A SAVAGE BEAUTY
Victoria & Albert Museum
14, March – 2, August, 2015
Review by Susan Edwards
At the entrance was a video screen, an image of an indistinct human face morphing from a skull shape to tribal image with the incessant sound of a primal heartbeat. The face that mutates and shifts is Alexander McQueen. The sound track is a deep bass chant that can be felt in the chest, leaving an intense feeling of anticipation. It was an intoxicating entrance to an exhibition. There was a stone wall at this entrance with texts of his work, themes and plots, a quote from him that stated, “I’m a romantic schizophrenic”. All through out the exhibition were wall captions of his collection, descriptions of his work that were his words, not those of curators or museum staff viewpoints. One was reading his own interpretations of his ideas and the creative process he employed. Like his life, they were blunt, outrageous, politically incorrect and at times, the frankness of his observations would make one wince with the brutality of the words. His collections were shown in ten rooms of chronological order from his first collection as a graduate of Central St. Martin’s in 1992 to his unfinished Atlantis collection of the S/S 2012.
The exhibition contains over 240 pieces of work plus sound and film so as to mimic in some manner his catwalk shows which have been described as performance or installation art. No matter the label, like his presentations the exhibition was a feast for the entire senses.
The lighting, sound and visual effects were a collaboration with the production company of Gainsbury & Whiting, which in itself was a well executed and curated event. The London exhibit was followed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York by the same title of “Savage Beauty”. The 2011 event was the 8th most popular exhibition in the Met’s 141 year history. It was the fourth most attended exhibition worldwide for that year with more than 661,000 visitors. While the attendance records for the Victoria and Albert event are still to be determined, the exhibition is sold out weeks in advance, with 100 tickets allowed daily on a first come, first serve basis at the door. There are several viewing times throughout the day with long queues forming hours ahead of schedule. On the day of attendance, April 16, the rooms were packed with people patiently snaking about the perimeters of the spaces to progress forward. No seating was available except in the Room of Curiosities where one might wait several minutes or more for a vacant spot to sit. It took two and a half hours to view the collection, videos and read the accompany narratives. In fact, though possible to return to a previous room to relook at a piece, it would have been more akin to a trout swimming upstream going against the forward movement of viewers. Once an exit had been made at the final tenth room of the Atlantis collection no return was possible as tight control over the crowd flow was maintained by museum monitors and personnel.
McQueen presented contradictions in his life which reflected in his work. Born in the East End of London of working class parents, his life led him to mingle with the elite, famous, and beautiful. The Victoria & Albert event staged a preview where these elite famous attended, some wearing his designs, others were asserting rights of association with the man and all acknowledging his brilliance and genius. But on April 16th, one of many exhibition days for the general public, multitudes of people from various stations and walks of life attended. Men in conservative tweed jackets carrying brollies, well coiffed women in stylish clothes, goths, punks, hipsters, arty funks, school tours, high, middle and low class, all to view his brilliance and genius.
Lee Alexander McQueen represented an anti establishment persona, yet was trained in the most conservative of trades. Apprenticed on Saville row at Gieves & Hawkes, tailors for royalty and other lofty clients, he is reputed to have sewn into the lining of a suit for Prince Charles of Wales the words, “I am a cunt”. He presented an unsettling, unsavoury view of the soul saying once, “people find my things sometimes aggressive, but I don’t see it as aggressive, I see it as romantic, dealing with a dark self of personality”. Despite this uncomfortable inner personality guiding his visual designs, he was a 4 time British Designer of the Year recipient, 2004 Men’s Wear Designer of the Year, and in 2003 he received both Best International Designer of the Year and a C.B.E. ( Commander of the British Empire) for services to the fashion industry bestowed on him by Queen Elizabeth. While he extolled the virtues of his east end roots in text at the exhibition, “London is where I was brought up, its’ where my heart is and where I get my inspiration”, he also embraced his Scottish heritage saying “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 and bagpipes, but no one ever puts anything back into it” and after his Widows of Culloden, A/W 2006 collection, inspired by the Jacobite Risings and the 1745 Battle of Culloden he said, “what the British did there was nothing short of genocide”.
To put together another review of this retrospect exhibition of McQueen’s life work seems like a waste of time for both writer and reader. There is a slight doubt much more can be expanded, shared, related and envisioned and most certainly nothing is gained of yet another room by room, garment by garment description. But something about what he created and presented tugs at the soul of individuals that so many, from so diverse backgrounds show up to view his collections. The appeal could be the element of fantasy McQueen embraced, carving out places for ourselves in alternate personalities to attain the unattainable. Let’s instead examine three of his iconic pieces that helped shape the industry and fashion, the duck feather dress, bumster jeans, and the spray paint dress.
The duck feather dress is from the A/W 2009 “Horn of Plenty” collection. The garment is a knee length dress constructed from hundreds of thousands of intertwined black dyed duck feathers along with a tight fitting cap for the head.
It has become the signature piece for the Victoria & Albert’s Savage Beauty exhibition. Embracing the Romantic period of the 18th century with mythic and dark gothic images, he utilised the focus of fantasy for intense emotions such as terror, awe, and joy. The period was noted for its scientific rationalization to nature and a heightened sense of enlightenment. Inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “The Raven” from 1845, he transformed a human to a bird using a raven the romantic symbol of death. He was also manipulating with the proportions of a 1950’s haute couture hourglass figure.
McQueen was a fan of corseted waists and structured shoulders. Combining the precision and tailoring that was his trademark, he engaged an unbridled creativity to construct an avian shaped form, nipped in at the waist, the hips and shoulders with exaggerated fullness of the feathers appearing as the model’s wings. He employed plumassiers or feather masters from the workshops of the House of Lemarie which are highly skilled craftspeople in fashion. While feathers have been used in fashion countless time, they are generally associated with the show girl effect, light and sexual in nature. McQueen’s use of feathers take on a brooding, dark meaning, mimicking the raven from the narrative poem with concepts of loss, memories, and “nothing more”. It demonstrated his extraordinary showmanship and flair for theatrics. A dress not practical to be worn on the red carpet, but soaked in rich visual romantic indulgence. The use of fantasy was visited endlessly in his designs, allowing the wearer to experiment with identity without taking on another persona. He loved birds and used feathers many times in his work, but none as memorable as the piece from this collection.
The bumster jeans were first shown for the A/W 1993 collection Taxi Driver, inspired by the Martin Scorsese film as well as his father’s profession. It was his first collection after graduating with his MA degree and it would change the silhouette of women’s trousers for the next 20 years. Several elements of style are occurring with the bumster. First and foremost is provocation. In the bumsters, McQueen is shifting the focus of the erogenous zone from breast cleavage to bum cleavage and from female eroticism to a unisexual appeal. “I wanted to elongate the body, not just to show the bum. To me that part of the body…not so much the buttocks but the bottom of the spine…. that’s the most erotic part of anyone’s body”. The flat fronted bumster is cut and tailored with his unique precision and knowledge of pattern making. The “rise” of any trouser is determined by the distance of the crotch to the waist which normally measures 12 inches. In the low rise trouser, this measurement is reduced to 5 inches, designed to sit low on the hip, elongating the torso and shortening the leg. The bumster featured in many of his collections, but received notoriety in his A/W, 1995, Highland Rape collection. By 2000, the fashion was showing on the streets deliberately ripped and patched. Britney Spears is credited with making the jean popular after she started wearing a version of the trouser which stopped just short of her pubic bone. The low rise jean is differentiated from the sloppy, oversized jeans seen on hip hop stars in that they are far more tailored and offer a skinny leg. This garment is a classic example of the industry process, where the concept or clothes are first viewed on the catwalk before being deconstructed, manipulated, and accommodated for the mass market.
New designs follow fixed laws of precedence on the runway beginning with suits and ending with evening wear. Traditionally the end of a collection is a wedding gown or some designed version of the wedding gown.For the finale of the S/S, 1999, untitled show, McQueen sent out ballerina Shalom Harlow in a white billowy dress layered with silk tulle petticoats. The dress has a trapezoid, below the knee length form, strapless and held up with a plain light brown leather belt under the arms. Another belt runs from side seam to side seam to hold it next to the body in the back. Walking down to two waiting robotic objects, she steps onto a round plate that begins to rotate while the machines begin to spray her dress with black and yellow paint. A slight macabre interaction begins with the virginal model showing signs of resistance, bound with belts, submitting to the prodding and branding of the robots paint. In the end, the machines sit silent having finished their work, the model walks off the plate, her dress and body covered in dripping paint.
It was craft melting with technology. The impact of the finale was stunning as preceding that moment, the robots sit as motionless sentinels while models walk down to random placed revolving plates dressed in clothes of fine crafted balsa wood and loose weave raffia. The designer had been inspired by an installation of German artist Rebecca Horn where two shotguns fired blood red paint at each other in careful timed intervals. The dress was displayed in the Room of Curiosities of the exhibition at the V&A, mounted up on a plinth type structure while a video played the original runway moment of Harlow being sprayed by the machines. Incorporating the element of displacement in fashion, it allowed McQueen to include images, objects, or inconsequential motifs on garments without a reference to logic and rationality. Displacement is fashion’s nod to Surrealism, a movement founded in the 1920’s which transposes inanimate objects into different and uneasy contexts. He used this technique with relish, hoping to illicit emotions of disgust or incredulity with the glamour of fashion.
The process of fashion is a two way street. While the designer’s initial and often outrageous garments will eventually be diluted when they hit the high street, designers can also reinterpret ideas observed on the streets in a “trickle up” effect to the runway. The aim of the catwalk fashion collections is not to satisfy a practical function as normally needed of clothing such as warmth, protection, or to incite sexual attraction, but instead to utilize the human form in an unlimited creative process and allow the imagination of the designer/artist no boundaries. It uses the body as moving artistic object of rebellion. Something Lee Alexander McQueen did with exquisite skill.
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, in partnership with Swarovski, supported by American Express and made possible with the cooperation of Alexander McQueen, runs from 14 March – 2 August 2015.
Beasley, Mark, 2011, Nov /Dec, Frieze Magazine, issue 143, Alexander McQueen,
Metro M.of Art, New York.
Bourk, Sinead, 13, March, 2015, First Look
Fogg, Marnie, 2014, Why You Can Go Out Dressed Like That: Modern Fashion Explained. Pub. Thames & Hudson.
Milligan, Lauren, 11, May, 2011, Who’s who, Vogue.
Poe, Edgar Allen, 1845, The Raven
Skidmore, Maisie, 13, March, 2015,
The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947-1957.
www.youtube.com Alexander McQueen S/S,RTW, 1999, No. 13
(full runway show, 21:45)
Title: Duck feather dress
Artist: Alexander McQueen
Date: The Horn of Plenty, A/W 2009-10
Credit line: Model: Magdalena Frackowiak represented by dna model management New York, Image: firstVIEW
Special terms: None
Title: Installation view of ‘London’ gallery
Artist: Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty at the V&A
Credit line: Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Special terms: None
Title: Spray painted dress
Artist: Alexander McQueen
Date: No 13, S/S 1999
Credit line: Model: Shalom Harlow represented by dna model management New York, Image: Catwalking
Special terms: None