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31 Dec

Will fashion ever be ‘taboo’ again?

In an era where almost every part is sexually permitted, and shock has been supplanted by outrage, taboo has lost its potency on the runway

This text is a component of our Way forward for Sex season  a series of features investigating the long run of sex, relationships, dating, sex work and sex employee rights; tech; taboos; and the subsequent socio-political sexual frontiers.

The one image to look on the invitation was that of human flesh. A pale wound haphazardly sewn back along with bits of string, as if it were the handiwork of a backstreet surgeon or an act of self-mutilation. That piece of card can be the prelude to half-hour of psychic romance, where women staggered through a catwalk strewn with heather and bracken, eyes glaring from beneath alabaster contacts as clanging bells and thunder crashed overhead. A lot of them barely adult, their bodies were exposed in clawed lace, leather bumsters, and dresses that had been slashed on the breast, as Alexander McQueen stuck his fingers into the fissures of consent.

Though it only served to cement his preeminence in culture, when Highland Rape emerged on the runway in 1995, it was met with immediate revulsion by the British press, who took the gathering as a degrading attack on women. “It’s McQueen’s brand of misogynistic absurdity that provides fashion a nasty name,” read a line in Sally Brampton’s review in The Guardian, while Marion Hume and Tamsin Blanchard at The Independent labelled the show “an insult to women and to his talent.” Useless to say, McQueen refused to provide oxygen to those criticisms, making it known that Highland Rape was a metaphor for England’s pillaging of Scotland within the 18th century. “I can’t compensate for a scarcity of intelligence, but I wish people would try a bit harder,” he told The Sunday Times in 1996. Nevertheless it was about rape, and it was deliberately ambiguous, with McQueen wringing his own memories of assault onto clothing that stirred deep and gruesome fascinations.

Throughout his profession, McQueen sublimated suffering into uniquely powerful artworks, rebelling against a fashion system that was just starting to lose its power to overwhelm. By tearing essentially the most potent of taboos asunder – like sexual violence, death, disability, and mental illness – his collections rarely reached an ethical resolve; and nor were they meant to. Very like Vivienne Westwood’s swastika t-shirts, Jean Paul Gaultier’s menswear skirts, and Hussein Chalayan’s burqas, which rendered models completely nude below the navel, McQueen thrust disturbing imagery into the general public’s face, evoking nuanced conversations on gender, power and vulnerability through sheer trauma and provocation. Compared to Highland Rape, more moderen attempts to handle sexual autonomy have been reduced to slogans, with Maria Grazia Chiruri printing the word “consent” onto a white t-shirt and Alessandro Michele embroidering the back of a suit jacket with “my body my alternative”.

Because the sans-serif lettering of those pieces makes clear, fashion’s relationship with sex has never been so plain. Throughout the SS22 season, journalists hawked the runway’s so-called “return of sex” and publications proceed to blether on about how designers are of their “slut-era”, on account of the best way by which brands still use sex to garner attention. But when the naked body is as ubiquitous – and available – as has been suggested, it loses its libidinal charge. Low-slung trousers will not be arousing in the identical way that McQueen’s bumsters were, for instance, which felt disobedient and unsuitable. To encourage the erotic, there must be a component of the perverse, something transgressive to titillate and surprise, lest it finally ends up being superficial. In an era of supposed liberation – where pay pigs and Cock Destroyers have turn out to be online gaffes – sex has converged with entertainment. Have a look at Ludovic de Saint Sernin’s PornHub collaboration, Frank Ocean’s cock ring, Julia Fox’s mons pubis trousers, the gimps at Balenciaga, buttplug accessories at Gucci, and the many Tom of Finland collaborations.

While perhaps fun, none of this is almost as subversive because it’s made out to be. In a society where almost every part is permitted – particularly sexually – owning a t-shirt emblazoned with a mammoth cartoon phallus brimming with sap isn’t as shock-inducing because it once was. That’s by and huge an excellent thing, after all, however the disappearance of taboo also coincides with the disappearance of essentially the most psychologically complex fashion designers. “You’ve got nothing to kick against! The aim of taboo is shock-busting. It’s a talking point,” Judith Watt, fashion historian and the writer of Alexander McQueen: The Life and the Legacy says. “And it just captures the zeitgeist. You have a look at it and think: ‘Why do I feel like crying?’, ‘Why is that this so fucking incredible?’” By inhabiting the type of ideas that might otherwise result in social ostracisation, taboo actively moves culture forward, bringing ambiguity to a few of our most firmly held beliefs. And, in fashion terms, “every part that comes after looks outdated.”

As images of bygone runways are endlessly recycled on archive Instagram accounts and High Fashion Twitter, we are inclined to lose sight of just how radical designers like McQueen really were. Watt connects this to the arrival of codpiece within the sixteenth century, when aristocrats walked around with swollen protuberances bursting from their velveteen breeches. “It was disgusting. Clothes needed to be modest, so God forbid you committed the sin of vanity. You see, taboos were much smaller then, we’ve just broken most of them.” That being said, to bear witness to anyone wearing a codpiece outside the boundaries of a fetish club – say, in a supermarket or at a funeral – would still be a violation of norms. In contrast, when a person with a hooked appendage walked Thom Browne’s SS23 runway in Recent York, it was not a moment of dissent, but of whoops and cheers, because the model tipped his cowboy hat in time with a Madonna song. “There’s nothing less taboo than mainstream fashion, it’s so bland,” Watt says.

Obviously, not all taboos have been absorbed into popular culture. As Watt asks me, “are you going to have sex together with your mother or not? Am I going to have sex with my Dachshunds? Now THAT’S taboo, darling.” But we have now reached some extent where even the Benetton adverts of the 90s – those depicting AIDs deaths, human bones, and amputees with spoon-arm-prosthetics – would make an unlikely fashion billboard. “We’re living in a time when people find things offensive, but life is offensive,” she says, with a sigh. That’s not some clarion call to finish woke culture – we’re, in any case, living in a society structured around a suffering class – however it’s testament to the bounds it has placed on designers, and the best way outrage has supplanted shock. As John Waters said to Dazed earlier this yr, “there’s much more rules today, especially on the earth of the humanities.” And it’s not like we’re experiencing a sexual utopia, either: technology has calcified a few of the most regressive views surrounding sex. Nipples are censored, fat individuals are shadow-banned, and even McQueen’s runway videos include an “inappropriate for some viewers” YouTube warning.

That’s not to say the rollback of Roe v Wade, mounting hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people, and a swell of anti-trans rhetoric. All of which just makes it more surprising that more designers don’t feel more embattled to stare down the barrel of taboo. Perhaps one one who managed to try this last season was Mowalola, whose SS23 collection featured balaclava dresses that forced the wearer’s arms into uncomfortable submission. To make a comparison to McQueen is trite, but Mowalola’s burglary of the body chimed with Rebecca Arnold’s description of the late designer, who approached sexuality as a site of conflict, “where frustration and anger is inscribed on the skin in contradictory images of anguish and pleasure.” But that is rare. Today, the most well-liked designers trade in obvious statements, and since nothing can represent anything apart from what it truly is, they make their stance on taboo subjects painfully legible. Not unlike that “why be racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic, when you may just be quiet” t-shirt that sometimes gets regurgitated on social media.

Will fashion ever be taboo again? Watt is equivocal in her answer: “Not on the runway.” In real life, it’s much easier for clothing to cross social fault lines, but contemporary culture has proven that being shocking isn’t  tantamount to being an excellent artist. There’s a reason why McQueen’s work continues to hit the nervous system – the image of Shalom Harlow twirling in ecstasy as mechanical arms splatter her in paint, or a nude Michelle Olley reclining on the moth-eaten carcass of a chaise longue, her preternatural head bowed and attached to a respiratory tube – and that’s because he understood that society’s psyche was just as fragile and disturbed as his own. There’ll at all times be social problems, but without taboo, art becomes formulaic, and without taboo, fashion can’t be art.

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