Brooke Shields in her controversial 1976 Calvin Klein ad (“What comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing”). (© The Advertising Archives)
A friend’s daughter, visiting my family in New York, noticed a faded purple pea coat, worn through at the elbows, its lining partly shredded, hanging on a hook in our entrance hall. “Marc Jacobs,” she pronounced with calm authority.
Amazed, I asked how she’d recognised it; the label had long since fallen off. And she looked at me as if I were asking how she happened to know that the earth revolves around the sun.
Perhaps I should have known better than to ask. I’d seen how, in the spring and summer of 2011, hordes of people hurtled blindly past the Caravaggios and Van Goghs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to stand in line (sometimes for hours) to view the Alexander McQueen show. Before his suicide in 2010, McQueen had been celebrated, honoured with major awards, and demonised for the originality—and the extremity—of designs that evoked Victorian Gothic and bondage wear, science fiction and Harry Potter, Japanese street style and Scottish history. What had impressed me was the enormous range of visitors: out-of-towners from the American heartland and Japanese tourists, Brooklyn hipsters and Upper East Side society matrons, schoolchildren and their grandparents, men and women, most of whom could no more have worn the outfits on display than Cinderella’s stepsisters could have danced away in the glass slipper.
What were the museum-goers seeing as they contemplated the mannequins dressed in clothes that represented the ultimate convergence of commerce, fantasy, self-presentation, outrageousness, fetishism, and sex? What did their transfixed attention say about who we are and where we have come from, how we define ourselves in terms of gender and social class, physical beauty and consumer branding?
Quite possibly they were hoping for a museum experience that was closer to a fantasy shopping trip than to the awed, respectful pilgrimage from masterpiece to masterpiece that more often characterises our encounters with great art. And it also seemed likely that to the visitors dressed mostly (with a few chic exceptions) in the sweatpants, jeans and T-shirts with which we declare that, in our daily lives, comfort is more important than formality and display, the McQueen outfits—which could hardly have seemed less easy or cosy to wear—represented the secret life,…