Credit: GG Illustrator AJ Duncan (@ajc.illustrates)

Theatre of Fashion

By Chloe Waterhouse

The McQueen empire, RiRi’s Fenty and beyond.

“If I like it or not, my shows are a form of entertainment” 

Alexander McQueen, 2010.

In the first half of the 20th century, fashion shows were little more than small scale marketing vehicles used to entice wealthy clients into purchasing a couturiers collection. Enter the 60s, where designers like Mary Quant adapted shows to fit mass-consumerist markets, adding song and dance to catwalk sequences for audiences to view how designs could be worn for real activities. Skip a couple of decades and you have a glorious catwalk extreme: fashion theatre.

The rise in fashion theatre has been on an upward trajectory since the 90s, coming to fruition in part through CBE and vanguard visionary Alexander McQueen. From the outset, his pieces eschewed whimsy and eccentricity; take a coat from his 1992 MA graduation collection, Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims. This satin frock coat has a printed thorn pattern, with encapsulated human hair, inspired by his fascination with Victorian culture, and own genealogical ties; one of McQueen’s relatives owned an inn that housed one of the Ripper’s victims. 

This narrative approach to design would embody his future shows and inspire his nickname “L’enfant terrible”, dubbed by the French press for his stringent use of shock tactic. McQueen famously stated: “My shows are about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s for the excitement and the goosebumps. I want heart attacks. I want ambulances.” His penchant for storytelling destabilised the fashion catwalk; in 1998, a show he titled Joan featured a bondage-clad model donning a crimson fringe dress as a ring of fire surrounded her, striking ethereal poses. Think ritualistic Witches Sabbath, or that vertiginous fire scene from Brian De Palma’s Carrie. This closing act represented Joan of Arc, these theatrics highlighting feminine power suffocated by the restraints of institution and religion. Themes of martyrdom, historical references to the executed Mary Queen of Scots and the murdered Romanov children, broached McQueen’s influences for this landmark show. 

The 2001 show for his Spring/Summer Voss collection saw a glass box forming the centrepiece, constructed specifically to resemble a psychiatric hospital cell with white tiled floors and walls formed from surveillance mirrors. The audience was forced to endure over an hour long wait, forced to scrutinise their own reflections whilst listening to the pulse of a heartbeat. Eventually the glass box rose to reveal models trapped in a cube, unable to see the audience and interpretive dancing blind to their surroundings. Reaching a pulsating crescendo, the finale saw the glass cube shatter, revealing a fetishised Michelle Olley reclining nude on a chaise longue, wearing a mask attached to tubes. “Usually communication is done through entertainment media like film and music,” he commented in 2010. “But fashion is part of that…”  McQueen’s catwalks were a safe space for models to donn armour;  his shows, a theatre of fea, fetishes, finesse.

McQueen’s contemporary John Galliano shared his love for theatrical fashion shows, as a storytelling behemoth to rival McQueen’s sequences, using orchestrated characters and plotlines. Galliano’s romantic leitmotif of his 1994 collection centred round the tale of Russian princess Lucretia, breaking the confines of her castle walls to find her true self as she boards an escape train to Scotland. 1860s era Crinolines adorned the models in the opening sequence, Lucretia’s “highland fling” section of the show contemporising its sequence, honing in on flirty on-trend dresses, micro-kilts and British eclecticism. 

We can sense a yearning for artistic layering and theatrical sequences in contemporary catwalks today; consider Opening Ceremony’s SS15 collection show in 2014. Spike Jonze and Jonah Hill were commissioned to write a play in place of a traditional catwalk, conceiving 100% Lost Cotton, a comedic meta-riff on the fashion pre-show process. The plot followed its characters –models, stylists, designers and journalists – through the run up to an OC fashion show. Elle Fanning and Dree Hemmingway were models competing at an OC casting, while Rashida Jones played fashion editor and Karlie Kloss, “in her late early 20s”, made a cameo as a past-her-best super. This complete upheaval of the monotonous catwalk tradition created potential for a new type of runway, one that entirely demolishes runway tropes for artistic expression via theatre.

Catwalk shows are now being streamed, opening the pearly gates to a general public content with their monthly ASOS packages and charity shop hauls. The fashion world is now accessible. And with that accessibility comes a much-needed revamp of catwalk culture, like McQueen and Galliano championed decades earlier (sans the social media scrutiny). Enter Rihanna’s 2019/2020 Savage X Fenty shows, which you can stream via Amazon Prime. Rihanna’s first Savage X Fenty lingerie show has become legendary. Presented at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during New York Fashion Week spring/summer 2019, the designer called upon the industry’s most buzzed-about models, street cast newcomers, and a troupe of dancers led by Parris Goebel to push the boundaries of society’s preconceived notions of what sexy looks like, and smash apart the constructs of a traditional catwalk show in the process.  Plus-sized models, bald models, trans models, paraplegic models, and models of even more experiences and identities graced the stage while blasting a remix of Anti’s Woo in the background.  The multi-layered performance piece, which Rihanna herself called a “fashion musical”, was a celebration of body positivity, inclusion and sensuality; Willo Perron, who was in charge of the shows creative, stated: “The show plays out like a piece of theatre…. It’s entertainment with multiple layers, and how fashion should approach its messaging moving forward.” Hopefully this is a prophetic statement, because we all need respite from the dull and outdated Victoria’s Secret model. 

Over the last three decades, there has been a niche for performance based fashion shows, focusing on audience reaction as much as the urge to capture the current cultural zeitgeist. However, as we have seen through the worldwide success and accessibility of Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty shows, and the satirical innovation of Opening Ceremony’s SS15 collection , perhaps the fashion world is ready to take this approach collectively, and  beyond high fashion to inspire a whole new generation of designers and models not constrained to a narrow runway floor. Social media also makes this an even more feasible aim, as we crave entertaining content to penetrate our screens tFenty four seven. A McQueen ready-to-wear sequence is made to be enjoyed like a revered Broadway show, and this trend for the theatrical is making a resurgence in the fashion world right now. So throwaway your catwalk misconceptions and appreciate the new couture, darling. 


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