Kate Middleton's Royal Wedding Gown was created by the Alexander McQueen fashion house -- but not by McQueen himself, who committed suicide last year. How does this fabulous creation fall within his legacy, and what does it suggest about his suicide?

 

The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, May 8, 2011. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

Outsiderism, Self-Esteem, and Suicide: Kate Middleton's Wedding Dress

The Royal Wedding between Prince William and beautiful Catherine Middleton, commoner, featured a third party - Kate's dress. EVERYONE felt that the Royal Wedding Dress was a great success - almost, but not quite, outshining the bride.

The dress was designed and executed by Sarah Burton, creative director at Alexander McQueen, the fashion house named for its legendary founder, who committed suicide a little over a year ago, leaving Ms. Burton to succeed him.

The Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute currently has an exhibit of McQueen's work titled, "Savage Beauty" - a description that doesn't suggest a royal wedding gown. McQueen depicts women wearing torn dresses indicating they have been raped; phantasmagoric creations from other dimensions of the time-space continuum; and dresses that are political and social commentaries.

How do you get from savage beauty to a beautiful white gown and train that billions of people worldwide admire and millions of brides want to emulate? Therein lies a story.

When I go to museums, I am fascinated not only by the exhibits, but by the impressions they make on people. So I ask fellow attendees what their takes are.

In New York, when you see a fashion exhibit, you get roughly three kinds of people: gawking out-of-towners, in-the-know New Yorkers, and doubly in-the-know fashion insiders.

I can spot them all - it's a gift.

I asked a fashion insider - a small, neat, Asian woman - how McQueen begat Sarah Burton, and whether McQueen himself could have designed such a dress. She said Burton was very much in the tradition of McQueen, and yes, he could have designed the dress.

I don't believe she's correct. McQueen, a notoriously difficult man, selected Burton as an intern in 1996 after which she rose steadily because she is talented, hard-working, ambitious, and tough (ordinary mortals can't tolerate the pressure cooker that is an international fashion show) -- but she didn't challenge McQueen. There can be only one visionary in a group. Burton's inclination is not to shock and offend, which was McQueen's basic instinct (he is one of those designers about whom people ask, "How can any real person wear those outfits?"). Of course, two people like McQueen and Burton can work together very well - they feed off one another.

But the real concern of this essay is why a gifted and successful creative person like McQueen killed himself. The standard American answers, which several people gave me, are: (a) creative people are hugely temperamental and emotionally unbalanced, (b) depression and suicide are internal medical conditions and you can learn nothing about them from examining people's personalities and lives.

What can I say? - I don't believe either of those answers. As to (a), Sarah Burton is highly creative, of course, but I dare to predict that she won't commit suicide. She might have been a bit anxious when, at age 36, she was designing a dress roughly three billion people would see and judge while heading a major fashion agency, at the same time she is contemplating starting a family.  But she'll work through these kinds of challenges without becoming suicidal, I warrant.

For his part, McQueen defied convention as a matter of course. And that left him little cushion to fall back on as he veered through life - except whatever core emotional stability he had. Strong egos and creative geniuses may have such secure cores (think Pablo Picasso), but sometimes they do not.

McQueen was Scots - an identity he tightly embraced - at the same time that he was thoroughly English, having grown up in London. Several of his lines of dresses embrace and update traditional historic English attire, while one of his most shocking lines of dresses at the exhibit reflects the rape of wives of Scottish fighters by invading English soldiers (think Braveheart - at least I did).

This mixed identity was a combustible combination, in several ways, for McQueen.

Which leads us to the next essay in this series: Outsider Identities and Self-Esteem: The Case of Barack Obama.