Victoria and Albert Museum, London. 14 March – 2 August 2015.
Alexander McQueen, Duck Feather Dress, The Horn of Plenty, AW 2009. Image: Victoria and Albert Museum, London
There is no way back for me now. I’m going to take you on journeys you never dreamt were possible. Alexander McQueen.
True to his word, the work of artist, fashion designer and couturier Alexander McQueen is utterly dazzling, emotionally overwhelming and deeply subversive. Walking into this exhibition is like stumbling into the labyrinth of McQueen’s mind and creative process; extraordinarily rich and fatalistically dark from start to finish.
Savage Beauty at the V&A presents 240 of McQueen’s ensembles over ten rooms in the only major European retrospective of his work. Curated by Claire Wilcox, Senior Curator of Fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum and Professor in Fashion Curation, London College of Fashion, University of the Arts, London, the exhibition is a homecoming; to the city McQueen loved, to the V&A’s collections which inspired him and to the creative territory of the UK as a place of exhilarated anarchy. It is entirely apt that an exhibition which originated at the Costume Institute at the Museum of Modern Art in New York should find its way home, edited and expanded to include 66 additional garments and accessories loaned from private individuals and collectors; Katy England, Annabelle Neilson, the Isabella Blow Collection and the House of Givenchy.
Whilst the exhibition resoundingly celebrates McQueen’s creative brilliance and extraordinary talent, pushing the boundaries of what Fashion and Couture can be, it is also inescapably a memorial to a life extinguished by its own intensity; embracing the weight of history, emotional extremities of human behaviour and “our unrelenting desire for perfection.” Part of the strength of this exhibition is that like the conception/ construction of each garment, it reflects the contradictions of McQueen’s Art; bringing together elements of Design, Display, Installation, Cinema, Theatre and Performance to present multi-layered narrative strands and conflicting forces of Nature, including our own.
Installation view Romantic Exoticism Gallery, Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty at the VA. c Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
On a primal level sound is a significant element moving through each room of the show, creating a sense of McQueen as “a state of mind” and bringing emotional gravitas to each evolving collection of work. Our sense of “shock”, “wonder” and the “sublime” is heightened in the use of recorded memories/ testimonials, tribal drumming connected to the human heart beat, lush string arrangements, stately orchestrated processionals, pounding Techno and the natural sounds of birds, insects and elements like water to explore recurrent themes in the artist’s work. Ideas of Romantic Exoticism, Naturalism, Primitivism, Nationalism and High Gothic are examined and interrogated throughout the exhibition, revealing the complexity and contradictions that are an intrinsic part of human identity. McQueen’s fashion shows were never just that, but provocative events/ Performance Art challenging the passivity of parading models of taste and incorporating live elements like fire, thunder and rain. Gainsbury and Whiting the production company that collaborated with McQueen in staging his catwalk shows have worked with the V&A on the exhibition, recreating some of the moments in his career where all of the artist’s understanding, ideas and technique are brought together.
Throughout McQueen’s work there is tension between forces of release and constraint, openly expressed in the sadomasochistic aesthetic of his accessories. The cage- like aluminium and black leather inverted armoury of Spine corset (Shaun Leane for Alexander McQueen, Untitled Spring/ Summer 1998) which psychologically fuses human form with animal instinct, the greatly exaggerated 30.5 cm heels of McQueen’s Armadillo Boot ( Spring/ Summer 2010) which contort the silhouette and constrict the foot in a naturally engineered predatory coil of python skin and the recurrent use of leather masks in relation to the primary garment, which psychologically and sexually transform the wearer/ model into a mute submissive, contradicting the wearer’s tailored empowerment are all potent examples. Invested in this dominant/ submissive, top/ bottom BDSM tribal language is the silent power of the submissive over the dominant. This ambiguous dynamic of unbridled restraint can also be seen in performance elements of McQueen’s fashion shows represented on film in the exhibition; a model hobbled within a metal frame walking on water or the painfully contorted movement of a model rotating like a captive music box doll, her double belted dress of pristine white cotton assaulted by robotic spray paint to create a unique Haute Couture gown.
Installation view Cabinet of Curiosities Gallery, Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty at the VA. c Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Violence in McQueen’s work is part of his creative dynamism; I find beauty in the grotesque, like most artists. I have to force people to look at things. And force us to look he certainly does, from his 1992 Central St Martins postgraduate collection to his final Autumn/ Winter collection 2010, completed after his death. In many ways McQueen turns the extravagance and excess of the fashion world establishment back on itself, literally and metaphorically holding up a mirror to the audience. In a global context the luxury, extravagance and excess of Haute Couture is grotesque, however the hand crafting of garments, attention to detail and visual/ historical literacy invested in each work is undeniably vital as an expression of human creativity. There is an overwhelming sense of McQueen as outsider in the exhibition; driven to deconstruction of clothing, history and of himself. The well-heeled world of High Fashion was not one he was economically, socially or culturally born into; its language, etiquette and conventions had to be learned and exploded as part of his creative trajectory.
McQueen’s training as an apprentice at Anderson & Sheppard in Saville Row, Gieves & Hawkes, Saville Row and as a pattern cutter for Berman and Nathan’s, creating costumes for London theatre shows, London based Japanese designer Koji Tatsuno and Italian Designer Romeo Gigli in Milan, enabled the artist to learn the language of tailoring and couture in order to become “the purveyor of a certain silhouette.” The strength of McQueen’s Art is that his silhouette or brand is innately fluid, often contradictory and politically/ socially charged. His Jumpsuit ( La Poupée Spring/ Summer 1997) is a statement of iconoclastic precision and arresting Beauty; transforming the social order of a wool suit to create a seamless all in one skin for the body. (Albeit a certain type of female body) A flowing asymmetrical detail of curvaceous fabric extending from the sharply defined lapel subverts an established pattern and is a sublime example of McQueen’s command of tailoring. As an artist he understood that; “you’ve got to know the rules to break them. That’s what I’m here for, to demolish the rules but keep the tradition” . There are many more examples throughout the show of the artist’s elevation of visual language into the realms of the poetic.
McQueen’s Hawthorn Print Frock Coat with dark human hair hidden beneath the white silk lining is alive with predatory, historic and mythic associations. Here he takes a design popularised in the Victorian era by Prince Albert, worn at formal occasions such as funerals or for business and fuses it with associative raw materials of violent Nature and instinctual human drives. As part of his graduate collection Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims (1992) it is a dualistic garment of savage violence cloaked in respectability and manners. The concealed presence of human hair, a symbol of sexuality since biblical times, the thorny black pattern of hawthorn akin to barbed wire; invoking the negative lore of the tree and red stained silk implies the business attire of sexualised violence and murder. The multiple narratives within this one garment are beyond simply adorning the body, establishing the social credentials, wealth or good taste of the wearer. The tailoring in this collection is deadly in its heightened precision; a reflection of one of the great legends of London and of barbarity in civilization. The human condition and mortality is ever present in McQueen’s work, reminding us that however cultivated we may believe ourselves to be, “there’s blood beneath each layer of skin”.
Installation view of Romantic Gothic Gallery, Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty at the VA. c Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Equally McQueens work can be divinely aspirational, a dress designed for the Autumn/ Winter collection 2010 in flowing silk organza combines the sublime and the sensual in a revelatory way. The fabric is printed with religious iconography from The Virgin of the Annunciation, the 1475 Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes. The austere yet gentle monochrome tonality accentuates the female body and its divine attributes. The symmetry of virginal heads and their shadows bring definition and linear grace to the neckline, doves create a natural crease between the arm and the shoulder, hands cup the breasts as givers of life and folds of the painting enhance those of the gown, creating an ethereal vision of femininity and perfection.
McQueen’s perception and presentation of the female body is one of the most fascinating and contradictory aspects of his work. Throughout the show the dimensions of his mannequins and catwalk models are uniformly sculptured, yet what he projects onto the body in his garments and accessories works against type. An ensemble from McQueen’s 2nd collection for Givenchy, Eclect Dissect Autumn/ Winter 1997-98, introduces the idea of metamorphosis; of “a fictional surgeon dismembering women and reassembling them as hybrids.” The artist creates a commanding image of femininity and power in a dress of black leather, red pheasant feather collar, with resin vulture skulls on the shoulders and the black leather gloves of a falconer, skilled in art of handling birds of prey. The studded shoes, accent of red plumage, bound / angular bodice and fishtail leather skirt heighten the element of danger. This is power dressing which replaces the shoulder pads of the 1940’s and 1980’s with the infinite hollows of eye sockets from carrion birds.
An ensemble from the Horn of Plenty Autumn/ Winter Collection 2009 consisting of a black dress of dyed duck feathers, boots (leather and feathers) with a cap/lace mask is another example of the way that the artist simultaneously contains and emancipates the female form. Here McQueen creates two sets of wings which accentuate the shoulders and hips, elongating the classic hourglass shape with a diamond form bodice at the centre of the couture composition. Like a dark angel or mythological creature the silhouette is imposing and self-possessed, with glossy movement of light on feathers animating the display. The vision here isn’t passive but wilfully ironic. It isn’t a classic hourglass in the pin-up/ popular culture sense; displaying or revealing the sexualised female body (i.e. breasts and hips) for a traditional male gaze. What McQueen presents is arguably more complex and part of an internalised iconography of power and identity, along with his own preference for the base of the spine/ elongated back as the most erotic part of the human body, male or female.
Being a woman in her 40’s of distinctly non-supermodel proportions McQueen’s statement; I want to empower women. I want people to be afraid of the women I dress followed me through the exhibition. Although I can only identify with the perfected dimensions of his models/ mannequins in terms of a critical yardstick to beat myself up with, the idea of metamorphosis and evolution through imagination/ creativity is a powerful and empowering element in the artist’s work, irrespective of gender. His use of raw materials from the natural world; feathers, horn, bone, shell, hair and skin, together with hand-crafted/ man-made materials; cut Swarovski crystals, forged metal, intricate lace, layers of silk tulle, the exposure of netting and woven tartan reflect his hybridisation of human and animal base matter, forms and movement; pack, clan and tribe.
Installation view Romantic Naturalism Gallery, Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty at the VA. c Victoria & Albert Museum.
Some of the most exquisite gowns in the Romantic Naturalism room of the exhibition illustrate the universality of human experience beautifully, acknowledging our frailty and vulnerability in relation to natural cycles of growth and decay. The combined use of silk and real flowers as Memento Mori in McQueen’s Sarabande Spring/ Summer Collection 2007 which scattered and fell as the models moved around the runway , the corseted female figure with pastel shaded multi-coloured blooms bursting from within the sculpted confinement of her dress, or the brittle human carapace of the Razor Clam Dress are all potent examples of a wider, emotive field of human experience, sensed and felt in the concept of the garment, its raw materials and elevated, fragile glass cabinet displays.
Alexander McQueen, Razor Clam Shell Dress, Voss, SS 2001. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Perhaps the most powerful expression of this individual and collective self-reflexivity can be seen in the finale of his Spring /Summer 2001 show Voss, also known as The Asylum Show. McQueen deliberately kept his audience waiting, confronting them with a vast two way mirrored box in which to see themselves. Once the show began the models were visibly trapped inside a clinical padded space, unable to see out and repeatedly pressing their hands on the glass. The show culminated in the destruction of an inner chamber which collapsed and shattered, releasing live butterflies and revealing a reclining female model of shockingly normal proportions. (Fetish Writer Michelle Olley) The presence of this “real” female body, her face masked by latex, attached to a respirator and connected to a monkey, feels very much like an acknowledgement of retrograde evolution with our concept of Beauty under the microscope. Framed in this way, the vital sound of “Her” breath is confined within a liberated space of shattered expectations and taboos.
Installation view of Voss, Alexander McQueen, Savage Beauty at the VA. c Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Although McQueen is publicly embraced and celebrated as a uniquely British Artist, the questions he raises in connection with his own heritage and ancestry are still as pertinent as ever. In his Highland Rape Collection Autumn/ Winter 1995, he drew attention to what he saw as “England’s rape of Scotland”. The marketing of Scottish Culture “the world over as Haggis and Bagpipes” does little to acknowledge or celebrate the creative dynamism of the country. The tartan and shortbread picturesque is intrinsically bound up with an age of Empire and Romanticism, reflecting the dominance of one “civilizing” culture over another. In McQueen’s Widows of Culloden Autumn/ Winter Collection 2006 his use of tartan patriotically and proudly displays an aspect of his identity, coupled with jet beads of mourning and loss; a fusion of historical costume and contemporary drama.
Alexander McQueen, Tulle and Lace Dress with Antlers, Widows of Culloden, AW 2006. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
What truly inspires in this exhibition is McQueen’s ability as an artist to consistently question the establishment, the audience and himself, renewing his practice through experimentation, a commitment to craftsmanship and detailed knowledge of historical cultural production. His ability to create juxtapositions of conflicting elements that interweave and clash define the unique cut of his silhouette in life and in death. The presentation of McQueen’s remarkable work in synergy with his creative process has created an overwhelming, emotive and dazzling exhibition, exemplified by The Cabinet of Curiosities display. At double gallery height it is an expansive representation of the recesses and imaginings of a creative mind made tangibly real. Every object, garment, and accessory in this sensational exhibition has multiple stories to tell, therein lays its Beauty.