The emergence of Lady Gaga’s alien-like back-up dancers—bedecked in all-white outfits of synthetic leotard, tall spiked crown, and go-go boots—from their perfect row of white coffins in an entirely white room announces from the outset that “Bad Romance” is going to be a music video of insanity. As the coffins crack open their angular arms extend outward and, more importantly, their twitching fingers—a gesture revisited by a pink-haired, bug-eyed Gaga rapping her own digits twitchingly against the outer rim of her waterless tub. There are sexy scenes, sure: she crawls in rhinestone-studded lingerie to her captor; later, she writhes with her dancers in lacy red lingerie on the ground. But for the most part, the sexiness of the video is assumed, secondary to the singer’s utter weirdness; her clothes are form-fitting and scanty, but more importantly, they’re _different_. Throughout the video her outfit changes from an angular, metallic mini-dress with glasses made of spiraling razor blades to a sheer dress with pasties over her nipples to white undergarments under a sweeping polar bear coat, the train of which culminates in the polar bear’s head. Lady Gaga announces from beneath her futuristic, unconventional garb that she is not another Taylor Swift, not another Miley Cyrus: she’s a pop star all of her own, crazy-clothed or not.
But the Gaga religion (even if not everyone has converted, almost everyone will acknowledge it exists) owes more than a little of its existence to the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen. The metallic mini-dress from the opening scene is McQueen’s; so are her “Dragon Heels”—twisty platform heels with dragon-esque spikes coiling down the stilettos, appearing in several colors throughout the video. And as she fittingly sings, “Walk, walk, fashion baby,” she dons a sparkling greenish-gold dress with an exaggeratedly bulbous skirt complete with matching leggings (all McQueen’s), now infamous foot-tall heels resembling giant lobster claws (McQueen’s—often referred to as “McQueenadillos”), and hair styled in two horizontal slabs, for lack of a better word (McQueen’s—variants of which featured prominently in his 2009 “Plato’s Atlantis” collection). The singer’s aesthetic audacity fit perfectly with the designer’s creative couture; it is unsurprising, then, that “Bad Romance” actually debuted at the “Plato’s Atlantis” runway show.
The fashion legacy of McQueen, who took his own life last Thursday, February 11, is filled with such drama—most evidently, in his catwalk shows. His 1995 show entitled “Highland Rape” featured tattered dresses and tampon strings dangling from skirts; though some called him misogynistic, he claimed to be making a metaphor for Britain’s “rape” of Scotland. In 2000 his models, heads wrapped in hospital bandage, strutted around a cell from a psychiatric hospital wearing such pieces as an enormous headdress composed of a stuffed birds bouquet (complete with a skirt made of cascading gray feathers) and a shift dress with a torso- sized toy castle resting on its shoulder. The show concluded with a tableau of a corpulent woman wearing only a face mask and breathing tube, reclining beneath a sea of moths. And, inspired by Darwinian evolution, his 2009 show featured a video of model Raquel Zimmermann covered in snakes and models dressed in digitally-enhanced reptile prints, their feet lost in aforementioned McQueenadillos. Their hairstyles were usually two large tufts, extending upwards like horns or erect animal ears; their faces were extraordinarily nude. with even eyebrows covered in pale makeup. The theatrics of his shows added another dimension to his fashion: his work extended beyond the individual pieces, bold as they may be, to the larger performance art they represented.
But fundamental to his high-octane shows were the exceptionally well-made clothing pieces they flaunt. He began his fashion career humbly as an apprentice on the famed Savile Row, a London street known for its traditional men’s tailoring; the skills he developed would help him create his signature look of impeccable craftsmanship. Beneath the elaborate feather headdresses of his 2006 collection, for example, which sprouted in outlandish directions from their models’ flyaway hair, were outfits of remarkable structure and detail: as in a tweed skirt suit with enormous pockets and ruffles cascading from the lapels, belted flatteringly at the waist; or a high-waisted tartan pantsuit with a matching cropped jacket dotted with large gold buttons on both sides; or a long-sleeved white dress, fitted throughout the body until, below the hips, it transformed into tiers of soft ruffles. (He paired this final dress with a translucent veil wound around white antlers, reiterating his astounding ability to pair artistic innovation with material quality.) Examining his current “womenswear” collection online reveals the same expertise of technique: the clothes and shoes are geometry-heavy with oblique zippers and patterns of mazes; they’re often garishly colored but, of course, carefully fitted.
His fusion of outrageous theatrics with precise style was symptomatic of his technological savvy. In 2006, he stunned a Paris audience with a holographic image of Kate Moss, his close friend and one of the world’s most famous models, dancing in a glass pyramid, surrounded by a billowing white gown; the beautiful, almost supernatural spectacle—now immortalized on YouTube—involved an optical device called “Pepper’s Ghost.” McQueen created the impressively bright and detailed patterns of the “Plato’s Atlantis” collection’s aforementioned reptile prints with digital enhancement techniques, and he live-streamed the runway show, which featured robotic cameras running back and forth along an iridescent runway, on the Internet. Even before his major contributions to the Haus of Gaga, furthermore, he projected his art through many media—designing, for instance, the album cover of Icelandic singer Björk’s 1997 release _Homogenic_. The musician—face painted geisha white with falsely-pursed lips, hair coiled in two giant, symmetric buns (perhaps a prototype of the slabs Gaga would later sport)—is wrapped in a futuristic kimono-style dress, fingers with menacing silver claws crossed in front of her, neck covered by a stack of gold rings. (McQueen also directed the loopy music video accompanying _Homogenic_’s track “Alarm Call.”)
But his influence on the fashion world was even more far-reaching. Models in his early shows sported “bumsters,” pants so hip-slung they revealed the upper curvature of their, uh, bums; the look spread and effectively revived the past decade or two’s trend of (albeit less-daring than McQueen’s) low-rise pants. And his iconic skull-patterned scarf (and corresponding skull clutch bag) is an item often coveted and counterfeited.
His legacy, then, in combining imaginative shows with thoughtfully constructed clothes, flashy technology with smart wearability, is creativity in a world where (almost) everything has already been done. His outrageous tactics—as in the breathing mask tableau from 2000, or his 1999 selection of double amputee Aimee Mullens as a model, sent down the runway in wooden legs—challenged observers and buyers to rethink beauty and beautiful art. At the same time, his adherence to conservative tailoring and his mastery of form—which made (many of) his pieces both wearable and flattering—insisted upon the importance of making clothes well, of understanding the angles of the human body. His unyielding ability to deliver on the unexpected (which, from him, was expected) gave us Lady Gaga, a rising (or risen) star known as much for her avant-garde fashion as for her catchy pop singles; she was his “unofficial muse,” wearing, to the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, a terrifying red McQueen dress that tightly covered her entire face, accessorized with a matching red crown. His life ended at the peak of his career, and both the McQueen line and the fashion world as a whole are struggling with the question of who can match and further his remarkable spirit. It’s probably not possible.