Oyster dress

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Full-length beige sleeveless dress displayed on a mannequin. The full skirt is made from numerous layers of thin fabric stacked to appear like an oyster shell. The dress has been intentionally distressed and shredded.
The oyster dress as displayed during the exhibition Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (2011)

The oyster dress is a high fashion gown created by British fashion designer Alexander McQueen for his Spring/Summer 2003 collection Irere. McQueen's design is a one-shouldered dress in bias-cut beige silk chiffon with a boned upper body and a full-length skirt consisting of hundreds of individual circles of organza sewn in dense layers to the base fabric, resembling the outside of an oyster shell. According to McQueen, the gown took a month's work for three people, who cut and assembled all the pieces individually. In addition to the original beige dress, a version with a red bodice and the ruffled skirt in rainbow colours was also created. The beige and red versions appeared in the Irere runway show, and were photographed for magazines to promote the collection.

The dress originated as a reinterpretation of the "shellfish dress" designed by John Galliano in 1987, which McQueen had long admired and sought to emulate. Contemporary critical response to McQueen's oyster dress was positive. It has become known as the most significant design from Irere, and is considered an iconic piece of McQueen's work, surpassing the famed Galliano original. Only two copies are known to exist, one held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) in New York City and one by media personality Kim Kardashian. The Met's copy has appeared in several exhibitions, particularly the retrospective Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. McQueen returned to the oyster dress concept several times over his career, most prominently in his Autumn/Winter 2006 collection The Widows of Culloden.


White mid-length sleeveless dress displayed on a mannequin. The skirt is made from numerous layers of thin fabric stacked to appear like a seashell.
Shellfish dress by John Galliano, 1987, displayed with a green and white checked cotton sash

British designer Alexander McQueen was known in the fashion industry for his imaginative, sometimes controversial designs.[1][2] Although he worked in ready-to-wear – clothing produced for retail sale – his work featured a degree of craftsmanship that verged on haute couture.[3][4][5] Before launching his own label, McQueen apprenticed as a tailor on Savile Row, and he became known for a focus on tailored designs.[1][6][7] From 1996 to 2001, he was head designer at French luxury design house Givenchy, where he learned le flou, or draping, the dressmaking side of haute couture.[8][9][10]

McQueen's career roughly paralleled that of fellow British designer John Galliano, who preceded him in the industry by about a decade.[11][12][13] The men had each graduated from Central Saint Martins art school in London: Galliano in 1984, and McQueen in 1992.[14][15][16] Both had started their careers as independent designers before being hired by famous French fashion houses in the mid-1990s; McQueen had replaced Galliano at Givenchy when Galliano went to Dior.[15][17][18] Their designs and shows were similarly creative and theatrical.[19][20] During the period in which their careers overlapped, fashion journalists compared and contrasted their work and career choices, and they have sometimes been referred to as rivals.[20][21][22] McQueen, who had a competitive streak, resented being compared to Galliano and often sought to emulate or outdo Galliano's ideas in his own work.[23][24]

For his Spring/Summer 2003 collection, Irere, McQueen took inspiration from the Age of Discovery and the Amazon rainforest. He presented three sequential phases of ensembles: shipwrecked pirates, black-clad conquistadors, and colourful dresses inspired by tropical birds.[3][25][26] McQueen described the collection as an effort to present a more mature point of view and surprise viewers with bold colours.[3] Contemporary reception for Irere was positive, with many in the industry calling it one of the best collections for that season.[4][27]

Development and runway show

Pacific oyster from the Marennes-Oléron basin in France
Shell of a Pacific oyster

The "oyster dress" is a reinterpretation of a 1987 design by John Galliano called the "shellfish dress".[28][29] Galliano's shellfish dress was named for its layers of "pearl grey" organza ruffles that resembled stacked clamshells, a technically complex design that was actually executed by costumier Karen Crichton.[30] McQueen had long admired and sought to emulate the complicated construction of the original.[31] According to his friend Sebastian Pons, McQueen owned numerous "copies and photographs" of Galliano's dress and would study them intently, trying to work out how it was constructed.[31]

McQueen's design is a one-shouldered dress in bias-cut beige silk chiffon with a boned upper body and a full-length skirt.[32][33] Hundreds of individual circles of organza were sewn to the base fabric in dense layers, resembling an oyster shell or a mille-feuille pastry.[32][34][33] An estimated 180–260 metres (200–285 yd) of fabric was required.[3][33] According to McQueen, the gown took a month's work for three people to cut and assemble all the pieces.[3] The cost was reportedly £45,000.[35] In addition to the original beige dress, a version with a red bodice and the ruffled skirt in rainbow colours was also created.[36][37]

The original beige gown appeared in the first, pirate-themed phase of the Irere runway show as Look 18, worn by Letícia Birkheuer.[5][33] The version with the rainbow skirt appeared in the final phase as Look 49, worn on the runway by An Oost.[5][36] Both versions appeared in magazines to promote the collection. Natalia Vodianova wore the oyster dress for two photo shoots: Vogue in January 2003, photographed by Craig McDean, and Harper's Bazaar in March 2003, photographed by Peter Lindbergh.[38] Socialite Daphne Guinness, a longtime friend of McQueen's, wore it for a 2003 photo shoot.[37] The rainbow oyster dress appeared on the cover of Vogue Italia for their Spring/Summer 2003 issue.[39] Joy Bryant wore it for a photo shoot for InStyle magazine in March 2003, calling it the "Rainbow Cancan" dress.[40]


The oyster dress is considered an iconic McQueen design; according to Pons and journalist Dana Thomas, it surpassed the famed Galliano original.[35][41] In a contemporary review, Jess Cartner-Morley wrote that the dress exemplified the show's maritime theme, with chiffon layers that were "as soft and close as ripples on sand".[42] Curator Kate Bethune wrote that it portrayed a sense of "[f]ragile femininity".[43] Thomas called it "far more beautiful and elegant than the original" shellfish dress.[44] Fashion curator Andrew Bolton labelled it "arguably the most important dress of the 21st century",[45] and evidence that McQueen had expanded his skillset from his early focus on tailored designs and had mastered draping.[34] Philosopher Gwenda-lin Grewal compared the destroyed look of the dress to the clothing of 19th-century dandies and 20th-century punks, both of which adopted torn clothing for aesthetic reasons.[46] Author Ana Finel Honigman found that the lightness of the frills contrasted with the deconstructed appearance to create a "tension between gravity and transcendence".[47]

McQueen returned to the oyster dress concept several times. Actress Liv Tyler wore a variation of the oyster gown to the Paris premiere of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers in December 2002. Her version had a corset bodice and a pink skirt made from 250 metres (273 yd) of silk organza.[48][49][50] McQueen designed a wedding dress based on the oyster dress for the August 2004 wedding of his assistant Sarah Burton.[51][52] Authors Judith Watt and Dana Thomas both described several dresses from The Widows of Culloden (Autumn/Winter 2006) as evolutions of the oyster dress, including the dress worn in the illusion of Kate Moss that served as the show's finale.[28][29]

Extant copies

He wanted this idea of it—was almost like she drowned—and the top part of the dress is all fine boning and tulle, and the chiffon is all frayed and dishevelled on the top. The skirt is made out of hundreds and hundreds of circles of organza. Then, with a pen, what Lee did was he drew organic lines. And then all these circles were cut, joined together, and then applied in these lines along the skirt. So you created this organic, oyster-like effect.

Sarah Burton[25]

Following the show, McQueen estimated that 20 orders had been placed for copies of the oyster dress.[3] However, only two copies of the beige original are known to exist.[45] The Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) in New York City acquired one in 2003, and it has appeared in the exhibitions Goddess: The Classical Mode (2003) and Blog Mode: Addressing Fashion (2008).[53] The Met's copy of the oyster dress appeared with other clothing from Irere in both stagings of the retrospective exhibition Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.[a][55]

Media personality Kim Kardashian owns the other known oyster dress, purchased from Los Angeles vintage boutique Lily et Cie.[45] Its original owner was socialite Angie Barrett, who wore it to the Cannes Film Festival and Beaux-Arts Ball in 2003.[56][57] In 2020, Kardashian wore the oyster dress to an Oscars afterparty hosted by Vanity Fair.[45] In 2022, Rachel Tashjian described this as part of a trend for archival red carpet wear, noting that celebrities choosing vintage fashion was "basically the ultimate fashion flex right now".[58] Fashion theorist Naomi Braithwaite argued that in acquiring archival fashion items, such as the oyster dress, Kardashian was attempting to integrate the cultural history of those objects into her own celebrity narrative, thereby increasing her own cultural significance by association.[59][56]

See also


  1. ^ The catalogue produced for the original 2011 staging of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty says that all garments were lent by the Alexander McQueen archive unless otherwise noted. The oyster dress is not so noted, although The Met has owned its copy since 2003.[54][53]


  1. ^ a b Vaidyanathan, Rajini (12 February 2010). "Six ways Alexander McQueen changed fashion". BBC Magazine. Archived from the original on 22 February 2010. Retrieved 6 May 2022.
  2. ^ McNeil, Peter (12 December 2022). "'I want people to be afraid of the women I dress': the celebrated – and often controversial – designs of Alexander McQueen". The Conversation. Retrieved 22 July 2023.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Socha, Miles (4 November 2002). "King McQueen: a mature Alexander McQueen cast aside the shock values (and even the adolescent rants) to produce a dazzling spring collection. (Movers Shakers)". Women's Wear Daily. Archived from the original on 1 June 2023. Retrieved 31 May 2023.
  4. ^ a b Diderich, Joelle (7 October 2002). "From out of this world to the Third World – McQueen king of the catwalk". The Courier Mail. Retrieved 31 May 2023.
  5. ^ a b c Mower, Sarah (4 October 2002). "Alexander McQueen Spring 2003 ready-to-wear collection". Vogue. Archived from the original on 15 May 2023. Retrieved 30 May 2023.
  6. ^ Doig, Stephen (30 January 2023). "How Alexander McQueen changed the world of fashion – by the people who knew him best". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 30 January 2023.
  7. ^ Carwell, Nick (26 May 2016). "Savile Row's best tailors: Alexander McQueen". GQ Magazine. Archived from the original on 9 May 2021. Retrieved 31 March 2021.
  8. ^ Fairer & Wilcox 2016, p. 14.
  9. ^ Young & Martin 2017, p. 143.
  10. ^ Fox, Imogen (11 February 2010). "Alexander McQueen obituary". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 6 February 2023. Retrieved 6 February 2023.
  11. ^ Thomas 2015, pp. 379–380.
  12. ^ Breward 2003, pp. 232–233.
  13. ^ Lodwick 2015, p. 247.
  14. ^ Wilson, Ben (7 March 2015a). "Fierce, feathered and fragile: how Alexander McQueen made fashion an art". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 23 November 2021. Retrieved 20 March 2021.
  15. ^ a b Breward 2003, p. 232.
  16. ^ Thomas 2015, p. 3.
  17. ^ Thomas 2015, p. 209.
  18. ^ Beker, Jeanne (20 February 2015). "Galliano, McQueen and the tragic end of fashion's wildest era". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 27 July 2023.
  19. ^ Wilson 2015, p. 224.
  20. ^ a b Mower, Sarah (31 August 2015). "When Fashion Renegades John Galliano and Alexander McQueen Landed at Dior and Givenchy, Paris Fashion Was Forever Changed". Vogue. Retrieved 27 July 2023.
  21. ^ Davies-Evitt, Dora (10 November 2022). "Explosive docu-series Kingdom of Dreams explores the rivalries and rising stars behind the 'golden age' of fashion". Tatler. Retrieved 22 July 2023.
  22. ^ Hartman, Eviana (6 March 2015). "11 Little-Known Facts About John Galliano and Alexander McQueen". T Magazine. Retrieved 22 July 2023.
  23. ^ Thomas 2015, pp. 84, 159, 256–257, 266, 325–326.
  24. ^ Wilson 2015, p. 142.
  25. ^ a b "'Oyster' Dress, Irere, spring/summer 2003". Metropolitan Museum of Art. Archived from the original on 22 May 2023. Retrieved 30 May 2023.
  26. ^ Fox 2012, p. 82.
  27. ^ Todd, Stephen (25 October 2002). "Paris back to normal, but barely". The Australian. Retrieved 14 June 2023.
  28. ^ a b Thomas 2015, pp. 56, 275, 338.
  29. ^ a b Watt 2012, p. 230.
  30. ^ Thomas 2015, pp. 49, 56, 58.
  31. ^ a b Thomas 2015, pp. 56, 275, 326, 338.
  32. ^ a b Gleason 2012, p. 102.
  33. ^ a b c d Watt 2012, p. 194.
  34. ^ a b "'Oyster' Dress, Irere, spring/summer 2003". Metropolitan Museum of Art. Archived from the original on 22 May 2023. Retrieved 30 May 2023.
  35. ^ a b Wilson 2015, p. 279.
  36. ^ a b Watt 2012, p. 195.
  37. ^ a b Honigman 2021, p. 38.
  38. ^ Kalonaros, Vassiliki (7 July 2021). "2003 – Alexander McQueen, oyster dress". Fashion History Timeline. Fashion Institute of Technology. Archived from the original on 15 May 2023. Retrieved 30 May 2023.
  39. ^ "On the Stage". Vogue Italia. Spring–Summer 2003. p. Front cover.
  40. ^ "Rainbow – the colors of InStyle – inside InStyle magazine". InStyle. Archived from the original on 15 June 2012. Retrieved 16 June 2023.
  41. ^ Thomas 2015, pp. 326, 338.
  42. ^ Cartner-Morley, Jess (7 October 2002). "McQueen takes nautical theme to make a splash". The Guardian. Retrieved 14 June 2023.
  43. ^ Bethune 2015, p. 314.
  44. ^ Thomas 2015, p. 326.
  45. ^ a b c d de Klerk, Amy (10 February 2020). "The historical significance of Kim Kardashian West's vintage Alexander McQueen dress". Harper's Bazaar. Archived from the original on 15 May 2023. Retrieved 30 May 2023.
  46. ^ Grewal 2022, p. 124.
  47. ^ Honigman 2021, p. 42.
  48. ^ Davies, Hugh; Born, Matt (12 December 2002). "High-kicking Cate and Catherine the great are premiere queens". The Daily Telegraph. p. 3. Retrieved 28 August 2023.
  49. ^ "McQueen's princess". Women's Wear Daily. 8 December 2003. Archived from the original on 4 June 2023. Retrieved 4 June 2023.
  50. ^ Wilson 2015, p. 280.
  51. ^ Wilson 2015, p. 293.
  52. ^ Horyn, Cathy (3 February 2023). "The woman who became McQueen". The Cut. Archived from the original on 25 April 2023. Retrieved 14 June 2023.
  53. ^ a b "'Oyster dress'". Metropolitan Museum of Art. Archived from the original on 15 May 2023. Retrieved 30 May 2023.
  54. ^ Bolton 2011, p. 232.
  55. ^ Bolton 2011, pp. 232, 234.
  56. ^ a b Marx, Patricia (19 March 2007). "Dressin' Texan". The New Yorker. Retrieved 25 June 2023.
  57. ^ Gruber, Lauren (25 August 2022). "10 Celebrity Looks Brought Back from the Fashion Archives". L'Officiel. Retrieved 25 June 2023.
  58. ^ Tashjian, Rachel (24 February 2022). "How do designers make clothes for a vintage-obsessed world?". Harper's Bazaar. Retrieved 25 June 2023.
  59. ^ Braithwaite, Naomi (2 February 2023). "Kim Kardashian buys Princess Diana's necklace – how the cult of celebrity creates value for fashion history". The Conversation. Archived from the original on 16 June 2023. Retrieved 16 June 2023.


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