Exhibition: Aware: Art Fashion Identity, Royal Academy of Arts, London, until January 30 2011

The start of 2010 shook the fashion world when British designer Alexander McQueen took his own life. An expert in tailoring, McQueen’s collections showed a chilling fascination with the afterlife, religion and Medieval times.

Designers may create something interesting to look at and wear, but there is an undertone to what that garment can represent. McQueen, for instance, mixed female strength with fragility into his emotional yet provocative pieces.

The Royal Academy of Arts’ latest exhibition has chosen 30 artists and designers from all over the world – including McQueen and his red lace dress from Joan A/W 1998 – to share their visions of social identity.

Having split the exhibition into four major themes – story-telling, building, belonging and performing through clothes – each of the artists’ pieces reflects their own individual situation.

Across the first room stands an eye-catching gold dress that shines in natural daylight. The ballgown looks seductively beautiful, but is actually constructed from menacing, spiked dressmaker pins.

Susie MacMurray’s piece, Widow, 2009, juxtaposes her emotions of sensitivity and beauty with aggression. It seems that fixing each pin together was perhaps a ritual for MacMurray to protect her femininity.

Andrea Zittel tells her story, A-Z Fibre Form Uniforms, 2003-6, through a series of mannequins in dresses. Zittel lives in a remote part of the Californian desert where a lot of refugees hide.

Video projection Sixty Minute Silence, 1996, by Gillian Wearing, shows 26 people in police uniform and has a sense of collective identity on the surface. Looking closer, though, we can see hidden individuality in these characters. They may all be dressed the same but as they blink, yawn and fidget we can see how personal movements separates them.

Installation piece Son of Sonzai Suni, 2010 by Hussein Chalayan, shows a contemporary dress inspired by the ancient Japanese tradition of Bunraku puppet theatre. The dress has Asian characters stitched into it, and is on a statue walking down a runway.

Three black figures surround the dress, each grasping at it, as if it is a puppet on their strings. It feels as though Chalayan is trying to manipulate the fashion industry – an industry that controls and dictates what we as consumers should be interested in.

There is no better way to end an exhibition on art fashion than with the subject of nudity. Marina Abramovic’s film Imponderabilla, 1977, comprises footage of everyday people walking through a doorway of a gallery in Bologna, squeezing past naked bodies.

Abramovic catches their reactions and reveals society’s relationship with clothing and the taboos surrounding nudity.

These works highlight how we use clothing as a way of communicating elements of our identity. To most of us clothes are practical and functional, but these artists and designers have explored that subconsciously we use this material to express our aspirations and desires.