Committed: Alexander McQueen, Tailoring, and the Superhero Silhouette
Last week I bought the book Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, a retrospective of his most iconic and radical designs. One particular quote gave substance to my own feelings about his work, and really really spoke to his emphasized, supeheroic fashion aesthetic.
“I want to empower women. I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.”
“When you see a woman wearing McQueen, there’s a certain hardness to the clothes that makes her look powerful. It kind of fends people off.”
“It’s almost like putting armor on a woman. It’s a very psychological way of dressing.”
Both of my grandfathers were tailors. My dad’s dad was a gentlemen’s tailor. By the time I knew him, he’d retired from professional tailoring to run a candy store, but he made the most amazing three-piece suits for my dad by hand. When I was little, he altered all of my clothes so that they’d fit me, (I was a skinny kid.) I didn’t know how lucky I was. My mum’s dad was a ladies tailor who worked his way up from cutting cloth to owning a small, hand-sewing factory in the garment district. He used to send me tiny versions of the designer clothes he made with left-over pieces of fabric. We couldn’t afford to buy high street fashions, but when I was 8 years old I had the same wool, navy coat as Nancy Reagan. I didn’t exactly fit in with everyone else at school, but I was warm (and more fashionable than I knew.)
Now most clothing is made overseas or by machine. It is mass-produced for an average size and not many people know how clothing should fit. But I still LOVE seeing clothing that fits well, is skillfully crafted, and is made from good quality materials.
The impossibly broad-shoulders and perfect posture of a superhero cannot be achieved by a person wearing spandex. It just isn’t possible to bring that comic book ideal to life by relying on the wonderfully flawed body of a practically naked human. While artists may depict superheroes as naked people with costumes painted on, in reality, no one’s body will ever look that flawless in every moment of movement. This is where tailoring comes in. For centuries people have been using custom tailoring and support garments to give themselves better-than-average bodies, why then, would all live versions of superheroes involve people wearing unstructured clothing?
The classically tailored suits, dresses and costumes of McQueen cut an extremely crisp figure, giving the wearer a regal, superhuman perfection. These aren’t the cheesy, over-sized, power-suits of the ’80’s, or the ubiquitous, rumpled, vintage suits of the last decade, but instead a more elegant, body-conscious silhouette. I’ve always felt that people look more heroic in well-tailored suits and if you’re interested, there’s a whole website dedicated to dissecting and examining the handmade suits of James Bond, (plus a few other classic movie action heroes.) The commentary is exhaustively comprehensive.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the dearth of more conventional superhero-inspired clothing, heavy with bright colors and stretchy fabrics. The first, most memorable instance of this would be the superhero clothing designed for the 1968 movie Barbarella by chainmail-specialist Paco Rabanne (with Jacques Fonteray.) While it is partly Jane Fonda’s depiction of a doe-eyed, sexually-awakened space traveller, it seems that the rather disempowered feel of Barbarella’s armored clothing can also be attributed to the signature use of body stockings. The armor-like designs contrast beautifully it with the vulnerable, soft, exposed feminine form. This dichotomy is very appropriate to the era, as women’s roles were in an extreme state of flux. However, this attitude that the body-stocking and exposed skin represents the superheroic for women has clung for far too long.
Too often, the influence of comic books in high-fashion is reduced to only the most obvious graphics, with garish and unwearable splashes of Leichtenstien-style words or dots on t-shirts and stretchy leggings. The use of bold colors or prints on spandex is not the only way for designers to evoke comic books. Even today, women’s designers are still creating these unstructured, unforgiving garments and saying that they’re influenced by superheroes (examples pictured above, right by Herve Leger and Emilio Cavallini.) Just yesterday, men’s clothing house Indochino announced a superhero-influenced line of suits, but instead of focusing on creating a more superheroic figure (e.g. with an expansive shoulder or a narrower waist) they’ve simply created their usual suits with brightly colored button holes and colorful buttonhole pins (see left.) While I applaud the marketing of a superheroic suit, I think smart superhero comic book readers would do better to seek out good tailoring rather than bright color details.