white and half black. The Yang is the white side, white is symbolic of positive, male,day, active,sun, logical, hot and hard while the black is symbolic of negative, female, night, passive, moon, intuitive, cold, soft. Within yin there is also a bit of yang, and within yang there is a bit of yin. In simplest terms, one opposite cannot exist without the other. This means that there are no absolutes in the All, and that All is a system of interdependence.
Alexander McQueen was referred to as “one of the most acclaimed and incendiary designers of his generation” by the most highly respected fashion publication Women’s Wear Daily upon his untimely death by suicide. A little over a year after his death, the Metropolitan Museum of Art displayed a retrospective exhibit of his greatest work in honor of his artistic genius. Alexander McQueen was more than a fashion designer, he was an artist. It is said that “his iconic designs constitute the work of an artist whose medium of expression was fashion.” An underlying theme in his vast array of collections was “contrasting opposites” and the way they balance one another in order to create something brilliant and beautiful. It is no wonder the title of the exhibit was “Savage Beauty”. Curator of the exhibition, Andrew Bolton designed the first scene of the exhibition so the viewer is faced with two mannequins.
He explains that “the two mannequins that I think represent many of the themes and ideas that McQueen revisited throughout his career: polarized opposites, whether it’s to do with life or death, lightness or darkness, predator/prey, man/machine.” It is unknown if Alexander McQueen ever read the Tao Te Ching or not, but his art was a great embodiment of the general principals of the Tao. Even in the construction of his creations, Alexander McQueen exemplified the Tao. McQueen’s approach to fashion combined the precision and traditions of tailoring and pattern-making with the spontaneity and improvisations of draping and dressmaking. It is this approach, at once rigorous and impulsive, disciplined and unconstrained, that underlies McQueen’s distinctiveness and inimitably.
For his Master’s Graduation Collection from the most highly esteemed design school in the world, Central St. Martin’s, McQueen created a collection entitled “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims”.
One of the looks was an “three point origami frock coat” (which became a staple in the collections that followed. There was an entire room in the “Savage Beauty” exhibition dedicated to his folded coats and jackets.
These are on display in the first official space of the exhibition. This was an understandable choice by the curator, given that Alexander McQueen began his career as a tailor before he even entered design school. The Tao is the past, present and future all at once. Although the pieces were from different collections throughout his career, they recall the past while maintaining a sense of modernity in their evolution from collection to collection.
For example, in his Fall/Winter 1994 collection titled “Banshee”– a reference to the Irish folklore about banshees who were heard wailing when a boat sank. The way in which McQueen tailored the jacket was through a complex folding pattern, not unlike Origami art. McQueen preferred to tuck and fold fabric rather than stitch it together because he hated seams. Seams in fabric can be viewed as unnatural. Draping, folding and tucking and weaving any type of material is a more organic way to create clothing. Although the aforementioned means of creating clothing are more orthodox, they are more complex than just stitching together a few pieces of fabric. Sometimes, in order for something to be simple, it must have come about in a complex way. Another paradox Alexander McQueen appreciated.
In section 63 Lao Tzu explains this concept “Do that which consists in taking no action; pursue that which is not meddlesome; savor that which has no flavor. Make the small big and the few many, do good to him who has done you an injury. Lay plans for the accomplishment of the difficult before it becomes difficultly make something big by starting with it when small. Difficult things in the world must needs have their beginnings in the easy; big things must needs have their beginnings in the small. Therefore it is because the sage never attempts to be great that he succeeds in becoming great…therefore even the sage treats some things as difficult. That is why in the end no difficulties can get the better of him.” This sentiment is mirrored in a statement made by Sarah Burton, the designer’s long-term collaborator and now head of design of the house that bears his name. She said “He always started with the form and knew everything about how to construct a garment, he felt he had to know everything about tailoring, everything about dressmaking. He’d always surprise us in fittings. We would tell him something was technically impossible—and in the morning there would be something amazing on the mannequin, even if he had to work all night to achieve it.” Just because the act of creation was difficult does not mean it was impossible, in order for something to be difficult it means that it has been done, although with struggle. The difficulties (in terms of his art) did not get the better of Alexander McQueen, he succeeded in becoming great just by doing. He did not try, he did. That is not to say he did not work hard, it is just to say that he went with The Way and completed tasks.
Another fan of his work Camilla Nickerson, the fashion stylist and senior contributing fashion editor at W magazine, worked with McQueen over the last year of his life. She recalled “The staggering thing about him was that he literally cut fabric off the bolt, folded it very perfectly on the floor, and asked for the scissors from his very attentive assistant. He would then think about it and attack the piece of fabric and hold it to the girl, and there was the dress or the jacket in place. I hadn’t ever watched anyone work so fluently and so directly.” In the Tao Te Ching Lao Tzu refers to fashion explicitly. He remarks “Know the strength of man, But keep a woman’s care! Be the stream of the universe! Being the stream of the universe, Ever true and unswerving, Become as a little child once more. Know the white, But keep the black! Be an example to the world! Being an example to the world, Ever true and unwavering, Return to the infinite. Know honor, Yet keep humility! Be the valley of the universe! Being the valley of the universe, Ever true and resourceful, Return to the state of the uncarved block. When the block is carved, it becomes useful. When the sage uses it, he becomes the ruler. Thus, “A great tailor cuts little.” (Chapter 28)
Alexander McQueen cut very little, often opting to fold and tuck the fabric rather than sew.
When he did rip fabric he did it for a distinct purpose. In one of his most controversial shows, titled “Highland Rape” McQueen shredded military jackets and tore clothing in order to convey what he saw as the England’s rape of Scotland. He went on to say that the war between England and Scotland was nothing short of genocide. The clothing was torn as were the bodies of victims on both sides of the war.
He explained “I spent a long time learning how to construct clothes, which is important to do before you can deconstruct them.” Lao Tzu was an advocate for submission, but submission for survival’s sake. “I do my utmost to attain emptiness; I hold firmly to stillness. The myriad creatures all rise together And I watch their return. The teaming creatures All return to their separate roots. Returning to one’s roots is known as stillness. This is what is meant by returning to one’s destiny. Returning to one’s destiny is known as the constant. Knowledge of the constant is known as discernment. Woe to him who willfully innovates While ignorant of the constant, But should one act from knowledge of the constant One’s action will lead to impartiality, Impartiality to kingliness, Kingliness to heaven, Heaven to the way, The way to perpetuity, And to the end of one’s days one will meet with no danger.” (Chapter 16)
In his “Highland Rape” collection, Alexander McQueen was not willfully innovating because he was not aware that he was innovating. He was just doing what he felt inspired by in that moment. He was constantly learning and evolving and expressing that through his art.
In his highly theatrical Fall/Winter 1996 collection “DANTE”, which was staged at a church in Spitalfields, the guests sat in pews next to skeletons. Models wore crucifix masks, denim splashed with bleach, and mourning veils in black lace. An opening of organ music was drowned out by gunfire. McQueen explained “It’s not so much about death, but the awareness that it’s there”. When one is aware that death is going to happen, it is easier to appreciate life.
This collection is also tied together with Chapter 72 of the Tao Te Ching. Alexander McQueen was aware of death, just as Lao Tzu described in chapter 72. Both understood that “The people treat death lightly: It is because the people set too much store by life That they treat death lightly. It is just because one has no use for life that one is wiser than the man who values life.” (Chapter 72) Alexander McQueen forced the viewers of his collection to look at death and realize the reality that it will one day come.
Themes of nature have been present in fashion in both the East and the West for millennium, but the idea of returning to nature rather than just observing it’s beauty is one of the main teachings of the Tao. “Knowing the constant, we accept things as they are. By accepting things as they are, we are impartial. By being impartial, we are part of the Nature. By being a part of the Nature, we are one with Tao. Tao is eternal, and we survive physical death.” (Chapter 16) In his later collections, McQueen used physical nature as part of his designs. In 2001, he used razor clam shells he found on the beach with a friend to adorn the fabric. Every centimeter of fabric was covered in the shells.
He explained “My friend George and I were walking on the beach in Norfolk, and there were thousands of [razor-clam] shells. They were so beautiful, I thought I had to do something with them. So, we decided to make [a dress] out of them. . . . The shells had outlived their usefulness on the beach, so we put them to another use on a dress. Then Erin [O’Conner] came out and trashed the dress, so their usefulness was over once again. Kind of like fashion, really.” Lao Tzu’s interpretation of this piece is best explained in Chapter 15. He says “Who can be at rest and yet, stirring, slowly come to life? He who holds fast to this way, desires not to be full. It is because he is not full. That he can be worn and yet newly made” (Chapter 15) Things can be used for multiple purposes, even if you aren’t aware of their use at first or 100th glance. The shells were just resting on the beach, devoid of their natural use when Alexander McQueen happened upon them and decided to include them in a dress. After the runway show, a lot of the shells fell off as the model walked down the runway and they were useless once again. So is The Way.
Alexander McQueen evoked the same sort of message in his Spring/Summer 2007 show “Sarabanda” when he sewed live flowers onto the fabric because he was aware they would fall off as she walked down the runway. He explained that the collection, which also had a lot of mourning pieces, was about death and decay. He used flowers because he knew they would die, just as everyone does.
Sadly, in 2010 Alexander McQueen took his own life after struggling with depression for many years. Lao Tzu explains that if we follow The Way we can survive physical death. In many ways, whether he was aware of it or not, Alexander McQueen was the Tao. He was everything and anything, as demonstrated in the medium of clothing as art. A lot of the things he did were paradoxical, but that is how The Way functions and must function. Both Lao Tzu and Alexander McQueen believed that in order to move forward, opposing elements needed to interact. Lao Tzu has inspired art of all kinds even before his death in 531 BC, and I believe Alexander McQueen will inspire art of all kinds until the end of time. So it The Way.
“About the Exhibition | Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty | The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.” Savage Beauty. Metropolitan Museum of Art, n.d. Web. 10 May 2013.
“Alexander McQueen, A True Master.” WWD. Women’s Wear Daily, 12 Feb. 2010. Web. 10 May 2013.
“Alexander McQueen: Noble Farewell.” Vogue.com. Conde Nast, n.d. Web. 10 May 2013.
Bradley, Laura. “Object of Desire | World of Bees: Alexander McQueen Accessories S/S13.” AnOtherMag. N.p., 2013. Web. 10 May 2013.
Tzu, Lao, and D. C. Lau. Tao Te Ching. London: Penguin, 1963. Print.
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