Review of Alexander McQueen : Savage Beauty exhibition, V&A, London, 2015.
“I’m a romantic schizophrenic.”
After being confronted with a huge, somewhat intimidating, black and white mugshot-style portrait of Lee McQueen, this is the quotation emblazoned on the wall when you first step into the exhibition. And indeed it is his tendency towards the Romantic which is the theme that runs through each section and each room, beginning with his first collection Highland Rape (1995), which is a nod to his Scottish heritage and an introduction to his manifesto.
Eight mannequins stand in formation, draped in exquisite garments made of feathers and strands of human hair. They are all wearing gimp masks. Immediately we are exposed to McQueen’s fascination with ornithology – birds are a recurring theme throughout all of his work but in one piece McQueen combines his preoccupation with birds and cinema to create a printed blazer inspired by Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ (1963). The atmosphere is uncomfortable – perhaps because of the presence of so many security guards, but probably because of the display of wispy dresses juxtaposed with the harsh leather and metal bondage masks. McQueen said,
“I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.”
And there is no doubt about it: fear is certainly achieved.
The exhibition moves on to focus on McQueen’s early days as an apprentice tailor in Savile Row. Of course, the tailoring is superb – nipped in waists, extraordinarily cut blazers and S-bend trousers show typical office-wear subverted to pieces of grisly, Jack the Ripper-style costume, again including strands of hair. McQueen’s obsession with Victorian London becomes apparent but while the tailoring and cuts are executed to the highest level of Savile Row perfection, the radical presentation is totally modern (N.B. those ‘Bumster’ trousers). As McQueen said himself, he wanted to
“…demolish the rules but keep the tradition.”
There are several pieces in the exhibition in which McQueen has taken a 15th century painting (usually one depicting religious iconography) and used the image on a suggestively-cut blazer or “inappropriate” dress – again, it seems that juxtaposition is McQueen’s favourite tool and why not? It is highly effective.
From the traditional to the transformational, we return to McQueen’s animal-women and bird-women and how merging the two can appear “sometimes painfully beautiful, at other times inhuman and threatening.” The room itself is very dark now, with odd spotlights here and there, and the walls are made of huge mirrors in gilt frames. But the mirrors are all tarnished, black, dirty, as if someone has lightly doused the surface with a can of spray-paint. And in the dark of the room, with only the feathered but masked mannequins and haunting classical music for company, a stolen glance at oneself in the hazy mirrors does little for reassurance. Nothing is clear, literally. But McQueen explained how his art is an exploration of the “dark side of [his] personality.” There air takes on a sinister melancholy as we leave behind bird-like shawls and approach a sadomasochistic masquerade: masks, metal, gauntlets, leather, chopines, harnesses. It is impossible not to think of these pieces garnering the Marquis de Sade’s approval. Now we really see how revolutionary McQueen’s perversion of fashion really was, and still is – these pieces are at once captivating and terrifying.
“I want to be the purveyor of a certain silhouette or a way of cutting, so that when I’m dead and gone people will know that the 21st century was started by Alexander McQueen.”
Suddenly, the sound of noisy tribal chanting drags us into the next room which can only be described as a catacomb – bones in the walls, skulls on the skirting, almost total darkness bar a strange sort of aquarium in the ceiling. Here we are presented with McQueen’s Romantic primitivism, and can clearly see how he was influenced by tribal life in the subcontinents. The mannequins stand in their respective “tomb” and all have perspex horns protruding from their faces. Again, the juxtapositions are evident. A rose-pink pony hair dress is finished by the huge impala horns that are attached to the shoulders. The frayed, bleached denim hotpants are ignored for the glittery baby crocodile heads that sit on the shoulders. It’s civilised meets uncivilised. It’s Western meets the wild. It’s genius.
Next is a display of McQueen’s Romantic nationalism – his pride for his heritage, the Scottish, the Great British. This room can only be described as majestic. The classical music rings out once again, and everything is totally overwhelming because of the richness of the regal reds and glorious golds, and of course for the thousands of Swarovski crystals the catch the light from all angles. It is dazzling. We see the Highland tartan print, intricate headdresses, silk tulle skirts, glass beads, furs, ruby-red slippers, and of course Swarovski crystals. I feel like I’m at a royal dance 200 years ago. I am totally overwhelmed. As I leave this room to follow the sounds of dance music, I notice the quotation on the beam above my head,
“I want to create pieces that can be handed down, like an heirloom.”
The next room is totally different to the previous. For one thing, if I thought that the previous tribal room was loud, this is a total cacophony: as I walked round the room, different speakers played different sounds. I heard the keys of a typewriter, some ‘Psycho’-esque horror movie music, a young girl singing a sweet melody, a woman in the throes of an orgasm, street riots, birdsongs, violins and a robot. The ceiling was super-high and on all four walls the exhibits went right up to the ceiling so standing underneath them you could not see, one had to step into the middle of the room. There were large boxes on the walls with mannequins, several TVs dotted around showing clips from the runway, and smaller boxes with accessories and shoes. There was a lot to look at from McQueen’s Cabinet of Curiosities plus the silver-work by Shaun Leane and that butterfly headdress by Philip Treacy (S/S 2008).
Needless to say, every single piece I found to be totally incredible. Ranging from exquisite headdresses to the famous Armadillo boot (S/S 2010), to the In Memory of Elizabeth Howe, Salem, 1692 pieces to a silver jawbone mouthpiece (S/S 1998), this room was a perfect summary of all things McQueen. Unfortunately, the noises were really distracting and forced me out into the next room sooner than I had liked.
I did not expect to find what I did in the next room. Inside a glass pyramid, using a hologram, V&A recreated Kate Moss for Alexander McQueen, where he used the “Pepper’s Ghost” illusion technique to turn Moss into a ghost on the catwalk, an ethereal spectre with her dress floating all around her.
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-38BdFGAho. Obviously, it was totally haunting. That is the only word for it. Haunting.
Then we reverted to the Romantic theme, looking at McQueen’s exoticism, with 8 rotating mannequins in mirrored boxes, with outfits inspired by India, Turkey, Africa and China. McQueen particularly adored the kimono and Japan’s influence on these pieces is evident. At the back of the room was a 2-way mirrored box containing 4 mannequins – a sudden noise like a constant fire alarm commenced and people were not really sure what was going on. The area went totally dark and a projection began behind us of the iconic finale of the Voss (aka ‘Asylum’) (S/S 2001) show.
You can watch this here (skip to 9:20 for the finale): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UMTZD193AA8
After all the mayhem, things became a little quieter as we returned to McQueen’s Romantic naturalism and his obsession with birds. The room was bright and light with strange wallpaper – I remember thinking it looked like a sketch of a Victorian LSD trip. These dresses were more classical, made with neutral colours, delicate sandy lace and moulded leather – kind of “back to basics,” kind of Bronte sisters, but definitely impressive. The return of the raw materials – one dress was spectacularly layered from neck to toe in pheasant feathers, and the razor clam shell dress (S/S 2001) was really special – and once again, you realise the extent of McQueen’s genius and the tragedy of his untimely death.
The final room exhibits the highly anticipated presentation of McQueen’s Plato’s Atlantis collection. The final 7 identical silver mannequins display what was “considered to be AMQ’s greatest achievement.” Plato’s Atlantis offered a “potent vision of the future of fashion” and indeed it is very impressive. The silk dresses that had been digitally printed with kaleidoscopic jellyfish patterns (S/S 2010) were captivating, with my gaze only being distracted by the video projected behind the pieces of Raquel Zimmerman mutating into a semi-aquatic creature. This final collection suitably reinforced McQueen’s ideology of the transformative powers of fashion.
As the exhibition came to an end, the final wall quoted McQueen with the ominous but thrilling lines,
“There is no way back for me now. I’m going to take you on journeys you’ve never dreamed were possible.”
I reflected then on his suicide and the catastrophic loss that has been suffered by the fashion world, by London, by aspiring designers. And by me – he will always be one of my favourite designers because he managed to do what I try to do so badly, that is, to turn his personal suffering and anguish into art to be enjoyed and criticised and talked about for generations to come.
God save Alexander McQueen.
Photographs are NOT mine – I do not own or take credit for any photography in this post – to see original source, click on photo. Thanks! xx
Great review. Thanks for all your thoughts and descriptions. Being too far away to see this exhibition in person, I have a great sense of it now.
Brilliant, that was my aim :) it really was a magical exhibition – dark and noisy, but totally awe-inspiring