Elizabeth & Lee

June 26 2018


The stakes in fashion are so high that one fatal slip can send a designer’s entire reputation up in flames.

John Galliano’s was temporarily snuffed in 2011 following an anti-Semitic rampage in a Paris cafe. His prompt dismissal from Christian Dior led to a four-year industry hiatus until Maison Margiela called. 

The Internet v. Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana commenced in March 2015 when the design duo condemned same-sex adoptions and referred to children born via IVF as “synthetic” in an interview. #BoycottDolceGabbana went viral, Elton John its primary orchestrator. By September, the pair had recanted the statements. 

(In an unexpected plot twist, the brand launched a line of “#Boycott Dolce & Gabanna” tees in 2017 when online trolls criticized the pair for dressing First Lady Melania Trump.)

Much like the fashion collections themselves, reputations can be seasonal. Perhaps none more so than that of Alexander McQueen. 

During his impressive tenure as fashion’s “L'Enfant Terrible,” McQueen and his runway collections were lauded for their innovation and simultaneously reviled for their apparent misogyny.

When attendees arrived at his Fall/Winter 1995 show and learned that he’d dubbed it “Highland Rape,” they were appalled. When half-naked models charged down the runway in tattered tartan pieces and derriere exposing pants, critics balked. 

“It is McQueen’s brand of misogynistic absurdity that gives fashion a bad name,” Sally Brampton of The Guardian opined at the time. 

Regardless, the theatrics sealed McQueen’s fate as a major fashion force and guaranteed that manipulating women into the fetishized freakshows he conjured up each season would be de rigueur. 

2000’s “Eshu,” in particular, caused universal disapproval. Aside from the collection’s use of fur, a demented ethnic mouthpiece worn by one of the models became the main talking point and prompted the Daily Mail to anoint McQueen “The Designer Who Hates Woman.”

Did Alexander McQueen actually hate woman? Absolutely not. Were his collections overtly provocative? Of course. Were his concepts often misunderstood? Without a doubt.

“People were so unintelligent they thought ["Highland Rape”] was about women being raped,“ McQueen said, "yet it was about England’s rape of Scotland.”

Indeed, during the conception of that collection, McQueen sought to honor his ancestral home, not defame it. With the Jacobite Risings and Highland Clearances as his references, "Highland Rape” effectively challenged the oft-romanticized interpretation of Scotland at the hands of contemporary English designers. 

In response to the detractors labeling him a chauvinist, McQueen clarified that his designs were meant to “empower women.”  

“I want people to be afraid of the women I dress,” McQueen remarked of his philosophy.

So he took the concept of honoring heritage and feminism to create one of his most personal, perhaps most misunderstood, collections: “In Memory of Elizabeth Howe.” 

McQueen began to conceive “Howe” sometime in late 2006, digging through his eclectic family tree for inspiration as he had done for previous collections like “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims” and “Widows of Culloden”.  

One particular branch immediately caught McQueen’s interest. A distant relative on his mother’s side, the collection’s namesake, had been accused and hanged for witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Her life, however, began to unravel roughly ten years prior. 

Until 1682 Elizabeth Howe and her husband, James, lived placidly with their six children on farmlands in Topsfield, Massachusetts. As devout members of a Puritan society, the Howe’s were expected to eschew indulgent predilections, scorn individuality, embrace community, and, most importantly, honor God. 

By all accounts, the Howe’s were virtuous disciples until Elizabeth was accused of bewitching her ten-year-old neighbor, Hannah Perley. The allegations never resulted in a formal arrest but it marred Howe’s reputation thereafter. 

It also didn’t help that James went blind at 50, forcing Elizabeth to assume responsibilities that made her anything but submissive. 

When tales of bewitchment began circulating in Salem around February 1692, Hannah Perley’s decade-old claims against Elizabeth came back to haunt the Howe family. On May 29 Elizabeth was arrested for being a witch. Exactly one month later her trial began. Those who testified against her spun tales of “leaping pigs and poisoned turnips,” livestock dropping dead, and cows depleted of milk. 

When asked how she pled, Howe said, “If it was the last moment I was to live, God knows I am innocent of anything of this nature.”

Elizabeth Howe was hanged on July 19, 1692, at Gallows Hill, one of 20 people killed during the hysteria. 

She was an oppressed woman, judged by her peers, thrust unwillingly into the occult, and wrongfully executed as a result. Her story was macabre, her fate doomed. Howe was, in essence, the quintessential Alexander McQueen muse.

His fascination with Howe ran so deep that his usual research methods — combing through the archives of his alma mater, Saint Martins, and British Vogue — just wouldn’t do.

So in December of 2006 McQueen traveled to Salem, Massachusetts along with his assistant Sarah Burton (now the label’s creative director), publicist Kerry Youman, and Vogue’s Sarah Mower. 

“[We] didn’t do many research trips,” Burton told Tim Blanks in Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, “[but "Howe”] was a very personal collection for Lee.” 

Upon arriving in New England the team frequented local libraries, toured the Salem Witch Museum, and visited a Topsfield memorial dedicated to Howe where McQueen “placed a bunch of flowers.” 

“He seemed almost like an academic doing research,” Youman said of the experience. 

McQueen could certainly be studious, but he also had a boyish sense of humor. This was, after all, the same man who once sat a skeleton in the front row of his 1996 Fall show (“Dante”). 

“An illustration of [his] spirit occurred at the Old Burying Point in Salem. When the Salem witch trials’ magistrate John Hawthorne’s grave was pointed out to him, he walked over to it and stamped on it — hard — in honor of Elizabeth,” Alison D’Amario, the former director of education at the Salem Witch Museum, fondly remembered. 

“In Memory of Elizabeth Howe” debuted on March 2, 2007, during Paris Fashion Week at a sports arena. A crimson pentagram served as the runway, an inverted pyramid suspended above it projected various grotesqueries (e.g. locusts, decaying faces) as the show unfolded. 

“Death and the macabre fascinated McQueen,” Sarah Mower wrote in a Telegraphfeature. “He constantly rubbed fashion’s nose in it.” 

The fashion community was not amused. Critics considered the theatrics overwrought. Reception to the collection was tepid, at best.

“His muse led him were it would and he didn’t give a shit,” Youmans recalled of McQueen’s response to the negative press.

Looking back, “Howe” was certainly a bizarre curation considering it’s source material. 

There were no bonnets, gingham, or petticoats present on the runway. The women represented in McQueen’s showcase were a coven of sophisticated warriors cloaked in sculptured armor, hooded outerwear and gowns. The models were indistinguishable — a McQueen signature — with Cleopatra inspired makeup and space-age beehive updos.

One model, outfitted in a sheer black dress and silver crescent moon headpiece, looked like a goddess of the cosmos. The ethereal ensemble could have easily closed Maria Grazia Chiuri’s debut collection for Dior in 2017.

Another McQueen model wore a netted black ball gown, but it was an eerie face mask that set her look apart. In retrospect, the mask is both a nod to Maison Martin Margiela and a prelude to Alessandro Michele’s freakish reign at Gucci.

Perhaps this is why “In Memory of Elizabeth Howe” remains so endearing today. Initially perceived as a hodgepodge of avant-garde oddities, the collection’s haunting presence on current runways proves otherwise.

And yet Elizabeth Howe, McQueen’s field trip to Salem, and the inspired collection are only part of the legacy left behind. Since 2012, 96-year-old fashion icon Iris Apfel has bequeathed hundreds of items from her covetable closet, including vintage McQueen, to Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum. 

Though his reputation was burned following “In Memory of Elizabeth Howe,” McQueen knew that the smoke would settle; and once it did, he would rise above the ashes. 

And he did, however briefly. Alexander McQueen died by suicide on February 11, 2010.

Rest peacefully, Elizabeth Howe. Rest easy, Lee McQueen.