By Tali Zeloof
An army of female mannequins wearing impeccably structured suits confronts visitors as they enter the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The tailored suits with their menacing gothic shoulder pads are from the archives of McQueen’s Central St. Martins graduation collection, which was famously bought in its entirety by his close friend and confidant the late Isabella Blow. Curator Andrew Bolton explains that the exhibition is organised thematically rather than chronologically to stimulate a more interpretive experience. However showcasing McQueen’s graduation collection in the first gallery gives audiences an immediate sense of the genesis of McQueen’s genius (Yaeger 2011, p.1).
Walking through a labyrinth of darkly lit corridors punctuated with McQueen’s bejewelled signature skulls and patriotic tartan prints, visitors are presented with the romantic gothic iconography that characterised the late designer’s distinctive aesthetic. His radical designs oscillate between beauty and ugliness, primitivism and sophistication, darkness and light, to arouse an aesthetic of oppositions that is quintessentially McQueen (Bolton 2011, p.14). By celebrating that which is both sensual and repellent, this master couturier created collections so conceptually thrilling that they can’t help but command audience attention.
According to Bolton (2011, p.77) the sado-masochistic perversity that penetrated McQueen’s psyche manifests sculpturally in leather corsets, dominatrix masks and studded neck chokers, all of which arouse ideas of the fetish. While these accessories physically constrain women they also liberate her from the Victorian image of woman as virtuous and chaste. There is no denying the female body is fetishised in this retrospective exhibition. However, to call McQueen a misogynist is to miss the deeper critique inherent in his practice. By ‘challenging and expanding the conventional parameters of fashion’ (Bolton, 2011, p.15), and breaking down culturally constructed categories of ‘femininity,’ McQueen’s clothes enabled women to celebrate and perform the plurality of the self. In this way, when wearing his erotically charged ensembles, women can play both the virgin and the whore
Innovative dressmaking reaches its apogee in this exhibition in a billowing strapless dress entitled No.13 which was made as the finale piece for McQueen’s 1997 spring/summer collection. At first glance, the dress seems arbitrarily marked with splatters of acidic coloured spray paint. But listen to the audio guide and watch the video footage documenting the meticulous choreography involved in the garment’s creation and you will fully grasp McQueen’s celebration of the spectacle.
McQueen’s mood was darkly romantic when he constructed the dress Sarabande for his 2007 spring/summer collection (Bolton 2011, p.183). Made from fresh and silk flowers, the dress, which was encased in a transparent vitrine, was so beautiful that it actually took my breath away. As a romantic expression, the garment also grapples with macabre undertones, as the fresh flowers will eventually rot and die (Bataille 1929, p.160).
Sculptural garments that express the darkness of the imagination as well as the frivolousness of fantasy, McQueen’s reptilian printed dresses displayed in the final gallery reflect his philosophical inquiry into humanity’s relationship with nature. While employing the latest in digital technology to create these prints, McQueen was still an artisan in the truest sense of the word, always carrying a pair of scissors in case he needed to cut a garment ad hoc. In this way he privileged the skill of the artist and the craftsmanship of haute couture.
Savage Beauty is a must see exhibition, not only for fashion lovers but for anyone who can appreciate and draw inspiration from a true genius who created wearable avant-garde art.
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
4 May – 7 August 2011
G Bataille, ‘Language of flowers’, Documents, 3 June 1929.
A Bolton, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, exhibition catalogue, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2011.
Sarabande, spring/summer 2007, Nude silk embroidered with silk flowers and fresh flowers. Courtesy of Alexander McQueen.