Lots of fashion designers look to the silver screen for inspiration, but few mined the cinema for inspiration as extensively or with the psychological intensity of Alexander McQueen. McQueen’s adoration of the films of Alfred Hitchcock and his heroines began in childhood and continued throughout his professional career, explicitly providing the starting point for a great deal of his output including his breakthrough collection in Spring-Summer 1995, “The Birds” based on Hitchcock’s 1963 film of the same name.
The influence of Hitchcock’s notion of ideal femininity permeates McQueen’s work in unexpected and critical ways. In “The Birds”, Hitchcock’s Blondes are laid bare under the unflinching and often savage glare of McQueen’s artistic creations. McQueen’s shows (like Hitchcock’s early films) followed in the aesthetic tradition of German expressionist cinema where the primary role of images was to establish a melodramatic and often sinister mood. This technique was used to full effect in “The Birds” which can be read as a visual representation of the psychological construction of the Hitchcock heroine.
The Hitchcock Blonde of The Birds is Tippi Hedren, famously plucked from obscurity by Hitchcock and moulded in his image of the perfect cinematic woman – the archetypal Hitchcock Blonde. The Hitchcock Blonde is sophisticated, icy and aloof with a hint of hot sexual energy. She is a siren for hapless men and a potential victim of aggression – manmade or natural. The women in Hitchcock’s films walk along a treacherous line between these extremes, sometimes emerging triumphant and sometimes as victims.
The opposition exemplified by the Hitchcock heroine is an aesthetic challenge relished by McQueen in “The Birds” and, of course, his starting point was the costume of Hitchcock’s film. For McQueen, the binary nature of the Hitchcock heroine could be reduced to the pencil skirt. This particular item of clothing that first projects an image of feminine dominance and sexual control eventually becomes a hindrance – as the powers of nature turn against the heroine, the constraints of the pencil skirt hobble her. But in McQueen’s take on Hitchcock, the women are simultaneously the victim and potentially dangerous perpetrators.
Given this starting point, the contrast of a woman restricted by her urban uniform of strong tailoring in a running motif throughout the show. McQueen explores the opposing nature of the Hitchcock heroine further with his use of white contact lenses. These lenses gave his models an eerie and inscrutable facial expression making them appear dangerous. At the same time, the lenses quite deliberately stripped the women of their individuality, transforming them into psychological clones.
Perhaps the binary opposition of women in Hitchcock are most articulately expressed in McQueen’s use of nudity in “The Birds”. Hitchcock famously preferred to imply sexuality rather than to depict it explicitly and the danger of both female and male sexuality is always left to the imagination, where it is potentially more frightening. McQueen shows what lies underneath the cool exterior of the Hitchcock heroine by laying his models are in an exhibition of stark and frank nudity. His models are unapologetic in their sexuality and impassive to their objectification. They don’t shrink in shame or revel in the attention, their bodies are a fact of life and they bear them with an emotional blankness that essentially strips them of their eroticism. The female sexuality of Hitchcock interpreted by McQueen is cold, surreal and possibly perilous.
But nor are McQueen’s Hitchcock inspired models singularly dangerous. The models were painted with tyre marks in arbitrary areas of their body, inspired by the road kill sequence of the bird, demonstrating concisely just how quickly the women of Hitchcock’s cinema can switch between the roles of predator and prey.
When it comes to exploring Hitchcock’s complicated and often dark relationship with his female heroines, McQueen’s savage psychological visual interpretation isn’t a bad place to start.
Proud Galleries is exhibiting McQueen: Backstage – The Early Shows featuring backstage images of “The Birds” between the 4th March and the 5th April.
The Victoria and Albert Museum will be exhibiting Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty between the 14th March and 2nd August.