Art on the Catwalk: Performance Art in the Shows of Alexander McQueen

Vienna Kim, Creative Consultant for Label and President for the School of Art History, shares her research summary from her summer internship with the Laidlaw Programme for Research and Leadership. Her project concerned the blending of art and fashion, particularly looking into elements of the performative in the runway shows of British designer Alexander McQueen. Vienna wishes to be a leader in the avant-garde fashion movement in her future, and to constantly break down the barriers between fashion and art. Find her on Instagram at @bennakim.

How is a new artistic movement birthed? In Slavoj Žižek’s book Event (2014), the contemporary philosopher describes all evental experiences, such as the emergence of an art movement, as something that occurs somewhat ‘miraculously’ as an ‘effect that seems to exceed its causes.’ (Žižek, 3) An event ‘is not something that occurs within the world, but is a change of the very frame through which we perceive the world and engage in it.’ (10) In recent years, the boundaries between art and fashion seem to be blending, effectively shifting the frame through which we view the definition of what constitutes art. This research project explores this phenomenon and argues for the artistic merit of the performative elements of McQueen’s runway shows, averring that fashion performance is a new branch of performance art that should be considered within the canon of artistic practices and visual culture as a whole.

Many accounts of the performative in McQueen’s runway shows describe the shows not as performance, but as ‘spectacle.’ Ascribing the ‘spectacular’ to McQueen’s catwalk shows, however, is problematic, as the term is applied somewhat derogatorily, and does not pertain to McQueen’s curatorial approach towards the display of his garments. In The Society of the Spectacle (1967), French theorist Guy Debord influentially stated that the ‘spectacle’ is a tyrannical and superficial phenomenon that masks reality and removes humankind from its agency. Many have taken Debord’s claims and associated them with the entertaining runway presentations of McQueen, stating that the catwalk serves as a marketing tool that camouflages commercial incentives. The commercial and mass-produced aspects of fashion could be the reason why fashion and fine art have been kept so distinct until now, as Dr Kate Bethune, Senior Researcher for the Savage Beauty exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum affirms, ‘Art is still seen as “higher” than fashion.’ This explains why catwalk shows have been relegated to the realm of ‘spectacle’ rather than performance art. However, Andrew Bolton has declared that

The runway was where McQueen’s fantasies and creative impulses were given free reign. ... Highly theatrical, his shows often suggested avant-garde installation and performance art. [Italics my own].

It appears, therefore, that there is genuine artistic merit to be accounted for in the catwalk shows of Alexander McQueen. Nevertheless, it must be questioned: where does ‘fashion performance’ fall within the canon of fine art and art history, if at all?

Performance art is a large artistic movement that has spanned several decades in the twentieth century and accumulated multiple sub-categories. Fashion performance most appropriately fits under the category of ‘live art,’ which arose in the 1980s and 1990s. Lois Keidan’s definition of live art declares that it is ‘not a form at all but a reserved site of interdisciplinarity, a kind of rhetorical and curatorial space that operates at the margins, culturally and aesthetically, and that eschews institutionalised recognisability.’ [Italics my own.] (Hoffman, 101) Christina Manzella and Alex Watkins highlight performance art’s multi-sensory and multi-dimensional essence as the cause for difficulty of definition and documentation. Fashion catwalk displays are similar in that they are three-pronged in nature, spanning the realms of fine art, performance and fashion simultaneously. The difficulty in placing fashion performances due to its interdisciplinarity has resulted in scholarly neglect, thus reducing it to ‘spectacle’ rather than a creative practice. Though it is worth noting that performance art inherently resists confinement within an artistic canon, under the conditions for live art, fashion performance has a place within the performance art family tree.

The artistic merit of some (not all) of Alexander McQueen’s catwalk shows was due to his emphasis on concept and narrative, the creative agency of his performers (the models), and the influence of (non-fashion) artists on his runway shows. Unlike most fast-fashion runway shows, which are presentations for articles of clothing on sale, McQueen utilised the platform of a catwalk to exhibit an often auto-biographical message through the runway. As a close companion and co-worker to Alexander McQueen, Janet Fischgrund, remarked:

The platform the shows gave him as an artist was enormous. … The ideas were what were important to him. The clothes were a canvas in a way.

If the garments were the manifestations of McQueen’s mind, his models were the agents that activated his conceptions and made them come to life. Indeed, model Lily Cole expressed that with McQueen’s work, she no longer merely felt like a ‘clotheshorse,’ but ‘a performer, with a role to play’—a live agent. Many of McQueen’s model-performers expressed that they felt they were in a reciprocal relationship with the clothing. They activated and brought the clothes to life on the runway, but equally the often rigid and constraining technical construction of the garments paradoxically straightened their backs, lifted their heads, and imbued them with power and authority. They took on a perfomative persona and enacted the ‘McQueen girl’, fearsome and strong, yet glamorous, to the viewers.

In addition to this, works of contemporary artists often directly inspired McQueen’s runway shows. Most famously, the finale for his S/S 1999 show, No. 13, was derived from Rebecca Horn’s installation artwork, High Moon (1991). Borrowing the motif of two guns spraying each other with paint, McQueen expertly incorporated this into No. 13 by spray-painting model Shalom Harlow with acid-green and black paint whilst she rotated on a moving platform. Another key parallel between McQueen’s shows and the fine art world can be found by comparing his S/S 2005 show, It’s Only A Game, to the installation/body art works of Vanessa Beecroft. For her practice, Beecroft utilises the bodies of nude, often painted females donned in designer footwear, and commands them to stand still and aloof in formation for hours. It’s Only A Game was choreographed as a live game of chess, a battle of the East versus the West, with the models and their outfits representing different pieces on the chessboard. At the climax of the show, the two empires faced one another on the square stage in a Beecroft-esque fashion, and crossed one another (representative of a piece being taken off the board), before exiting the catwalk.

The results of this research project defy the relegation of fashion to the fringes of artistic practice by critically analysing the elements of fashion performance and positioning it correctly in relation to its fine art and performance counterparts. Returning to Žižek’s theories of the Event, a rupture of fashion into the fine art world is at first traumatic and unwelcome because it is a sudden and unexpected occurrence—it exceeds its causes and changes the frame in which one perceives what the broad category of art includes. However, the conditions of today’s post-contemporary age signal a new artistic era. It is time to consider fashion performance and haute couture as a new art form, and lend it the scholarly analysis and recognition it deserves.


Though I have attempted to justify Alexander McQueen’s works as art, one needs only to watch one of his fashion shows to believe it. The findings in this project demonstrate that the blending of the art and fashion worlds is a rapidly increasing, yet the need to interview key figures revealed a largely untapped reservoir of scholarly analysis for the subject. The research undergone during the Laidlaw internship has assured me that in my future career endeavors, I will continue to strive to break down the borders that limit the artistic recognition of high fashion practices.

Images from Flickr.

Words by Vienna Kim.