“There is no way back for me now. I’m going to take you on journeys you’ve never dreamed were possible”
The Savage Beauty exhibition at the V&A in London finally closed yesterday – it has been declared the best-selling exhibition in the Museum’s history, with over 480,000 visitors, and the gallery opening overnight for the first time to cope with demand. I’m not surprised – I visited it last month at the insistence of my fashionista friend, the Divine Miss P, and was absolutely blown away. It wasn’t the static display of clothes in glass cases I’d expected, but an immersive, disturbing, exhilarating experience. From the very first image, of Alexander McQueen’s face morphing into one of his trademark skulls, I was swept up into a dark and disturbing world orchestrated by a soundscape of music which incorporated throbbing bass heartbeats, anguished/ecstatic female moans, tapping typewriter keys, birdsong, and the banjo theme from Deliverance (which influenced one of his fashion collections). Surrounded by plate glass and tarnished, clouded mirrors, the senses were ravished and assaulted; exactly the effect, one imagines, that McQueen would have wanted.
It’s part of the new museum experience – you don’t just look at artefacts and read their labels, you ‘interact’ with the exhibits. At the Natural History Museum, that means the fascinating old bottles of pickled animal specimens have been banished to a cellar in favour of computerised dinosaurs – here, it means you experience the grandeur, the passion and the downright freaky weirdness of a fashion designer’s imagination.
I’m not exactly a couture lady – as someone who loosely identifies as feminist, the bullshit attitudes of the beauty world stick in my craw, and besides, I’ve not got the figure, the finances or frankly the energy for fashion. But I do find the creative instincts and processes behind these collections fascinating. McQueen was essentially a story teller using clothes instead of words, and the stories he tells are warped fairytales, slices of bloody history, flights of dark and twisted fancy – the skull beneath the skin.
It’s hardly surprising that McQueen was prey to stress, to depression. Imagine the pressure of creating something this vibrant, this novel, every season – making two themed collections each year, and never compromising on your dramatic edge. McQueen said he never had any problem finding inspiration, and the range of influences here seems to bear that out; from African wildlife to futuristic sea creatures, from bondage and fetish-wear to Japanese chrysanthemums, from Dutch Old Masters and religious iconography to Romantic poets and the darker days of British history.
Some themes recur – Highland Rape (1995) and the Widows of Culloden (2006) both drew on McQueen’s Scottish roots, and the devastation wrought by the English clearance of the Highlands following the Jacobite rebellion. The first show became McQueen’s calling card, with ‘bumster’ trousers cut low enough to reveal bottom cleavage and his favourite erogenous zone at the base of the spine, and bare-breasted, battered-looking models sent down the runway in ripped lace and tattered tartan. It caused outrage and condemnation in Daily Mail reading circles, and delight in the fashion world. It made McQueen a household name and launched the High Street trend for low-slung jeans which generated the dreaded ‘muffin top’ in every woman bigger than a size 10.
‘The Widows of Culloden’ revisited the theme, but played less on the violence of the Highland clearances, and more on the enduring tragedy of a lost generation. These outfits are Victorian mourning laced with punk attitude – grey tartan and oppressively tight-buttoned corsets, froths of black tulle with kick-ass boots, a melancholic wedding-dress featuring tiers of tea-stained ivory lace, stag antlers piercing the veil. That show concluded with an old Victorian stage-trick called Pepper’s Ghost – an optical illusion using carefully angled mirrors to project a ghostly transparent image onto the stage. In McQueen’s vision, we are haunted by an ethereal Kate Moss, twisting and turning in a cloud of swirling frayed muslin like unravelling bandages, a spectral bride rising from the sepulchre. Even knowing how the illusion is worked, the vision brings a chilling, delicious shudder to your spine.
The dark heart of the exhibition is the towering, mahogany-panelled ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ – an imposingly high-ceilinged room lined with niches containing the most elaborate and alarming one-off pieces from his collections. Death and decay lurks all around you, the fragile and ephemeral juxtaposed with hard bone and metal. Chrome exoskeletons lurk like costumes from a ‘Predator’ movie, a headdress features hundreds of hand-painted red feather butterflies, carved prosthetic limbs, jewelled gimp masks, iron and leather shackles, taxidermy as a fashion accessory… You are trapped in the private collection of a twisted Victorian explorer as he reveals his most coveted, disturbing trophies – too long in the twilight world of strange sights and half-recognised sounds leaves you restless and twitchy.
There is an element of the grotesque to much of McQueen’s work – even as you admire the artistry of the vision and the craftsmanship of each perfectly constructed article, you are repelled by the subtext. Every mannequin in the exhibition is masked or hooded, features obscured, rendered literally faceless. Although many of his clothes flatter and celebrate the female form, the extreme make-up, spiked jewellery and metal restraints that accessorise his collections suggest a degree of fear of femininity and a need to control. This is the starved dark underbelly of fashion, where waiflike teenage bodies sell a warped version of sexuality to people with more money than sense. From a girl spinning helplessly while robots spraypaint her pristine white dress, to a plump naked woman lying in a mirror-box full of moths, models splashing awkwardly through shallow pools of water or encircled by flames, his shows generated feelings of unease, a sense of impending violence.
Even the ‘pretty’ clothes displayed here have disturbing undercurrents. One collection showed vintage-style summer dresses adorned with ruffled layers of fabric flowers in sweet sugared almond colours – yet the catwalk show included real flowers that fell to the floor as the models walked, to be trampled underfoot and destroyed.
The 2008 collection ‘ The Girl Who Lived in the Tree’ was inspired by dreams McQueen had about an ancient Elm in his garden. The costumes conjured decadent images of the British Empire, opulent gowns swagged with falls of rich brocade and gold-embroidered velvet that seemed too heavy for the frail, doll-like models. Dainty high-waisted dresses and delicate slippers encrusted with crystals evoked Jane Austen heroines, while tightly braided military jackets teamed with puffy net skirts hinted at a Regency hero in drag.
The show-stopper was a scarlet coat of almost architectural construction – I can’t describe how dextrously the yards of silk were sculpted into rolling billows and pleats. It’s a coronation robe designed for an evil queen, what the Empress of China would wear if she’d been channeling Maleficent.
‘Plato’s Atlantis’ was the final collection completed before McQueen’s death in 2010 – a surreal vision of (wo)mankind ‘de-evolving’ into some species of amphibian, complete with gills and fins. The beautiful body hugging dresses in gorgeous metallic digital prints are like futuristic fish skins, but the feet are hobbled by 10inch high ‘Armadillo’ shoes. When the show’s stylist was terrified the models would fall and break their ankles, McQueen allegedly said, ‘Let them fall’.
The models survived unscathed, but McQueen himself fell; depressed and grief-stricken, he committed suicide one day before the funeral of his beloved mother. Suddenly those skull scarves and bone masks looked less ironic, more chilling; newspapers rushed to document McQueen’s tormented personal history, friends and family to defend him.
Ultimately, his short, explosive, creative life and tragic death have become part of his mythology – working-class boy made good, Romantic hero, tortured artist – leaving behind this legacy of strange and savage beauty.
If you’d like a taster of the V&A exhibition, visit: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/exhibition-alexander-mcqueen-savage-beauty/
For the eerie Pepper’s Ghost illusion, watch the last few minutes of the ‘Widows of Culloden’ catwalk show here: http://www.alexandermcqueen.com/experience/en/pages/alexandermcqueen/archive/?years=2006#id_article=220