Alexander McQueen and the Dance to the Death

By Felicia Scicluna

For his Spring 2004 show titled Deliverance he based his collection on Sydney Pollock’s 1969 depression-era movie entitled, ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’, which was in turn based on Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel of the same name. What made this collection different from other McQueen collections is that it was relatively pared down and lacked the classic showpieces that McQueen is renowned for. In fact, when looking at lookbooks for past shows, every collection had pieces that were labelled as ‘Show Only’- except for Deliverance. Here every single piece was either produced or could be made-to-order.

Apart from the relative minimalism of the collection, the show seemed to recreate the plot of the movie. The movie revolves around a dance marathon which Robert and Gloria enter to get free food and shelter and in the hope of winning $1,500. As the competition unfolds they realise that it is filled with ploys and gimmicks to draw a bigger audience. The Derbies were introduced by the organisers in order to eliminate three couples per evening.  As the marathon managers introduce more ploys, Gloria and Robert come to realise that even if they win they would not win the amount of money promised as they would need to deduct the expenses, reducing the prize to close to nothing. Disheartened by the revelation, Gloria and Robert quit the marathon. Gloria confesses to Robert that she wants to kill herself; she pulls out a gun but cannot go through with it. In desperation she asks Robert to do it, which he does. When he is later questioned by the police why he killed her, he responds: “They shoot horses don’t they?”

McQueen’s use of film in his collections has been evident since the start, from Alfred Hitchcock to Stanley Kubrick, his shows were packed with film references.  What made Deliverance different is that McQueen did not just reference imagery from the movie, but rather reconstructed the narrative through the mise en scene of the show.

The minimalism and the lack of showpieces adheres to notable film theory in that costumes must blend in with the narrative and onto the character so that the audience has to look right through the clothes in order to naturalise the characters and the plot.

Just like common film narrative, the show was structured in three scenes. In Scene I, the show opens with the actual voice-over of the announcer from the movie. He introduces the marathon to the audience, as models and dancers emerge onto a catwalk dancefloor in 1930s inspired clothing, including bias cut dresses and feather boas. The focal point of this Scene is the silver bias-cut sequinned dress worn by Karen Elson- which is later reworked by McQueen as the final look.

Scene II revolves around the Derby, in the novel Robert describes how they were given uniforms. In fact the clothes in the Derby scene mimic sportswear. The materials and silhouettes created in this scene evoke a sportswear aesthetic through the mixture of neon colours, grey marl and shiny suede. Comparatively, in Scene III the models are dressed in a mixture of patchwork quilting, denim, chiffon tea dresses, and Swarovski-encrusted jumpsuits. In this last scene the models stagger and stumble on the catwalk, referencing the exhausted dancers from the dance marathons. The final model to emerge on the dance floor wears a ravaged version of the sequin dress from Scene I. The dress is torn and the sequins are matte and they seem to be falling off.

If we line up the three main looks for this show one can clearly see the character development in them, especially the opening and the ending looks. This refashioning of a design into something which appears less refined is not common in a fashion show but McQueen’s aim in doing so was to develop the narrative. Gilbert Adrian, MGM’s costume designer stated how “One could line up all the gowns and tell the screen story”. If we had to look at the looks separately from the models and the setting of the show, the clothes can tell Gloria’s and Robert’s journey throughout the plot; from the hopefulness of the first scene with its glamorous gowns, evolving into the struggle of the derby in scene two and into the lesser glamorous frayed denim, patchwork and plaid shirts of scene three. It all accumulates at the end with the torn silver dress, embodying the novel’s existential theme of inevitable fatality.

When McQueen was interviewed in 2003 while he was producing this collection, he stated how he watched the movie ‘They Shoot Horses Don’t They’ and he felt that it exuded the same feeling as a McQueen show; the sadness, the happiness, the desperation and he felt that it was relevant to what was going on in the world at the time. McQueen shows were never just about commercial pretty clothes on the catwalk, they always had an underlying statement. His recreation of the dance marathon can be seen as a metaphor to the fashion industry. The dance-to-the-death narrative and the theme of exhaustion in dance marathons can be linked to McQueen’s feelings about the clothing industry; in a number of interviews McQueen had commented on how designers have to keep up with the slavish demands of fashion. So while in other McQueen shows scholars focus on specific looks from the collections, it is very interesting in analysing the statement that McQueen made through the recreation of the narrative on the runway.

This is an edited excerpt from a paper presented by Felicia at the LCF and V&A Conference on Alexander McQueen, 6th June 2015


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