In Full Bloom: Alexander McQueen's Floral Allegory
Over the past few seasons, Sarah Burton appears to have taken a journey down the garden path—her designs for Alexander McQueen alive with a horticultural bouquet of diverse flora. While this plant life has become the central motif in several of her collections (up to the flower-draped pergolas surrounding the runway for Spring/Summer 2017), it can be understood as Burton’s more feminine continuation of Lee Alexander McQueen’s love of nature. McQueen often celebrated the flower in its many forms—from bud to bloom to decay—and used the symbolism of flowers to imbue his designs with a depth of meaning and a sense of continuity with these many millennia old concepts. Throughout his 18-year career, he centered many collections and designs around specific flowers, including lilies, orchids, roses and cherry blossoms, in addition to using flowers as signifiers of a time period or culture.
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Lilies flowered up the front of several men’s and women’s ensembles in McQueen’s darkly moody Autumn/Winter 1998 collection. Titled “Joan” in remembrance of Joan of Arc, the whole show was a symbolic reanimation of her life and legacy—chainmail dresses, a strict palette of black and red, and a ring of fire for the finale. The only flower featured in this collection, lilies are traditionally associated in the west with purity, chastity, and innocence, and came to correspond to the Virgin Mary and later the Kingdom of France. As a pious defender of her country, Joan of Arc had a lily on her coat of arms and standard; after her martyrdom, the lily became a symbol of her maidenhood. In McQueen’s collection, the lilies are transfigured by the fire of her death and emerge as sparkling blood red on black.
Opposing the virginity of the lily is the orchid, a fertility and virility symbol (the name coming from the Ancient Greek word for “testicle”). In an otherwise subdued and largely earth-toned collection, “Pantheon ad Lecum” (“Toward the Light”) for Autumn/Winter 2004, two gowns printed with enlarged orchids stood out for their striking simplicity. The finale gown—sculpted out of layers of organza—included a large silver shoulder and neckpiece created by Shaun Leane for McQueen. Told by Lee to make something out of flowers that “looked quite alien,” Leane researched orchids—first collecting real examples and pinning them on to a dress form to find the right placement, then casting them in metal to create a collar of both extraterrestrial and terrestrial resonance. As the show came to a climax the model moved to the center of the runway with a single spotlight on her, orchids gleaming around her neck while her arms spread as if waiting to be beamed up into a waiting spaceship—the flowers transcending their more base, sexual meaning on Earth to become McQueen’s symbol for other worlds.
More than any other flower, roses have been central to the Alexander McQueen label. Their symbolic meaning generally differs based on the color, but they are commonly seen to mean love in all of its various forms (from friendship to romantic passion). The combination of the beautiful bloom (new beginnings and hope) and the sharp thorns (loss and fear) translated in the Tarot to symbolize balance. Within McQueen’s oeuvre, roses made one of their most dynamic appearances throughout his Autumn/Winter 1997 collection. Titled “It’s a Jungle Out There,” the collection developed from McQueen’s interest in the savagery of nature—interspersed among jagged animal hides, horns and snarling predators, were a large number of rose-embellished outfits that highlighted the close link between all forms of cruelty in the natural world, from claw to thorn. Black leather and cowhide were laser cut with tendrils of flowers, while on one suede strapless dress the roses were branded in, leaving burnt auras. Even when shown in their most traditionally pretty form (pale pink roses embroidered on light gray Prince of Wales check suits and dresses) McQueen’s razor-sharp tailoring denudes the flowers of any cloying sweetness—laying bare the multiple meanings and memories layered in rose petals.
McQueen revisited roses ten years later—in “Sarabande” (Spring/Summer 2007)—and told Harper’s Bazaar, “I used flowers because they die. My mood was darkly romantic at the time.” For this collection he appliquéd petals beneath chiffon, inlayed silk blooms into a portrait collar and bell sleeves, and collaged them onto a frame to create an evening dress. Sarah Burton for McQueen based her Autumn/Winter 2015 collection on "the spirit of the rose," charting all aspects of its life cycle—from bud to bloom to decay. The most literal explorations of this theme were large red and pale pink roses printed on sheer black organza and two mini dresses formed from clouds of chiffon, swirled into the form of a blousy rose—the ultimate in symbolic romance.
Another method McQueen explored for incorporating flowers was through their historical and cultural significances. From his earliest collections, Alexander McQueen pillaged his ancestral background in a multitude of ways as various as the many branches of a family tree. Among his bloodline were some of the estimated 50,000 Huguenot refugees who fled to Britain in the 1680s and who established the famed silk weaving mills of Spitalfields in London. McQueen’s use of 18th-century style floral brocaded silks bears witness to his pride in this connection—in cornflower-and-poppy all-over weave from Spring/Summer 1996, in pale pink-on-pink rose blooms in Spring 1997, and in the inflorescence overlaying stripes of Spring/Summer 2000. With the garment styles often a revolutionary reworking of historical tailoring techniques, McQueen used these floral silks as a signifier for this time period and for his lineage—choosing weaves not for the type of flower shown but for the effect of the pattern.
In his Spring/Summer 2005 collection—in which he revisited all the many facets of his design career thus far—the same Spitalfields silks reappeared in lilac-and-silver on an 18th-century style pannier mini-dress that was paired with a matching obi and a kimono-style collar embroidered with the afore-mentioned cherry blossoms. Sarah Burton returned to the Huguenot silks for Spring/Summer 2016, using the light floral sprayed silk to make a near replica of a 17th-century court dress and then translating the same flower designs as embroidery onto crepe. For other dresses in the same collection Burton used chiffons printed with adaptations of the naturalistic flower designs of Anna Maria Garthwaite, an eighteenth-century English silk designer who worked with Huguenots weavers.
Japanese textiles also intrigued Alexander McQueen, using them in his designs as a shorthand symbol for this culture. In his Spring/Summer 1997 collection, McQueen embroidered cherry blossoms across sheer silk dresses and skirts (the white bras and knickers visible beneath). In Japan, cherry blossoms are viewed as a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life—an object of exquisite yet transient beauty that represent an acceptance of mortality and the fragility of life—a common theme throughout his career.
For “VOSS” (Spring/Summer 2001) he used Japanese-style embroidery in both figural and graphic forms. One ensemble included an overdress made from panels from a nineteenth-century Japanese silk screen—the type made for export to the west—embroidered with wisteria, daisies, and grasses, and worn over an underdress of oyster shells. One iconic coat (with the arms sewn in like a straight-jacket) and matching rectangular hat were embroidered with a similar array of lifelike flowers and plants. Another series of outfits from this collection featured flat flower forms drawn from traditional Japanese kimono patterns—chrysanthemums and other blossoms abstracted to the their most graphic form, and used by Alexander McQueen as the trim on a bodice or appliquéd into a high-neck gown with feather hem. Sarah Burton further simplified these flat flowers for her Spring/Summer 2015 collection. For McQueen the Japanese floral textiles in these collections spoke about the intermingling of cultures—as a student of history, he was well-versed in the impact Japanese textile design had had on the way European textile designers and artists began to look at plants. By referencing both 18th-century English and Japanese floral textiles, Lee was able to situate his designs within a larger legacy.
Both Alexander McQueen and Sarah Burton have used their interest in the natural world to create passionate, meaningful fashion designs that are often virtuoso examples of technical skill. The dimensionality and variety of flowers easily lends them to embroidery, appliqué or being sculpted out of fabric and into a complete garment. In particular, Sarah Burton has approached flowers as a sculptor, crafting graphic 3D effects for Resort 2015 and delicate sparkling rosettes for Fall 2012. Upon the death of McQueen’s in 2010, Burton turned to nature and rural English life as both a coping mechanism and a source of inspiration—finding a way to continue McQueen’s own fashion floristry while also communing with the healing power of nature.