It’s a violent business, tailoring. Cutting, ripping, pinning, yanking, pressing, stretching, stitching; we put the raw materials of our clothes through quite a lot before putting them on our bodies. Typically, these exertions result in the merely presentable, occasionally the fetching, rarely the beautiful, and perhaps once in a generation, the transcendent. Throughout his career, beginning in the 1990s and lasting right up to his suicide in February 2010, Lee Alexander McQueen constantly laid bare the brutal qualities of his craft. In doing so, he upended our notions of bodily contours, movement through space, and beauty itself.
Entering its final week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” has established itself as one of the defining events of Summer 2011. The New York Times, in its print edition and Arts Beat blog, has devoted no fewer than seven posts and articles to it. The $45 hardbound catalogue is selling by the tens of thousands. People dress up in elaborate outfits to see the exhibit. And, when it’s all over, “Savage Beauty” will probably rank among the top 20 most-visited Met exhibitions since the museum began taking attendance. The Met has extended the show from July 31 to August 7, extended viewing hours during regular opening days, and has also offered $50 viewing tickets on Mondays, when the museum is normally closed. On the final two days of the show, the museum will remain open until midnight. News of these measures has only added to the buzz surrounding the show, and the crush of visitors continues to pack the exhibition rooms and queues for hours on end to see it.
What awaits as the end of the queue is a spectacular confrontation with McQueen’s wild and often troubling visions. Two terrifying mannequin sentries greet visitors at the exhibition entrance. The first wears a flame-red dress with a feathered skirt; the bodice has no neckline, but rushes upward, engulfing the mannequin’s face and head. The other mannequin, a wicked mer-creature, wears a dress and train constructed entirely out of razor-clam shells. Fire and water stand in opposition here, the first of many clashes—between body and garment, beauty and the grotesque—in this sartorial house of horrors.
In the first gallery, “The Romantic Mind,” are garments from collections titled Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims (1992), Nihilism (1994), and Highland Rape (1995-96). Although the clothes are exquisitely tailored, knife slashes are everywhere, in plunging, curved necklines and slits sliced into the fabric. The aggressive cut is also manifest in the notorious “bumster” pants McQueen developed in the ’90s, cut low enough to reveal the wearer’s buttocks, and sparking nearly a decade of not being able to find a pair of ladies blue jeans with a zip fly longer than half an inch.
In the remaining galleries, organized thematically by the curator, Andrew Bolton, things don’t get any more cheerful. The “Cabinet of Curiosities” gallery is a 19th-century mad scientist’s laboratory, walled with black cubbyholes of various sizes, housing individual accessories—a headdress here, a metal torso ornament there—giving the effect of rearranged dismembered body parts. Yet another gallery is decked out as an ominous banquet hall right out of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, and meant to evoke the horror and romance of the Victorian Gothic. In here there are garments inspired by actual Gothic altarpieces of the 15th century as well as witchy, bondage-inspired pieces, including a billowing black dress and black cape from the Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious collection (2002-03), which McQueen said was dedicated to Tim Burton. (The cape is kept in an appropriate state of billow by a wind machine.) Of course, Burton also traffics in such remembrances of historical horror, but absent from McQueen is any whiff of the juvenile fun that permeates the director’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride. Burton’s naughtiness is tongue-in-cheek; McQueen’s is genuinely dark.
McQueen’s historical references also include the violent past of his native Scotland. He used extensive amounts of tartan wrought into extreme silhouettes (who’d imagine a bustle reappearing in the aughts?) for two of his collections, The Widows of Culloden (2006-07) and Highland Rape. Widows of Culloden specifically invokes the final battle of the Jacobite Risings, which spanned from 1688 and 1746; Highland Rape is an elegy to the British displacement of the Scottish Highland population in the 19th century. Yet at the same time, McQueen also bore nostalgic feelings for England’s imperial past. The Girl Who Lived in a Tree (2008-09) is a collection inspired by “British Empire, the Queens of England, the Duke of Wellington.” Anyone who’s watched even one Jane Austen film adaptation will find the empire waists and velvet jackets familiar territory, and if there is any levity in the show, it came from this collection. A volcano of ivory tulle bursts forth from a red bolero jacket with gold bullion embroidery, and a scarlet dress cape with proportions of unfathomable amplitude balloons out in every possible direction. The head on the cape-wearing mannequin was adorned with a pair of ruby-encrusted Viking horns, making the whole thing look like a satanic Lady Russell. As if facing off, pieces from The Girl Who Lived in a Tree and the more severe Widows of Culloden line opposite walls of a gallery, as visitors walk the aisle between them, turning from one side to the other.
The historical galleries culminate in a room in showing a 3D hologram of Kate Moss rotating amid masses of wind-blown silk organza to the score of Schindler’s List. One could say that the hologram is the ultimate project for an artist who constantly worked the tension between the violence and seductiveness, and looked for beauty in the repulsive. If, on the other hand, one takes it as glib invocation of the Holocaust, it’s almost unforgiveable.
As Holland Cotter pointed out in the New York Times, such political unresolvedness is one of the more frustrating aspects about McQueen’s appropriations of the past and of other cultures, which include Africa, China, and Japan. These borrowings from other cultures are, like the everything else in the show, stunning monuments to exquisite craftsmanship, but the visual signposts—beadwork and stacked rings for all of sub-Saharan Africa, kimonos, anime, and chrysanthemums for Japan—smell slightly of tokenism.
Of course, we’ll never know if McQueen could have developed these ideas further, but in his too-brief career, he managed nothing less than to broaden the possibilities of how bodies can appear and of what kind of confrontations clothes can provoke. “Savage Beauty” shows McQueen’s work to its best advantage. Only a lucky few were able to attend his runway shows, spectacles involving human chess matches and spray-painting robots. The wonderful installation of the show, wind machines and all, allows for an approximation of the experience in a more imaginative way than merely running video clips of the runway.
McQueen’s work brings to mind another Met exhibition I saw a few years ago, “Art of the Samurai: Japanese Arms and Armor, 1156-1868.” In the armor exhibit was an Edo-period decorative helmet adored with a pair of black and red lacquer rabbit ears soaring into the air. There have been certain times in history when it’s perfectly reasonable, even called for, to strap a pair of lacquer rabbit ears onto one’s head. McQueen made his fantastical works for people who find such occasions in the everyday. It’s fun to see Lady Gaga dance in his 10-inch, hoof-shaped stilettos in music videos, but McQueen in all seriousness would have liked to see a woman wearing them to the city courthouse to contest her parking tickets.
For more information about “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” click here.