Savage Beauty at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York celebrates the life and work of conceptual artist and fashion designer Alexander McQueen. He ignited fashion’s catwalks with his wild and uninhibited imagination. Life, death and a dark threatening sensuality are recurring themes in his collections. His shows were theatrical, outrageous and disturbing. He was a perfectionist.
McQueen was openly gay and his tragic suicide at the age of 40 stunned the fashion industry and the world. He’d been doing drugs and was depressed, most likely by the death of his mother from cancer.
Alex Bolton, the show’s curator, opened the May 3 press reception with the quote, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that was tattooed on McQueen’s arm: “Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.” Bolton went on to say that the exhibit was designed as a gothic fairy tale.
On hand was McQueen’s creative director, Sarah Burton, who designed Kate Middleton’s royal wedding dress (a kinder, gentler version of the McQueen esthetic); Vogue’s Anna Wintour; and Stella McCartney, a close friend who witnessed the unleashing of his creative genius. McQueen honed his tailoring skills on Savile Row and in the Givenchy atelier. He designed the dress for Bjork’s Homogenic album cover and directed the video for her “Alarm Call.” Other celebrities who fell under McQueen’s thrall include Nicole Kidman, Penélope Cruz, Sarah Jessica Parker, Rihanna and the notorious Lady Gaga.
There are 100 dresses in the exhibit, six collections that examine McQueen’s creative connection with the Romantic sublime and the merging of beauty and horror.
Romantic Gothic explores McQueen’s fascination with the light and darkness of Victorian Gothic. His first Jack the Ripper collection was bought in its entirety by the late Isabella Blow, who adopted him as her protégé.
Romantic Nationalism examines McQueen’s patriotism and his love of Scotland. “The reason I’m patriotic about Scotland is because I think it’s been dealt a really hard hand. It’s marketed the world over as haggis… bagpipes. But no one ever puts anything back into it.” The ripped, tartan, flesh-revealing dresses of his scandalous Highland Rape collection is displayed in front of a pulverized wooden backdrop.
Romantic Exoticism explores the influences of other cultures on the designer’s work, especially Japanese and Chinese. Romantic Primitivism reveals McQueen’s fascination with the ideal of the “noble savage,” which inspired his romantic mind to artfully render tailored smoking jackets and buttock-revealing Bumpster pants, while “Romantic Naturalism” demonstrates his use of raw materials and forms derived from nature in his designs.
The show opens with a dress made of ostrich feathers covered with blood-red medical slides, and a white dress fashioned from razor clamshells. A Mozart adagio and menacing sound design permeate the exhibit. Backdrops include grey-flecked mirrors and videos of McQueen’s evocative, titillating collections run alongside the displays.
A black cabinet of curioutes is the centrepiece of the exhibit. It’s filled with his fetishized, bondage-inspired accessories. A metal spine with a long tail drapes the back of a mannequin. There are white rococo shoes, red Chinese platforms and lethal pieces of jewellery designed by Shaun Leane. McQueen loved skulls. His quotes are placed throughout the exhibit and give the viewer some insight into his creative process.
The mannequins’ faces in the exhibit are masked or completely covered. Horns split through torsos. One has to ask if McQueen’s sadomasochistic Leigh Bowery-inspired facemasks were demeaning or empowering to women. McQueen has been accused of misogyny and degrading the image of women. He said he liked to create clothing for women that threatened men, but his shows have featured a masked, caged woman, and model Shalom Harlow in a strapless white dress rotating on a turntable as robots spray her with red paint.
The most whimsical piece in the show is a Princess Leia-sized hologram of supermodel Kate Moss spinning in clouds of fabric. The original life-sized version was seen in McQueen’s 2006 show, Widows of Culloden.
McQueen’s work is the antithesis of today’s disposable fashion. His clothing is exquisite and beautifully cut. He was not out to hawk perfume and accessories. He brought a sense of the cerebral and history to his work.
Savage Beauty runs from May 4 to July 31.