Lucy Healy-Kelly finds Alexander McQueen’s patriotic heart on his sleeve at the Savage Beauty exhibit, closing August 7th, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

How It’s New York: Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty has been one of the city’s most talked about exhibits of Summer 2011 and has attracted huge numbers of visitors since it opened in May, with people waiting on line for up to 3 hours to see it. It will close next weekend, and such is the visitor demand  that the Met is taking the unprecedented move of keeping the museum open until midnight for Saturday and Sunday.

How It’s Irish (Scottish): Though very much a Londoner, two of McQueen’s collections were inspired by his exploration of his Scottish heritage. Savage Beauty features the Gallery “Romantic Nationalism”, which examines this body of work.  McQueen worked extensively with Irish milliner Philip Treacy.

On a sunny Saturday July afternoon in New York, the steps leading up to the Metropolitan Museum are bustling and bright. There are museum visitors arriving and departing, people sit and enjoy ice creams with gift shop bags tucked between their feet. A cheery jazz band harmonize Under the Boardwalk, and stalls nearby sell the usual Museum Mile tourist souveneirs –  reproduction New Yorker covers, postcards, and a million views of the city – from the sidewalk beneath the leafy dappled shade of Central Park.

Join the (lenghty) line inside for the exhibition Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, however, and you are transported to an infinitely darker and more macabre world (if you can’t make it you can buy the show catalogue on Amazon, see left). The Costume Institute’s exhibition features approximately 100 ensembles and 70 accessories from McQueen’s prolific 19-year career. It covers six different gallery spaces, each beautifully mounted, with the pieces presented around themes; The Romantic Mind, Romantic Gothic, Romantic Nationalism, 
Romantic Exoticism, Romantic Primitivism and Romantic Naturalism.

The names suggest McQueen’s preoccupations and inspirations, and guide us (with impressively atmospheric music and installation) through this body of  work.  The key word here is obviously Romantic, but in the fascinating array of fashion we pass through it feels like there is not an animal, vegetable or mineral left unturned. There is dark, brooding Victorian Gothic; explorations of mortality and sexuality; kimonos and Japanese prints; alligators, antelope, peacocks and jellyfish; battles between angels and demons, good and evil, heaven and hell… There are sharp edges, hard lines, and unflinchingly examined inspriations. His later work for Givenchy sees McQueen exploring softer designs, in pieces such as the breathtaking, dreamy layers of silk tulle and organza in the ‘Oyster dress’ (pictured). This is just one of dozens of magnificent images of his collection.

I am sometimes cynical about fashion, but this exhibition convinced me beyond any doubt that McQueen’s work was entirely worthy of museum display. The pieces in Savage Beauty are wildly imaginative, utterly original, and meticulously made. McQueen believed that “You’ve got to know the rules to break them. That’s what I’m here for, to demolish the rules and keep the tradition.” This approach created some extraordinarily anachronistic results, and pieces appear at once thoroughly Victorian and also jarringly futuristic. It seems entirely appropriate that McQueen’s Fall 2009 collection cited Tim Burton as an inspiration, as twisted fairytales, gothic lunacy and monochromatic palettes have provided both such signature looks. (McQueen’s St Martin’s graduation collection “Jack The Ripper Stalks His Victims” would seem totally at home in Burton’s Sweeney Todd). It strikes me as a grave shame that the two never had the opportunity to work on a film together… but maybe McQueen work was infused with enough of the theatrical and the cinematic as it was.

In keeping tradition, though, McQueen also kept the craftmanship, and however outlandish the concept, the attention to process is consistently evident in the cut, the tailoring, beadwork, lace, brocade. The pieces on display in the Met were, by and large, not clothes to be worn by mere mortals – the “Coiled” metal corset created by Shaun Leane for Alexander McQueen, coats made of human hair, and corsets of razor-clam shells and glass medical slides make his infamous ‘bumster’ trousers seem perfectly wearable by comparison. His accessories, displayed with eponymous style as a “Cabinet of Curiosities” represent some of his most fetishized work – McQueen said he “liked the accessory for its sadomasochistic aspect” – with pieces such as his armor-like collars, skeletal jewelry, tribal influenced head-pieces and ‘armadillo’ shoes, the last being cleverly recreated by the Met in miniature to lure you as you exit through the gift shop. The accessories also represent some of his richest collaboration, however. His partnership with Philip Treacy, Irish milliner extraordinaire, yielded some astonishing creations such as this bird hat made entirely of wood. (On the audio guide Treacy engagingly accounts how he was wandering through a forest in search of the right pieces of wood for this commission when he was approached by a guy who thought he was cruising; the encounter apparently delighted McQueen).
McQueen & Sarah Jessica Parker
attend the Met Gala in 2006 both
wearing the McQueen tartan

Sottish nationalism, and indeed British nationalism, is explored most evidently in two collections; Highland Rape (autumn/winter 1995-96), and Widows of Culloden (autumn/ winter 2006–2007).

 “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, …bagpipes. But no one ever puts anything back into it.” 

The provocative title of the earlier collection was a political and historical statement, and though it provoked accusations of misogyny, McQueen stated that the “rape” of the title was of Scotland by the English. Of Scottish descent, McQueen felt that “what the British did there was nothing short of genocide” and that Scottish history had been over-romanticized. He looked to the Jacobite risings for inspiration and the resulting collections were filled with his use of McQueen tartan, slashed leather, wild natural greens and billowing capes.

The runway show for Highland Rape dramatized battle, featuring half naked, blood spattered models in torn clothing staggering down the runway. His runway shows were frequently dramatic and became known for their ability to surprise and shock, which is well represented in Savage Beauty. Video footage plays from screens throughout several of the galleries (most notably Cabinet of Curiosities), which features the intriguing, balletic footage of model Shalom Harlow, revolving in a pure white dress as two robot heads spray paint.  Also included is Kate Moss’ hologram performance from the fall/winter 2006 show, and a replica of the ‘Voss’ show which featured a two-way mirror, reflecting the runway audience back at themselves.

The exhibition is ultimately saddening, as McQueen took his own life in February 2010. While it is tragic to imagine what could have laid in his future, he left behind him an extraordinary body of work which reminded me of how the fashion industry, and it is of course an industry, also produces astonishing creativity and artistry. I will peruse Vogue’s September edition with a more appreciative eye because of this exhibition, though there is no doubt that McQueen’s vision and talent was unique and will not be easily paralleled. This is work that really needs to be seen to be fully appreciated. The exhibition closes on August 7th, but in the few days remaining, do not let the crowds deter you – Savage Beauty is an impressively curated exhibition, an engrossing experience, a tribute to a fiercely talented designer, and a memorable encounter with beauty in all its strange forms.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd St., NYC.  Entrances at Fifth and 81 and Fifth and 82.  
Buy tickets in advance here and avoid the long lines. On its last two days—Saturday and Sunday, August 6 and 7—the exhibition will remain open until midnight. After 9:00 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, visitors may enter the Museum through the 81st Street entrance only.

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