June 12, 2018
The last thing on earth I ever thought I’d do was write about fashion.
I equated the industry with the worst of capitalism: defining human beings as consumers, tricking them into thinking they need the “new look” simply to make a profit. I equated the industry with patriarchy and women’s internalized misogyny: the command to dress as the object of the male gaze, the message that you are subhuman, at best, monstrous, at worst, if you don’t comply. Fashion, it seemed, was the perfect vehicle for what Louis Althusser called the interpellation of the subject by an ideological apparatus.
That is, until I read Valerie Wallace’s House of McQueen (Four Way Books 2018).
Wallace’s poems about the life and work of British fashion designer and couturier Alexander McQueen (1969-2010) are simultaneously sharp and whimsical, risk-taking and carefully wrought, and so layered and thought-provoking that they complicate any easy critique or celebration of the fashion industry. Neither hagiography nor hatchet-job, House of McQueen invites us to ponder fashion, like poetry, as a richly paradoxical evocation of “being alive.”
In Wallace’s hands, McQueen is as much a character as a historical figure, and the collection reads like a lyrical novel—think Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red—more than a biopic.
Fittingly, Wallace makes McQueen into a shapeshifting character, who speaks and moves differently through the unfolding of the poems, most of which are in persona: from a child with the insight that in Cinderella “it was the dress / That saved her. All the rest was just a story,” to the designer hell-bent on unearthing “a buried history of England and Scotland,” to a young, nerdy ornithologist, to a self-reflective, but unapologetic, scholar of the erotic:
Fetch each other in and out of shadows. Our
Wrestle with hair, what dress to wear. Needles
Of down, parachutes of arrested color
Tied with fangs. I may be tough & selfish but what
Do you expect? I think with my bare hands.
Wallace’s poems also dabble in what many readers might think of most when they think of McQueen, gender trouble:
Wool of untroubled sheep, drafted, cut bundled.
Not that I need talk of the world’s grimness
Constantly, but some awareness would be
Nice. None of them here ever stole his sister’s
Bra off the clothesline and wore it screaming
Down the streets! No one ever paid for it
Like I did…
Many, if not all, of these characters move both within and against capitalism, both within and against patriarchy and heteronormativity: “Perform my clothes like you’re devastated. / I’m not finished ‘til you’re implicated.” (from “Bespoke, 2. Made out of Kate Moss’ words.”)
Even more fittingly, the poems rely on sonic structures and enjambment to produce surprise—sometimes subtle, sometimes jarring—much in the way that McQueen’s cutting and shaping of cloth did for the human body. In “McQueen Self-Portrait as Bestiary,” the speaker becomes a raven, or a crow: “I’ll use my own feathers if I have to, / You hear me? You hear me? You hear me? You hear me?” In “McQueen’s Bop with the Interviewer,” the speaker’s enjambed refrain reads, “I want people to be afraid / of the women I dress.”
In many cases, everyday objects take on the uncanny power of violence, of creation, until they de-familiarize the way we see these things (and ourselves), until they feel almost animate. Needles, lace, linen, sleeves, leaves, medical slides, raindrops, tinfoil, skin, seams, thimble, button, thread, and, of course, “Shears”:
Two ships run together like quicksilver
Driven by a storm along the littoral
I’ve cut away the waste. Curved flay of shears.
It’s only clothe, whisper scissors in my ears.
Ultimately, the collection is also an aesthetic homage. As a fellow “fabricator,” McQueen is Wallace’s imaginary mentor and predecessor, and she re-reifies his fabrics into the materiality of language. Although part of me still resists the fetishization of any fashion designer, this is a book of poems I will return to again and again. One of my favorite is the short, in your face proclamation, “I’m a Free Bitch” in which “engineered silk” morphs into “light changing to water,” “alive like leaving.” As I close House of McQueen, this is what I want to remember: how the poems briefly made me feel free of the “bitch,” but also free to “bitch,” and free as a “bitch.” Read it and join me.