The iconography of longing, pain, genius, beauty and excess

Josephus Thimister as a young boy. Originally posted Nov. 2 2019,

The Alexander McQueen exhibition, travelling from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and breaking visitor records in both cities, struck me by the sheer, dazzling out-pouring of talent displayed in the designer’s relatively short career. But I was also affected by a profound sense of loss and a realisation, encouraged by the curatorial narrative and surrounding media commentary, that the power of McQueen’s extraordinary creative achievements was generated by an antithetical story-line that drew on a cultural expectation, endorsed through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, that too many of those men whose interests have orientated them towards the design of luxury clothing have, despite the trappings of professional success and international renown, succumbed, like Violetta in ‘La Traviata,’ to intense abjection; victims of an unspeakable and ultimately tragic personal failure.

This operatic subtext was clear in the exhibition’s theatrical mise-en-scène, which led the visitor through the highlights of McQueen’s career, reifying his technical accomplishments, fertile imagination and instinct for risky collaboration as one astounding collection followed another; leading us, like Dante’s Virgil through subterranean hells and mysterious limbo, before culminating in the other-worldly Elysium of Plato’s Atlantis and his final posthumous showing of his autumn/winter 2010 collection. It also played out in the V&A catalogue where the curator Claire Wilcox’s elegiac introduction made tribute to the ineffable loss, not just of McQueen’s talent, but also of fashion’s innocence. She noted the designer’s compulsion to steer its forms ‘because of its transience, and because it offered the opportunity to make redress, again and again.’1

The inherent sadness in McQueen’s story that surfaced in the recent exhibitions took me back to an essay that had a profound impact on my own approach to writing about the production of fashion, and indeed my understanding of myself, as I was completing my doctoral thesis on fashion and masculinity in the early 1990s. Film scholar and queer theorist Richard Dyer’s examination of ‘the image of the homosexual as a sad young man,’ published in 1993, was in essence a critique of stereotypes and a contextualisation of the many novels, plays and films produced in the 1950s and 60s which condemned gay men to a nether-world of self-loathing, ennui and melancholy. But it also sketched out a lineage in which the image can be seen to have evolved through historical representations of masochistic religious martyrdom (Saint Sebastian), romantic lyricism (the death of Chatterton), medical pathology (the weak invert), psychoanalytic trauma (Freudian mother-love), and urban alienation (angsty existentialism). These are hardly conducive of the positive role-models that gay liberation validated in the late Sixties and Seventies, yet in a sense they offered a form of fulfillment and redemption. As Dyer concluded:

The delicious melancholia in the presentation of the type was generally allied to social passivity, a sense that nothing could be done about social unfairness, that we had always been persecuted… The image could seldom really shake free from all this, yet it did construct a sense of feeling good about queer desire. If at one extreme it represented a warning of misery, which a gay man could have laid at the door of his ineradicable pervertedness, at the other it offered an image of holy sensitivity, stunning good looks, overwhelming erotic experience and escape from the dreariness of real manliness, for all of which a gay man may have felt that some unreasonable, socially induced suffering was a small price to pay.2

McQueen’s story is only the latest in a long line of tragic tales where sexual identity and creative sensitivity have played out to an inevitable denoument of private loss, endured as the price for aesthetic perfection in the public sphere. It is perhaps surprising how familiar the trope still is in fashion’s re-telling of itself. In 2014, cinema audiences were presented with two versions of Yves Saint Laurent’s life. Jalil Lespert’s ‘Yves Saint Laurent,’ starring Pierre Niney and produced with the apparent blessing and collaboration of Saint Laurent’s partner (in business and love) Pierre Bergé, competed with Bertrand Bonello’s production ‘Saint Laurent’ where the eponymous hero was played by Gaspard Ulliel. Both productions shared the concerns of Alicia’s Drake’s dual biography of Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld ‘The Beautiful Fall’ published in 2006. Against the sensual background of 1970s Paris, all three representations constructed a swooning iconography of longing, pain, genius, cruelty, shame, beauty and excess, where an attenuated and tortured aestheticism trumped the more prosaic concerns of business as an account of creative production. Here the mundane matters of designing become pure melodrama. Drake is a master of it:

Yves always thought it was fashion that caused this anxiety, fashion that imprisoned him in angst, but then he retired and realised it was a part of him. ‘Outside of my collections,’ he said in 1991, ‘I live in total absence’… Pierre never abandoned Yves. He stuck through the drunken years and manic depression. He stuck through the 150 cigarettes a day, the bouts of aggression and violence, the terrifying phases when as one friend of the couple observes, ‘Yves was at the limit of a kind of murderous madness.’ Did he do it for himself, for his own need for reassurance, for his own rapacious desire for power and possession? Perhaps it was for all these reasons, but it was also for love. A strange, compulsive and ruthless love, but it was love nevertheless… Every time Yves goes to Tangier on holiday he will fall down the stairs at least four times on purpose so that Pierre must come, take the plane and save him.3

While curators, journalists and biographers have sometimes been complicit in [re] constructing tragic scenarios for fashion’s [anti] heroes, these sad narratives of ‘otherness’ have also been produced as autobiographical accounts by gay designers themselves, and with added piquancy in an era before the legalisation of those homosexual acts which appear to have formed the impetus for both their triumphs and their shame. Christian Dior’s autobiography, translated into English by Antonia Fraser in 1958, a year before his untimely (and reportedly tragic) death, is fraught by the tensions between his public and private selves.4 It is the former that forms the focus for four fifths of the book, with only the final fifth supplying some details of home and family. As Dior himself put it:

You will gather… that there are two Christian Diors: and I am speaking now of Christian Dior couturier, of Maison Christian Dior, 30 Avenue Montaigne, born 1947. It was in order to tell the truth about this second nine-year old Christian Dior that the first Christian Dior decided to write this book… Ensconced in a magnificent house on the Avenue Montaigne, he is a compound of people, dresses, stockings, perfumes, publicity handouts, press photographs and every now and then, a small bloodless revolution whose reverberations are felt all over the world.5

On the subject of the first, flesh and blood Christian Dior, the author is more reticent, even regretful, projecting a guarded characterisation, set in deliberate contrast to the public pomp and spoils of his namesake. In his concerns around suppression and cheating Dior reveals more than he intends to:

I present a very different sort of picture… I am half Parisian… and half Norman, and I am still very attached to my native Normandy, although I rarely go there now. I like all the simple things of life such as small parties of old friends. I detest the noise and bustle of the world, and sudden violent changes. Yet to suppress this shrinking character altogether would have seemed to me a form of cheating.6

This dual, indeed split presentation of self is fascinating and disturbing. It reveals a strange and secretive world whose glamorous surfaces disguise complex relationships between individual psychological and sexual impulses, and a rigid industrial and social system of control.7 Dior put it all very well indeed (and surely not coincidentally), through recourse to the character of that greatest of nineteenth century tragic heroines and moral failures Madame Bovary:

My celebrated fellow countryman, Gustave Flaubert, once defended one of the characters in his novels… with the bold words ‘I am Madame Bovary.’ And were that other Christian Dior ever to involve me in a similar situation, I should certainly defend him with my last breath: ‘I am he.’ For whether I like the thought or not, my inmost hopes and dreams are expressed in his creations.8

Twenty-five years later Jerry Herman’s iconic song from the cult 1983 Broadway Musical ‘La Cage aux Folles,’ would capture the sentiment for liberated gay audiences more forcefully, but the joyously assertive refrain ‘I Am What I Am’ was not so readily available to Christian Dior in 1958. His biographical contortion act was very much informed by the Freudian framing of much life-writing in the mid twentieth century. Freud’s predominant legacy, the ‘conviction that a secret life is going on within us that is only partly under our control, focus[ed] biographical inquiry on the private, unconscious motivational drives, particularly those imprinted in childhood, [that are] understood to shape public, unconscious life.’9

For the sub-genre of autobiography this was a powerful concept. It intensified the writer’s rhetorical responsibility to be true to themselves and their readers, and heightened the sense of anxiety that beset public revelation. During the 1950s this fear that irreconcilable private and public natures might at any moment be unveiled for prurient ends was acute, and especially problematic in the world of the arts and fashion (where sad young men found refuge). In the United States and Great Britain the publication of the two Kinsey Reports on human sexuality in 1948 and 1953, McCarthyism, the convening of the Wolfenden Committee to review British laws on homosexual offences and prostitution in 1957, and the Lady Chatterley obscenity trial of 1960, provide just four examples of the ways in which matters of sexual identity, freedom and hypocrisy were increasingly becoming the focus of public debate.

Even in fashion, hostility towards non-normative sexuality was common. Respected fashion journalists including Edna Woolman Chase and Henry Yoxall of Vogue were happy to refer to gay designers as ‘deficient, perverted epicenes,’ regretting their dominant influence in the industry.10 Such damaging assertions take time to pass and a sense of self-hating, personal failure as the price for professional acceptance pervaded the practice of fashion by otherwise successful gay men well beyond the partial decriminalisation of homosexual acts in most of the United Kingdom in 1967, and the gains of the Stonewall rioters in New York in 1969. In his introduction to Diana Vreeland’s notorious 1983 retrospective of his work at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum, New York, Yves Saint Laurent still seemed to channel the elegant codes of Dior’s introspective, closeted language:

Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, I love a dying frenzy… I love Visconti. Decadence attracts me. It suggests a new world, and for me, society’s struggle between life and death is absolutely beautiful… In my own life, I’ve seen the afterglow of the sumptuous Paris of before the war… and the splendour of a vigorous haute couture. And then I knew the youthfulness of the Sixties: Talitha and Paul Getty lying on a starlit terrace in Marrakech, beautiful and damned… And my heart has always been divided between the vestals of constancy and the avatars of change.11

Alexander McQueen loved a dying frenzy and was attracted to decadence. So too were Ossie Clark, Walter Albini, Halston, Charles James, Gianni Versace and several others, less well known, who preceded them in meeting a premature death. In the introduction to the biography published at the same time as the Victoria & Albert Museum’s McQueen exhibition, whose pages described the fault lines in the designer’s life more literally, but no less explicitly than the gallery’s vitrines, author Andrew Wilson describes the memorial service of September 20 2010 at St Paul’s Cathedral in London.12 He struggles, through quotation, to find meaning in the disconnects and extremes, falling back on familiar mythic tropes about darkness and light, but his problem, it seems to me, is a generic and all-encompassing one: fashion itself, in its entropic nihilism, its innate queerness, seeks failure as a conditional price for success. In the cultural, political, social and economic construction of modern homosexuality it has found a cruel and fatal currency for the playing out of its tragic systems.


Christopher Breward is the Director of Collection and Research, National Galleries of Scotland and a Vestoj Advisory Board member.

This article was originally published in Vestoj On Failure with the title ‘On Tragic Queers and the Failures of Fashion.’





  1. C. Wilcox, ‘Edward Scissorhands,’ in C. Wilcox (ed.), Alexander McQueen, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 2015, p. 33. 

  2. R. Dyer, ‘Coming out as going in: the image of the homosexual as a sad young man,’ In R. Dyer (ed.), The Matter of Images: Essay on Representations, London, 1993, p. 90. 

  3. A. Drake, The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris, London, 2006, pp. 372-4. 

  4. I don’t remember which fashion gossip supplied me with the intelligence that Dior suffered a massive fatal coronary in the arms of two male prostitutes whilst holidaying in Italy, a fact swiftly covered up by his company, but the relish with which the apocryphal story has been told fits well with the themes of this essay. 

  5. C. Dior, Dior by Dior: The Autobiography of Christian Dior, London, 1958, p. x. 

  6. Ibid, p. x. 

  7. For a fuller argument see C. Breward, ‘Couture as Queer Auto/Biography’ in V. Steele (ed.), A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk, London and New Haven, 2013, pp. 117 – 133. 

  8. C. Dior, Dior by Dior: The Autobiography of Christian Dior, London, 1958, p. x. 

  9. C. N. Parke, Biography: Writing Lives, Farmington, Michigan, 1996, p. 25. 

  10. See E. Woolman Chase, Always in Vogue, London, 1954, p. 326, and H. Yoxall, A Fashion of Life, London, 1966, pp. 57- 8. 

  11. R. Murphy & I. Terestchenko, The Private World of Yves Saint Laurent & Pierre Berge, London, 2009, p. 14. 

  12. A. Wilson, Alexander McQueen: Blood Beneath the Skin, London, 2015.