To those outside the orbit of haute couture, the industry may seem trite—a lot of bluster and blather about incredibly expensive clothes that are generally impractical, designed for scarecrows, and doomed for obsolescence in a season. But a trip through the Met’s “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty“ exhibition (through July 31) is a reminder of how fashion design can combine unfettered imagination and trends of the moment with the body’s limits, tradition, and mad sewing skills (notably, his “Oyster” dress). McQueen’s passing last year makes this show of his bravura talent all the more tragic while celebrating him.
Curator Andrew Bolton has organized the exhibition into several rooms, each with its own theme/collection and design motif. “The Cabinet of Curiosities,” built of what appears to be charred wood, houses many head/neck/body pieces crafted of metal, feathers, wood, shells, as well as shoes and other items. One room looks to be from a decaying Versailles; another (where his “Highland Rape” collection, a commentary on England’s “raping” of Scotland, is shown), destroyed wooden planks and siding. Also included are a hologram projection, videos of runway shows and related footage, and a re-creation of an installation/runway show inspired by Joel Peter Witkin. His romantic streak is evident in the collection titles which often included the word “romantic.”
McQueen, who began as a Savile Row tailor, is commonly referred to as a genius, apparent on so many levels of his work: the miraculous, curved cutting and seaming of a series of gray flannel suit jackets. The extrusion of the human body in newfound ways, but also of couture itself as an extension of the form, such as lapels that rise ear high, or a kilt made of perforated wooden slats, like a giant fan. The use of the skins and shells of other creatures repurposed as evening gowns. The innate sensitivity to a fabric’s characteristics and potential, and the juxtaposition of them for maximum drama, as exhibited in my favorite piece in the show — a fitted jacket of gold feathers that explodes at the thigh into a mermaid tail of gold embroidered ecru tulle. His last complete collection (“Plato’s Atlantis,” 2010), which featured “jellyfish” outfits and “lobster claw shoes” is still apparent in the unfortunate trend of huge clunky platform shoes with swaths of leather adding to the foot’s visual bulk—ugly and impractical. Despite this hideous, if conceptually bright, spark (and perhaps his “bumster” pants, exposing butt cleavage), McQueen was seldom vulgar, hewed to elegant silhouettes, and respected couture’s traditions. He wasn’t present at the evening’s gala, but his spirit was no doubt pervasive.