An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

September 2, 2013

McQueen, fashion designer: Medieval McQueen, The Final Collection

Photograph by Chris Moore
Alexander McQueen, Medieval McQueen: The Final Collection; presented March 9-10, 2010; Paris, France.

Reviewed by Kristina Olson ( 
and Janet Snyder (

The last collection by fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen (1969-2010) debuted during Paris Fashion Week a month after his death. Models with delicate thin necks and a serene air wore exquisitely cut Jacquards and silks printed with imagery from Old Master paintings, textures of encrusted pearls, cabochon jewels and feathers, rich colors of crimson, gold, black and ivory, and accessories including head wraps and sculpted stilettoes. Presented at the ornate 18th Century Hotel de Clermont-Tonnerre without the celebrated showman’s usual dramatic staging, these sixteen outfits were a departure from the street-savvy, hyper-sexualized creations that made McQueen’s reputation and a return to the medieval designs that had been an enduring source of inspiration for his work.

Any discussion of McQueen’s interpretation of medieval visual culture must begin with a definition of the Long Middle Ages, one that reaches from the twelfth century through the Early Modern Period. His was a selective articulation of essential details of medieval design enclosed within the outlines of his simple and pure forms. The extremely rich surface texture of his final collection may have been inspired by carved ivory, gold relief, pearled embroidery and metalwork as well as intricate details of panel paintings, gilded mosaics, and drawings. McQueen’s was not an interpretation of the medieval but a re-imagined medieval sensibility, carefully extracted from Holbein, Botticelli, Bosch, and Leonardo, from the silk-weavers and embroiderers of the tiraz of Roger II, and from the goldsmiths and ivory workers who produced fine crafts and reliquaries.

The designer had a life-long interest in the history of many cultures, material that he mined for his own creations. This historical curiosity was fed by his mother, Joyce, a teacher, florist, and keeper of the family genealogy. His father was of Scottish decent and a London cabbie. Raised in working-class South London, McQueen was close to his mother and devastated by her death (he took his own life the evening before her funeral). Realizing he wanted to be a fashion designer from a young age, he left school at sixteen and soon became a tailor’s apprentice to one of the most respected firms on famed Savile Row, the London street known for its shops offering traditional bespoke men’s clothing. McQueen always gave credit to this foundational experience, “I come from Savile Row. What I learned at sixteen is that to change menswear, you have to be like an architect; you work on the cut and proportion... You’ve got to know the rules to break them.  That’s what I’m here for, to demolish the rules but to keep the tradition.” [1] 

McQueen became fascinated with the traditions of historical garments while working freelance on theatrical costumes for the stage in the early 1990s. During this period he discovered Juan de Alcega’s Tailor’s Pattern Book of 1589, a source for some of his own early designs. [2] This mastering of traditional tailoring and historical influences was counter-balanced by his immersion in contemporary London’s Punk scene and gay culture where young designers self-identified as iconoclasts challenging the conventions of French haute couture. After a stint as a pattern cutter in Milan, McQueen returned to London to study design formally at the prestigious Central Saint Martins College and to finally launch his astonishing, if brief, career as a solo designer.

The observant scholar can easily discern an underlying medieval essence in his work. McQueen’s medieval encompassed a thousand years of design at the same time that it embodied a modern conception that medieval coincides with faith and prayers answered. In his final collection he did not appropriate specific designs; rather, he embraced medieval images for inspiration and moved on to articulate and extend his understanding of their essential meaning. His medieval is something original and redefined, in the manner of the Pre-Raphaelites [see]. For example, in these last sixteen ensembles, McQueen-designed textiles poetically recreated the quality of experience expressed in Bernard of Clairvaux’s Memorare and immortalized in Canto XXXIII of Dante’s Paradiso, one that articulated the most fervent faith of the medieval true believer, aspiring to the kind of hope that, even today, arises unbidden when one visits soaring medieval interior spaces transformed through light – at the cathedrals of Amiens or Chartres or Bourges. McQueen’s designs [see] used color, movement, and form to invoke the immediacy of personal reverence expressed during the Middle Ages through symbols of purity: the sacrificial lamb, the lily, the fleur-de-lis. In this final collection, the textiles of gowns in looks 10, 11, and 12 recalled the tender petals of spring’s first peonies like a Botticelli Primavera (1477-82) [see] or the daVinci Annunciation (c.1472-75) []; in look 13, they whispered like the presence of angels [see ]; in looks 5 and 16, the forms themselves embraced the body like seraphim wings, conjuring up the dark music of the second feathered cellist who serenades the Virgin in the Nativity of Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-16) [see].

Perhaps the most striking garment in the collection was the red and gold coat [see] derived from the Coronation regalia of the Holy Roman emperor (see Here, as with all of the garments presented, the model’s head was minimized under a tight wrap. These tiny heads were not bald, but enclosed, reduced and extended in some cases with crests of feathers, recalling the helms of romantic medieval knights [see]. Her head was like the finial on an architectural tower while thigh-high boots acted like piloti supporting this wedge of a coat. Finally, gloved fingertips peeked out from the flare of an arced sleeve that intersected the garment’s hem.

That Mantle of Roger II, made in Palermo in 1131 − with its lions and camels − was not copied in McQueen’s version, rather it was echoed as the faces of the lions framed the bodice; the bold red and gold striped body and clawed feet strode − minus the subjugated camels − across the model’s hips; the flanks of the lions reached across her forearms to intersect the hips while attenuated, swirling lion tails caressed her upper arms. It was the Mantle of Roger II deconstructed and restructured within the vocabulary of McQueen. The hemline pattern restated not that of the original Mantle but the swirling embroidery of the slippers of the Coronation regalia of the Holy Roman emperor.

The same appropriated lion, again striding without the camel, reappeared in a black and gold coat, complete with shoulder cape, like a cardinal’s capa or Sherlock Holmes’ shoulder cape, modified [see]. The hemline of the longer cape appeared to be inspired by lions that flank the Tree of Life in Palermo mosaics or sculpted facades at Mshatta, Jordan.

McQueen reconsidered and redefined the medieval throughout this last collection. In addition to the strongly-colored, weighty-fabric coats there were delicate white dresses with floor-length skirts, some with attenuated trains.  They evoked the Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Annunciation (1849-50) [see] where Mary’s response is profoundly courageous and reverent: her desperation expresses a fine fragility, a terror, and intimacy. The same is true in these more subtle works by McQueen. He seems to have been inspired by visual elements of medieval ensembles, but in his use of those elements he stepped reverentially back, with no more expression than the women in Holbein’s portraits. Taken together, this final collection was ethereal, as immaterial and unknowable as angelic spirits, spectacular as the mosaics at Palermo and the regalia of the emperor.

It is in contrast with related McQueen work that his engagement with the medieval can be perceived.  As with all of his creations, these concluding designs expressed preoccupations in the artist’s own life.  McQueen acknowledged the connection between his life and work saying, “My collections have always been autobiographical ... They were about to do with my childhood, the way I think about life and the way I was brought up to think about life.”[3] His encounter with the hope and faith inherent in passionate medieval designs during the final period of his mother’s and his own lives found fresh expression in the complexities of the textiles he created here. McQueen’s last collection can be characterized as reaching for the state that Abbot Suger described in defense of his twelfth-century reconstruction of the Abbey church at Saint-Denis: “... transporting me from material to immaterial things ... I seem to see myself existing on some level, as it were, beyond our earthly one, neither completely in the slime of earth nor completely in the purity of heaven.”[4]

This is the same dichotomy found across McQueen’s oeuvre and celebrated in the very title, Savage Beauty, of the stunning retrospective exhibition held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011. For many, he will be remembered for the earthy, S&M-inspired designs like the PVC underpants and spine sweater of the Banshee collection (Autumn/Winter 1994-95) or the burgundy leather armor for his modern-day Joan of Arc (Autumn/Winter 1998-99). These last sixteen designs differ profoundly even from his more ethereal, heaven-oriented work, such as his Wedding Collections, where there is dramatic depth, volume and sumptuous flavor. They differ too from the recent designs carried on by his atelier, as in the fall 2013 McQueen collection, where references to the medieval continue to be found. The heart-breaking delicacy is gone now, replaced by a frank self-confidence, an internal completeness and secure finality in each ensemble. In the final collection, this openly autobiographical designer made use of the medieval to bare his soul and leave us with the rich legacy of the essential medieval, the essential McQueen.

Kristina Olson
Janet Snyder
West Virginia University

[1] From an interview in GQ Magazine from 2004 quoted in Judith Watt, Alexander McQueen: The Life and the Legacy (New York: Harper Design, 2012), 19.

[2] Ibid., 23.

[3] From an interview in British Vogue from October 2002, quoted in Andrew Bolton, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011), 16.
[4] David Burr, trans., “Abbot Suger: ON WHAT WAS DONE IN HIS ADMINISTRATION,” Internet Medieval Sourcebook (January 1996),