Less than a month ago Marc Jacobs' Spring/Summer 2014 advertising campaing featuring Miley Cyrus prompted a new debate. This time the pop star's twerking skills weren't actually the main topic of discussion.
The media wondered indeed if the young and pretty woman lying stiff next to Miley Cyrus was actually dead. The fact that she looked lifeless with her hair partially covering her face seemed to perfectly prove she had just passed away (View this photo). If that was the intention of photograher David Sims, though, there wouldn't have been much to be surprised about.
Art and literature in the 18th and 19th centuries quite often focused on episodes that involved the death of a beautiful woman: the "beauty in death" theme inspired indeed many artists, turning decade after decade into a popular topos.
The fashion industry has used and reused this connection for ages, tackling the death of a beautiful woman in photoshoots and turning it into something spectacular, glamorous and sublime. But what's interesting at the moment, is the fact that the "beauty in death" theme in fashion has been infiltrated by two other moods, horror and violence.
We have seen in many previous posts on this site that there is a tradition of horror films with models as main characters or taking place in a fashion house, but at the moment there is a combination of dark atmospheres, horror, fear, and - implicitly - death, also in advertising campaigns, that may be proving that vulnerable, passive and dead women are considered as extremely trendy by that same fashion industry that consistently claims of empowering them. Take the recent Alexander McQueen Spring/Summer 2014 campaign featuring Kate Moss.
Shot by photographer Steven Klein in East London, the campaign was inspired by a horror/noir film. The advert is actually a slightly changed version of the incipit of a famous British film, Peeping Tom (1960). Directed by Michael Powell, this psychological thriller focuses on the character of Mark, a young shy man who would like to be a filmmaker, but also happens to be a serial killer.
Scarred forever by the psychological experiments on fear of his father who used him as a guinea pig for his studies on the nervous system, Mark kills his victims - a prostitute, an actress and a pin up - with a spear attached to the tripod of his camera and shows the victims their own murder via a mirror he has attached to the camera. The reflected fear is therefore magnified, while the victim is objectified in a misogynous way.
Klein's advert denotes a certain lack of originality, since it reproduces more or less the first few minutes of the film (PR officers will tell you this is a "tribute" or "homage"; lawyers will define it as "plagiarism and infringement of copyright"...you decide): in Peeping Tom a prostitute is looking at a window shop when the protagonist arrives and starts filming her from behind.
Before following her into her flat, the protagonist films himself throwing in a bin the box of the film he is using. In Klein's advert, Moss is the protitute looking at the window, but the guy doing the filming throws in the bin a doll that looks like a miniature version of the model.
There is actually a rather interesting connection between Peeping Tom and fashion: Moira Shearer starring as Vivian wears in the film designs by John Tullis of Horrockses, while Anna Massey, who appears in the role of Helen, wears dresses by Polly Peck. Both the actresses look elegant, yet their image is still very classic (remember, the film was released in 1960, so the revolution was yet to come). McQueen's designs in Klein's campaign give the advert a darker edge.
Yet the main moods of Peeping Tom - darkness, suspense and fear - are perfectly replicated in the advert. Moss is not shown as a corpse, but the fast images and close ups at the very end hint at a violent death, making you wonder.
The fashion industry is often claiming of empowering women, yet we have designers dressing women in children's clothes and suggesting us to opt for a glittery world of unicorns and fairies, or adverts suggesting us that a dead woman is sensually desirable and erotically attractive, her objectified body awakening sublime feelings of fear and excitement.
Both the trends essentially emphasise women's passivity and vulnerability, even though the "dead/murdered woman" trend is a bit more worrying since we are implicity told that the image of a woman violently killed boosts sales.
In a way the vulnerable image doesn't even go well with McQueen's own vision of women: though accused of misogyny, the late designer always defended himself, stating in interviews he wished to make women feel stronger through his garments and wanted people to be afraid of the women he dressed.
It is only natural then to wonder why in this campaign the woman can't be more active, engaged and ready to defend herself, why she can't escape the attacker or attack him in turn.
There are some explanations, though, behind the main themes picked for this campaign. In a 1996 interview with Harper's Bazaar, stylist Isabella Blow stated about McQueen's Autumn/Winter 1995-96 collection ("Highland Rape"): "McQueen is like a Peeping Tom in the way he slits ad stabs at fabric to explore all the erogenous zones of the body."
Blow was referencing Powell's film and, in a way, McQueen's complexity and severity to cut could also be compared to Mark's obsession for cutting and combining together the images of his victims.
The voodoo dolls that appear in the campaign dressed exactly like Moss may also be distant references to McQueen's Spring/Summer 1997 collection "La Poupée" inspired by Hans Bellmer's dissected and dismembered dolls.
Yet while we have found out the reasons why Klein referenced Peeping Tom and dolls, it is still difficult to find an answer to the question why is the "beauty in death" theme still so popular.
Besides, will we ever see in fashion representations of women reacting to violence, managing to escape their attackers or even killing a man, and would in case a male corpse sell as well as a female corpse?
The doubt remains, but for the time being, what Edgar Allen Poe stated in his essay "The Philosophy of Composition" - "the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world," - is, sadly, still valid and financially profitable in the fashion industry.
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