DSF- NW-1 Article

Dancing Tragedy: Alexander McQueen’s Aesthetics of Spectacle

Alexander McQueen’s work has had a huge impact on the fashion industry, both for the radical experimentation of his designs—often embodying a darker strain of Romanticism—and for the innovative ways in which he presented these, in a show whose concept was frequently inspired by cinema, also drawing from literature, theatre, dance and music, and even from the circus and other forms of spectacle. In this paper, I discuss McQueen’s Deliverance Collection (Spring/Summer 2004) in the light of Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of tragic art as well as Peter Greenaway’s ideas of total cinema. I contend that the key features that make the designer’s work create a post-modern artistic practice in fashion, which converges upon an art that conforms an eclectic spectacle of the Tragic.

So let us start with the background to his collection. McQueen’s Deliverance is composed of a complex network of inter-textualities that comprise literature, theatre, cinema, painting, music, dance and fashion. His show was inspired by Sydney Pollack’s 1969 film, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which in turn was an adaptation of Horace McCoy’s homonymous novel written in 1935, the times of the Great Depression in the United States. The novel has inspired an intricate sequence of adaptations, from Pollack to McQueen, including a play by Ray Herman that premiered in Australia in 1983 and later had several revivals in England between 1990 and 2000. McQueen may well have seen some of these adaptations. At any rate, he re-creates the tragic dance marathon that is at the heart of the novel and the film for his collection fashion show. This spectacular presentation took place in Paris in October 2003, in the Salle Wagram, a 19th century Parisian dance hall. Michael Clark, a Scottish dancer, choreographed the performance with the participation of models together with professional dancers.

So what were the novel and the film about? Let me briefly summarise the plot. Young Robert Syverten wants to become a film director. He meets Gloria Beatty, who is passionate about films. Both have just failed to get parts as extras in Hollywood so, motivated by the free food and drinks and the $1,000 prize that is offered they enter a marathon dance competition. However, little by little they realise the contest turns out to be a slow and merciless process of degradation and humiliation for all contestants. The promoters of the competition, deeply corrupt, improvise all kinds of fraudulent strategies to increase attendance and ensure the commercial success of the event. One such strategy involved the organisation of a derby, an elimination race that consists in racing around a track for fifteen minutes and whose obvious purpose is to disqualify some couples. This way the marathon dance goes on relentlessly for 879 hours of dancing, and with 20 couples remaining. The story reaches its climax when Robert and Gloria, having realised that the contest has become a fraud, give up. They go outside the dance hall and then she takes a pistol out of her purse and begs Robert to shoot her, which he does without hesitation.

Except for a laconic mention of the uniforms the contestants wear during the derby races, such as ‘track suits’, ‘tennis shoes, white shorts, white sweat-shirts’, accompanied with some extra leather items; and a few allusions to sponsorships received from local businesses, usually in the form of clothes, there are no accurate references to or proper descriptions of clothes in McCoy’s novel. By contrast, in Pollack’s film clothes are important in that they help to convey the atmosphere and the spirit of the 1930s. As for McQueen’s Deliverance, it is focused on the derby only, with all models re-enacting the dancing marathon. And in his show, instead of wearing their flat sport uniforms described and shown in the novel and the film, contestants wear beautiful pieces of art with predominant colours and shades, leading contrasts and shapes oscillating between what Nietzsche called the Dionysian and the Apollonian tragic principles, so it is to this point that we now turn.

Tragedy is a form of art based on human suffering that paradoxically offers its audience a great aesthetical pleasure. Nietzsche constructed his early philosophy of art on the claim that pain for some irreparable lack is the fundamental character of the world. Two complementary principles predominate in his seminal work The Birth of Tragedy, namely the Dionysian, connoting imagination, and the Apollonian, connoting reason, which can be understood under three aspects: metaphysical, epistemological and aesthetic. This way, the Dionysian means respectively a metaphysical primordial horror of things; a state of ‘intoxication’ because the deepest and most ‘horrible truth’ of the world is just glimpsed, i.e. death; and the sublime or the overwhelming, awe-inspiring and yet elevating experience of things that exceed rational apprehension.

By contrast, the Apollonian stands for the false and the illusory, for ‘mere appearance’; as regards the metaphysical and the epistemological, it indicates a dream-like state in which all knowledge is knowledge of surfaces; and finally, as regards the aesthetic, it turns into the beautiful, the world experienced as intelligible, as conforming to the capacities of the representing intellect. In this scheme, McQueen himself might well have conceived of his fashion collections as primarily Dionysian, in that he rejected the merely pretty, the banal and the conventional, appealing instead to a set of qualities that encompasses irrationality, spontaneity, visceral reactions and the rejection of conventions. For instance, he famously once put on a fashion show for a collection entitled Highland Rape (Fall/Winter 1995-96), about Scotland being conquered by England, which expresses the distress caused by colonialism and other films that provided inspiration for his work include Milos Forman’s 1975 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Briefly, the plot of this film is about social and individual repression allegorised by showing the coercive measures against in-patients in a mental hospital. Inspired by Forman’s film, McQueen created his Voss Collection (Spring/Summer 2001), based on Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). Writing about the deep impact of this show, which evokes the sense of fragmentation and uncanny features, fashion journalist Susy Menkes interestingly commented: ‘Distasteful images, but a reflection of our nasty world.’ And McQueen himself once remarked: ‘I don’t want to do a cocktail party, I’d rather people left my shows and vomited. I prefer extreme reactions’. Regarding the gloomy and dreary side of his creations, he also commented: ‘There is something … kind of Edgar Allan Poe, kind of deep and kind of melancholic about [my] collections”. As we know, Edgar Allan Poe was an American writer of superb macabre tales, famous for works such as The Black Cat and The Fall of the House of Usher, which McQueen often acknowledged as a source of inspiration.

However, there are also Apollonian features in McQueen’s fashion shows. For instance, in McQueen’s hands, in the derby race in Deliverance, chaos and degradation are turned into a sort of harmonious pandemonium, so to speak, by means of a powerful alchemy: an amazing spectacle of fashion art. As stated by Peter Greenaway, art is about ‘trying to find some order in the chaos’. In fact, Nietzsche’s claim is that in genuine tragic works of art, the Dionysian and the Apollonian principles cross-fertilise one another, so that the metaphysical horror of existence is simultaneously revealed and made bearable; the ravages of intoxication are transfigured by dreams; and the sublime is beautified by the evil of appearances. In sum, as tragedy—and by extension, any genuine work of art—makes this possible, it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world can be eternally justified. I contend it is precisely as tragic art that McQueen’s Deliverance adapts its literary, filmic and theatrical predecessors, bringing to bear the plastic and the haptic in just a few minutes that condense the mood and feeling, or what I have called the existentialist, nihilistic, romantic and melancholic tonalities of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? in all its lives across media through different forms of art. Here I focus on two aspects: McQueen’s juxtaposition of opposing elements and the dance sequence, music being the very realm of Dionysus.

Essentially tragic, McQueen’s fashion show is created on the basis of the amalgamation of contradictory features, transposing the derby race into a spectacular Bacchic and orgiastic dancing interpreted with his very best fashion, which celebrates the fusion of Eros and Thanatos, life and death—the two main subject matters of Western culture as Greenaway contends —by merging light and darkness, joy and bitterness, sensuality and decay, sorrow and happiness, in a sort of an impossible communion. In this regard, McQueen stated that: ‘I oscillate between life and death, happiness and sadness, good and evil’. The interplay between opposites is also a distinct feature in McQueen’s Fall/Winter 2009 collection, in which the ‘contrasting forces of life and death, of lightness and darkness, are the principal dichotomies’, according to critic Andrew Bolton.

This juxtapositions recall Nietzsche’s concept of cross-fertilisation of the Dionysian and the Apollonian, which in Deliverance, characterised by a strong dissident feeling, converge on a state of dissolution leading to emancipation from prejudices and social restrictions. The designer always considered his shows something like the exorcism of his ‘own living nightmares’. Actually, in the novel when Robert explains to the jury that will sentence him to death how he killed Gloria, he could ‘see enough of her face and her lips to know she was smiling.’ Turning to McQueen, it has been asserted that his ‘models were never at rest or at ease. They were always fleeing some predator: history, social constraints, fashion’s confining gestures’. Consequently, the designer was often criticised for his striving for emancipation, which usually has been presented as malicious attacks, unpleasant and obscene. Quite the contrary, in Deliverance McQueen vindicates Gloria’s terrible predicament and extreme suffering, following McCoy’s novel and Pollack’s film. In relation to women’s constriction in Western societies, having stated that his clothes would enrich the woman’s identity, the designer added: ‘when you see a woman wearing McQueen, there is a certain hardness to the clothes that makes her look powerful. It kind of fends people off. You have to have a lot of balls to talk to a woman wearing my clothes’. Always having been interested in and inspired by what he called ‘iconic women’, McQueen added: ‘I want to empower women. I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.’

As for the music, interestingly, the tragic seems to be better expressed at a moderate tempo, i.e. moderato, or even at a slow tempo, i.e. adagio or lento. In Pollack’s film the derby race is realised through slow motion and silence. During the derby all couples move slowly and soundlessly, trotting and painfully gesticulating because of their tremendous efforts to win. All contestants move like dancing, but paradoxically in extreme mental and physical suffering. In McCoy’s novel, this image is evoked by Old Nellie, the horse the title alludes to when she runs in the fields splendidly freely, just before she suddenly falls down and thus not able to stand up because of the fatal injuries caused by the accident, she must be slaughtered. In the film, the very first scene depicts Robert’s recollection, when he was a child, of the horse being shot dead. The background music is extremely sweet, but also extremely sad, like a lullaby for a dead child. Indeed, slow motion cinematographic technique has been a recurrent resource to express the tragic, the unbearable and extreme situations.

Musically, the motifs that constitute the ritual of dancing the tragic in Deliverance resonate with the categories of tonality and tempo. In musical terms, the tonality is the dominance of a note determined by the key that does not lose its function as the fundamental element in the structure despite the modulations that may appear in a given piece. In McQueen’s show, the dominant note—the tragic—is transposed, into an essential focal spirit as if it were the dominant colour in a painting by means of what becomes an aberrant and fantastic derby race. Regarding tempo, the fashion show’s music requires a moderate pace, a contained, quiet and peaceful tension, as the character of dancing on the track is essentially tragic. Throughout the novel and the film, references to the figure of the horse become a symbol of pain and misfortune, humiliation and degradation, which culminates with euthanasia. For instance, the uniforms all contestants must wear for the derby races include ‘thick leather belts’, and some ‘little handles’, which allude to riding paraphernalia. As a matter of fact, all participants in the marathon dance are treated like horses. Another sign of the metaphor of the burden beast is the way they have to run: ‘heel and toe walking’. In the novel, the derby reaches its climax when the girls, running frenetically on the track and getting hot, remove ‘their sweat-shirts’, and the excited audience realised that they ‘wore only small brassieres, and as they trotted around the track their breasts bounced up and down’, like disarticulated puppets. In McQueen’s show, this metaphor of dehumanization is also a cornerstone because of its intrinsic visual power. The designer will exploit this image by means of a wild and fantastic dancing. Here, the tragic is depicted (fashion) and danced (music) in such a way that the contestants of the derby race, whose bodies are distorted with distress, pain and sorrow, seem to float, as they were in an empty and timeless space. This clothing derby race halfway between a farcical race, a masquerade and a carnival, undulating seductive bodies and contortions of suffering, amalgamate with the violent but subtle tempo and pulse of the music, which determines—and is determined by—the ontological idea of the vacuity of life, or what Edgar Allan Poe described as the ‘tragedy’ called ‘Man’ in his poem ‘The Conqueror Worm’.

I now turn to Deliverance as a spectacle that appertains to the concept of total art. The idea of total cinema can be traced back to Richard Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, a German term meaning precisely ‘total art’ or ‘ideal artwork’, and whose concept pursues the aesthetic ideal of synthesising all or many art forms, to achieve a total one, comprehensive and all-embracing. Although this concept became rather unpopular for most of the twentieth century, when film scholars engaged in constructing the boundaries of different disciplines and thus arguing for the specificity of each medium, usually on visual grounds, in these days of media convergence the idea of a total art of sorts is making a comeback. It has enthusiastically been put forward by filmmakers such as Greenway, who stated that because cinema ‘can contain metaphorical, allegorical, and literal meanings. It’s the system Wagner always dreamt of, the total art form’. And to stress his viewpoint, he added: ‘Works of art refer to great masses of culture, they are encyclopaedic by nature.’

It is unquestionable that McQueen’s fashions shows have revitalised the fashion industry by means of incorporating other forms of art, such as theatre, literature, panting, music and cinema. There is broad critical agreement that McQueen’s work is an artistic and innovative avant-garde work. According to Andrew Bolton: ‘McQueen runaway shows, which suggested avant-garde installation and performance art, provoked powerful, visceral emotions.’ I would argue however that if Greenaway has aspired to liberate cinema from the narrative constraints that turned it, in classical Hollywood, into a successor of the 19th century novel, exploring instead cinema’s relation to painting, the same can be said of a fashion show such as McQueen’s. In my view, his show precisely allows a further, painterly, as it were, exploration of Pollack’s cinematic version of They Shoot Horses, since his fashion show is essentially visual, and his clothing splendidly displayed, reminding the viewer, for instance, of Gustav Klimt’s paintings. McQueen’s show thus neatly encapsulates Greenaway’s ideas on what he calls total cinema. Deliverance was conceived as such a comprehensive artistic practice in fashion. Filmmaker and designer share a focus on the pictorial in their respective works. To Greenaway, his films are better seized by a painting aesthetic, rather than by a cinematographic one. McQueen’s show gives us a glimpse of what a film version of They Shoot Horses that focused on the exploration of painting would have been like.

In Deliverance a spectacle is created from the synthesis of Nietzschean principles, the Dionysian and the Apollonian, so as to make of the tragic an amazing extravaganza. Deliverance is intrinsically contentious not only because of its transgressive content, but also because it goes beyond conventional catwalk fashion shows, inaugurating a total fashion artwork. Technically, Deliverance had a great impact in the Western industry of fashion. Criticism about McQueen innovation and renewal of fashion is unanimous. McQueen’s Deliverance fashion show, interweaving McCoy’s and Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? gives rise to a magnificent and striking spectacle of the Tragic.

Throughout history, artists and intellectuals have conveyed sharp social critiques through sardonic paradoxes. In McCoy’s novel, Pollack’s film and McQueen’s fashion show, that hopeless and incongruous world is revealed and its protagonists are emancipated from their misery, thanks to Art. Art is an aesthetic alchemy that rescues human condition. This way, Gloria Beatty and Robert Syverten and their misfortunes, became literature and cinema, respectively, by means of a renovating aesthetic narrative. In Deliverance, the distressed melancholic couple become an innovative art fashion show; all in all, a dehumanizing spectacle of a marathon dance of the 1930’s was converted into a great piece of total fashion art. Once more, I agree with Greenaway when he says that: ‘we can make ourselves immortal by creating one grain of sand on the beach of civilization—not by religion, which fades, and not by politics which fades very rapidly, but though art’.

In sum, given his continuous, and highly successful, adaptations of sorts from the fields of film and literature into fashion, Alexander McQueen’s work offers a wealth of material for the analysis of the way semiotics works across the media. More research ought to be taken in this regard, and hopefully this will be done in the future.


About the author

Germán Gil-Curiel received a doctorate in English Literature from the University of Sheffield, and is Lecturer in Film at the Sino-British College, Shanghai. His main research and teaching interests are the relationship between music, film, literature, painting, and fashion, and also supernatural literature, in particular leitmotifs such as melancholy and death. Germán is an accomplished guitarist, having performed at the Dolores Olmedo Museum and the Orfeó Català de Mèxic in Mexico City. He is the author of ‘Music, Literature and Cinema: A Comparative Approach to the Aesthetics of Death in Tous les matins du monde’ (2009); ‘The Cinematic Texts of Edgar Allan Poe: from the Written Word to Digital Art’ (2012); and ‘From Page to Screen: The Supernatural in Literature and on Film. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce and La Rivière du Hibou by Robert Enrico’ (2013). Another publication is: ‘A Comparative Approach: the Early European Supernatural Tale. Five Variations of a Theme’ (2011). He is also a certified literary translator.



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  1. is there an e-mail where I could contact the author Germán Gil-Curiel ?

    Thank you in advance.

    Posted by ALMA ROSA ALVAREZ | July 24, 2014, 4:48 pm


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