Joan Smith: McQueen had a sinister view of women's bodies

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Fashion isn't usually a matter of life and death. People who work in fashion take it incredibly seriously, but you have to be a stylist or a fashion editor to care passionately about the cut of a pair of trousers. So I wouldn't be surprised if many people were baffled last week when they heard fashion industry insiders responding to news of the death of the British designer, Alexander McQueen. Even making allowances for the fact that some of the interviewees knew him personally and were speaking while the shock of his death was still raw, they struggled for a language which would make sense to ordinary human beings; if you weren't acquainted with McQueen's work, you might come away with the idea that he put men in bottom-exposing "bumster" trousers – or that he was a wayward genius.

The word used over and over again was "edgy". McQueen was a showman and fashion editors emerged from his collections stunned by the extravaganza; when you're basically there to write about clothes, what are you to make of models tottering along the catwalk in ripped dresses, looking like blood-stained rape victims? It's not cool to break ranks and ask what's behind such supposedly "ludic" misogyny. Even when commentators talked last week about McQueen's fascination with death, religion and violence, they did it in a disturbing way, as though such themes were simply expressions of his theatricality. Friends mentioned his mother's very recent death – her funeral hadn't taken place when McQueen hanged himself – but very few seemed willing to mention the subject of depression.

It's a taboo subject in the fashion industry. Zandra Rhodes acknowledged an "undertone of depression" in McQueen's last collection, but it's more comfortable to talk about "edginess" than admit that aspects of someone's work signal deep-seated unhappiness or clinical depression. The reaction to McQueen's death reminded me of the suicide three years ago of his close friend and mentor Isabella Blow, whose eulogies offered a similar impression that the fashion industry is utterly at a loss when it collides with painful reality.

McQueen's work was disturbing from the start. His 1992 graduation show (bought in its entirety by a wildly enthusiastic Blow) was entitled Jack the Ripper Stalking His Victims. Three years later, he defended the title of his Highland Rape collection as a reference to the Battle of Culloden, but his repeated use of images reflecting violence against women was shocking from a gay man.

Born in 1969, at a time when many of his contemporaries were consciously rejecting an older generation's misogyny, he played with it in show after show. In 2001, he sent a model on to the catwalk in Paris representing a dying bull, her torso apparently pierced by two lances, while his autumn 2009 men's collection featured Jack the Ripper types in leather butchers' aprons. His final women's collection used models wearing hats made of bin-liners and aluminium cans, and wearing make-up which gave them garish faces and huge clown-like lips. Rapturous fashion editors explained that his use of rubbish was an ironic commentary on the fashion industry, but avoided asking why McQueen associated women's bodies with rape, murder and trash.

More men commit suicide than women, and the death of someone so young is an unnecessary tragedy. But I don't think that the world of fashion is any more able to make sense of Alexander McQueen in death than in life. He provided spectacle after spectacle, and it was taken in by the show.

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