On the unsettling and unlikely beauty of Alexander McQueen’s designs, currently in retrospective at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty
March 14-August 2, V&A
For Alexander McQueen, beauty was rarely just a matter of elegance and style. In McQueen’s world, beauty was theatrical, operatic, exciting, and grandiose. It could be unsettling, grotesque, fierce, and even violent. It could source itself from the unlikeliest of places. He once said that “there’s blood beneath every layer of skin.” Was he trying to show the blood that lay beneath?
Aptly titled Savage Beauty, the exhibition emphasises the complexity and contradictions of life which McQueen relished. Even from his days as Lee McQueen the young and ambitious tailor-turned-designer, the now household name cut an enigmatic figure. Crashing what he called the “repression” of the London fashion scene, he brought his bad boy reputation—imbued with his roots in London’s East End and his eclectic lifestyle set in nineties Soho—to the high fashion runway.
His shows were often controversial, but his shock and awe approach kept audiences returning. Determined to defy conventions, they became increasingly closer to performance art. Several of his infamous shows are recreated in miniature within the exhibition: the spray paint dress of No. 13, the mirrored asylum of Voss, and, most poignantly, the holographic finale of The Widows of Culloden featuring an ethereal Kate Moss floating amidst a sea of white lace.
For the casual observer and even still for many fashion journalists, it can be easy to dismiss McQueen as a crass showman—shock for shock’s sake. But he was a meticulous craftsman, having started out tailoring suits for aristocrats on Savile Row. Savage Beauty embodies this, showcasing a technical repertoire which is both vast and exquisite. He continually reconfigured a variety of garments, defying existing notions on what clothes could do: the jacket, the kimono, the humble shoe, were all combined with his visionary romanticism to produce breathtakingly beautiful clothes. With a taste for Victorian Gothic and Scottish nationalism (McQueen’s ancestors hailed from up north) he shared the interests and aspirations of the 19th century Romantic Movement. The natural world, the exotic ‘other’, and the heady sway of national feeling translated themselves into tartan coats, feathered dresses, and raw-cut lace.
Organised thematically, the exhibition thrives off its ability to present McQueen’s work as that of a romantic who—in his own words—sought to “demolish the rules but keep the tradition.” But its loose chronology means that much of context in which McQueen worked is lost: ‘Cool Britannia’, the Young British Artists, and the undeniable influence of Isabella Blow. Blow, the late fashion magazine editor who is often credited as launching McQueen’s career, and whose suicide years before McQueen’s own is thought of as having a profound impact, is omitted from mention entirely. His 1995 show Highland Rape caused an uproarious stir in the fashion world and beyond, and for the first time put McQueen at the epicentre of attention. Accused of everything from tasteless to blatantly misogynistic, its existence is mentioned only in passing and only within the broader context of his affinity for Scottish Nationalism.
Installation view of ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ gallery, Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty at the V&A.
But despite these glaring omissions, Savage Beauty is first and foremost an aesthetically dazzling exhibition which still manages to capture the essence—or at least part of—McQueen’s creations. Many of the works speak for themselves. In the multi-storey room entitled ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’, a motley of the late designer’s most exquisite pieces are up for perusal. Glinting jewelled dresses with curved bodices, cage-like masks adorned with exotic feathers, and his infamous aquatic ‘armadillo’ shoes satiate the fetishism of human beings which the late designer was constantly intrigued with.
At times, McQueen’s internal turmoils spilled onto the public domain. Days before his suicide, the designer sent out this tweet: “From heaven to hell and back again, life is a funny thing. Beauty can come from the most strangest of places even the most disgusting places.” Looking back upon McQueen’s work, his words ring truer than ever, redefining both the physical capabilities of clothing and the conceptual definition of fashion as we know it. Beauty, indeed, can be a savage thing.