Alexander McQueen: Art, Beauty, and the Unique Body

Recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a conversation between model, athlete, and actress Aimee Mullins alongside Harold Koda, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute.  This event was scheduled to coincide with the Savage Beauty exhibition, which has already generated a great deal of interest and press–and initially going in to the event, I had anticipated that it would focus primarily on the exhibition and Alexander McQueen’s collaborations with Mullins.  Although this relationship was addressed, and Mullins shared several anecdotes about her history with the designer (including recollections of her first walk down a fashion runway for his No. 13 collection for spring/summer 1999), which certainly added to the content of the show–I was pleasantly surprised when the focus of the talk evolved into a larger discussion about changing ideals and attitudes regarding the body, as well as the future of prosthetics and their place within contemporary fashion.

Those who follow fashion, are probably familiar with the gorgeous and elaborately carved elm wood legs that McQueen custom designed for Aimee Mullins to wear (which occupy a section of the Cabinet of Curiosities in the current Costume Institute exhibition).  However, until recently, I had not made the connection that this was also one of the women featured in the artist Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle, nor that this was the woman who had also set Olympic records in three different areas as a participant in the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta, GA.

Mullins has led an interesting life, largely catalyzed by her intelligence, poise, and drive—yet one of the things which has also made her stand out, and which she has utilized to ultimately aid her is the amputation of both of her legs just below the knee.  Mullins was born without fibula in her lower legs, and after her first birthday her parents decided that the sacrifice of an amputation was worth the potential for her to walk one day.  Aimee was quick to prove that they had made a wise decision, and within a year she was using prosthetic legs to move about freely.

Throughout her life, this idea of taking a disadvantage, embracing it fully, and finding ways to use the uniqueness of her own body in a manner that is positive and empowering has continued.

Her athleticism led her to procure a pair of woven carbon-fiber prosthetic legs that were modeled after the hind legs of the cheetah.  These unique appendages, paired with her determination and athletic capability, put her into the public spotlight where she began to be featured in magazines and was asked to speak in public forums, one of which was as a TED Talk participant.  This visibility ultimately led to her being contacted by Alexander McQueen and photographer Nick Knight, who used her for a photo shoot in an issue of Dazed and Confused Magazine, which also led to further artistic collaborations, including her acting work for artist Matthew Barney.

In the Dazed and Confused shoot, Mullins is depicted in a way that is a play on the idea of the Victorian doll.  With dirt smeared across her legs, nail polish chipping away from the tips of her fingers and toes, and tussled hair—Aimee describes the look as, a doll that has been “loved and played with…a delicate balance between hard and soft.”

This capacity to balance between hard and soft, the gentle and the challenging, is something that is further exemplified in Mullins work with Barney.  In Cremaster 3, Mullins oscillates between beautiful and scary, precious and dangerous.  In some scenes she walks around on translucent legs that look like crystal (in actuality they are plexiglass), some of which have blades attached to the bottom that she uses to slice potatoes.  She also appears as a cheetah/woman hybrid, simultaneously alluring, sensual, strange and threatening.

I found Mullins to be an incredibly interesting and articulate speaker.  There was no question about how she became a muse for McQueen and Barney, but rather why she has not been more widely coveted by the mainstream fashion press until now.  When discussing her interest in commissioning creative and interesting prosthetics that were empowering to herself, and which allowed for fashionable and artistic expression through use (rather than simply acting as camouflage or a way to blend in)– Aimee predicts that these concerns are what will revolutionize the prosthetics industry over the next five years, citing the growing strength of the trickle-up-approach to fashion trends as a driving force.  She has been courted by a variety of companies and individuals, all eager to work with her, some that are also inspired by the sorts of ideas that have fueled her other artistic collaborations, and others that are perhaps evidence of the strength of the trickle-up theory, such as her new collaboration with L’Oreal Paris who signed her as a brand ambassador in February.

One of the examples that Mullins gave as evidence when predicting an impending revolution in prosthetics is that of color contacts.  As contact lenses were introduced as an alternative to eyeglasses, they have evolved over time to allow for aesthetic changes that deliberately draw attention to the freedom of expression that other sartorial decisions usually reflect.  Today one can find colored contacts in almost any hue desired, as well as those that contain shapes or create other interesting effects that are meant to be extraordinary and never “normal”.  Simultaneously, as contact lenses have become a fashion item (produced for and worn by many without a prescription), so have eyeglasses, and anyone in the smallest suburb can wander into a Claire’s boutique or other chain accessory store to choose from a variety of non-prescription fashion eyeglasses.  Thus the stigma of disability that was once attached to corrective eyewear has been alleviated once appropriated by fashion.  Granted, it is much more attainable to customize a pair of glasses rather than a prosthetic limb, but it is possible that with time, and changing generational attitudes that our acceptance of difference is becoming more all-encompassing, and that a desire for this type of creative distinction by larger groups of individuals could in fact, lead to many changes within the prosthetics industry.

All of this is really inspiring and certainly possible, but it is also hard to ignore the fact that Aimee Mullins also happens to be a gorgeous blond bombshell.  Despite her “disability” (a word that Mullins grapples with extremely proficiently in several of her public talks), it is easier to place her within the context of the high fashion ideal, where she might influence trends that trickle down.  In the meantime, it is hard to imagine that the average person wearing more edgy or extreme prosethetics might be able to carry it off and inspire others in the same exact way that Mullins does.  And even for those that might–only a select few can actually afford customized Alexander McQueen prosthetic legs.  Yet despite these obstacles, the idea of mainstream fashion embracing a look that transcends the ordinary, and choosing to highlight difference and celebrate diversity in this new way is an interesting and important concept to consider.


Further Reading:

Aimee Mullins Website

Arnold, Rebecca. Fashion, Desire and Anxiety: Image and Morality in the Twentieth Century

Bolton, Andrew.  Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty

Evans, Caroline.  Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, Modernity, and Deathliness

Koda, Harold.  Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed



1 & 2 – I.D. Magazine Cover.  Howard Schatz Photograph

3, 4, & 5 – Alexander McQueen No. 13 Ensemble.  Aimee Mullins on the Runway.  McQueen-designed Prosthetic leg.

6 – Nick Knight photograph for Dazed & Confused.

7 & 8 – Dazed & Confused, additional photographs

9 – Aimee Mullins in Cremaster 3.

10 & 11 – Terry Richardson Photograph for Kenneth Cole.  Aimee Mullins with Olivier Theyskens (wearing Theyskens) at the Savage Beauty Gala.



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  • Georgia June 30, 2011 06.31 am

    Alexander McQueen made amazing designs and all of them were pieces of art. I was fortunate to see some of his piece which are know in New York, and I have to say that his designs are even better in person. just full out amazing!!!!

  • Ellen June 30, 2011 10.35 am

    Well written and very interesting! What a treat for those that couldn’t attend the talk in person. I’ve learned so much!

  • Ashley June 30, 2011 05.28 pm

    Well done, great post. Now I am even more upset that I missed this!


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