What makes a legend a legend? How are those cultural superstars chosen, the ones whose very names invoke awe, wonder, or at least a gasp?
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, the comprehensive retrospective of the late designer Alexander McQueen’s ravishing raiment now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art certainly provides a clue. With an hour and a half wait to enter (on a good day), a de facto Metropolitan gala in his honor and almost unanimous praise from critics, the McQueen legend continues to thrive in the eerie, operatic halls of the museum’s Costume Institute exhibition space. McQueen may have a spectacular artistic output, and he may have defined an era of rising fashion stars, but the question remains how his deification came to be; how the artist came to define 21st century fashion with his short, tragically romantic career.
Born Lee McQueen to a London taxi driver and a schoolteacher, the designer certainly had the humble beginnings frequently associated with legends. McQueen’s fate as a drone in England’s beehive seemed practically inevitable due to a blue-collar upbringing, and his struggle to resolve his sexuality with his conservative environment guaranteed personal trauma. He always had a penchant for designing clothes, but even his first job as a tailor on Savile Row showed more potential for a life of labor than the one of fame he eventually achieved. Hopping from company to company, honing skills in tailoring, costuming and designing, lead him to Central Saint Martins in London where McQueen got his MA in Fashion, culminating in his 1992 thesis collection Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims, a series composed of dark, Victorian pieces lined with his own hair (two of which are on display at the Met.)
It was this collection that skyrocketed him to almost immediate success in the fashion industry. Bought in its entirety by a kindred spirit, the jolie laide editrix/stylist Isabella Blow, the purchase had shades of a modern day artist/muse relationship. The two immediately formed a close bond and soon became fashion’s tragically tortured couple, supporting each other, feeding into each other’s melancholia, and eventually parting ways as they practiced their respective art forms. It was the likes of Blow, as well as style icon Daphne Guinness, Icelandic pixie Björk and later pop priestess Lady Gaga that would help propel the name McQueen to heights as towering as his infamous armadillo shoes.
The Metropolitan’s Andrew Bolton-curated exhibit does an adequate job of encapsulating exactly why these grand dames of style flocked to the designer’s side. Divided by themes and motifs in his collections but set under the overarching narrative of how the designer apparently married Romanticism and Postmodernism, the clothes are often grouped together either by season or style. This critical framing device isn’t as effective at first glance, with each area bleeding into the next with little transition in the physical gallery space.
The Cabinet of Curiosities section is the most expertly prepared, and deftly represents the morbid and ingenious nature of McQueen’s work and collaborations, where armor-influenced accessories of hammer-and-nailed silver slivers are countered with delicate turkey feathers camouflaged as butterflies. Many of the showcases reflect elements of the clothing’s original runway presentations: skirts pieced together from blades of balsa wood rotate on platforms, the rococo halls that housed his final collection are recreated in a display case, and a tiny hologram echoes McQueen’s 2006 Widows of Culloden, which closed with the same projection of Kate Moss’s svelte frame enveloped by cascading fabric. For all the pomp and circumstance expertly created in this presentation, however, we’re left with little more than watered-down versions of his runway shows and nothing much else to ponder.
Exhibitions that focus on work slightly outside the established bounds of fine art, particularly fashion, have a tendency to fall back on spectacle rather than substance, and project more of an elite showroom vibe than that of a distinguished gallery hall. For all the ostensibly political underpinnings of McQueen’s collections, his clothes are scarcely contextualized within fashion history, let alone his own zeitgeist. Few questions are asked about his work, and those that were are left unexplored within the exhibition. The museum should have attempted to consider McQueen’s clothes’ impact on and evaluation of traditional notions of gender, ethnicity or nationalism as would be typical of curated painting, sculpture and performance art shows.
Even in the pieces from his controversial 1995-96 collection Highland Rape, any misogyny engendered by the tattered dresses and skin-bearing suits are simply shrugged off by a quote from the designer dismissing accusations of sexism, instead saying it was a comment on England’s rape of Scotland. Still, compounded with his other offerings of fetishistic bondage gear, gimp masks, torturous shoes and rather disturbing videos of his runway shows (for 1999’s No. 13 think Carrie at the prom, for 1998’s Joan, think Maid of Orleans burned at the stake), there are a wealth of important readings left completely dismissed. Everything’s solved by one simplistic McQueen quote.
The fabulous frocks on display — gowns of dried flowers, paillette-encrusted “jellyfish” ensembles, crisply tailored suits — as well as the exhibition design (complete with a mix of concrete forms, mirrors and wind machines) showcase exquisite beauty and emphasize the once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing every sacred stitch and hem of McQueen’s greatest work up close. But if the enfant terrible of British fashion really did challenge, question, and alter history, we’re left to our own conclusions as the persona of McQueen overtakes the meaning of the work.
Our collective subconsciousness eagerly responds to the archetypal tortured artist, finding a directly proportional relationship between their hardships and the beauty of their designs. Lee McQueen’s final collection, posthumously presented at Paris Fashion Week in an intimate setting, was lauded as his most radiant. The clothing’s beauty is undeniable — especially the evening coat constructed of gilded plumage — but to skirt the macabre as he often did, we’re conditioned to react this way, to consider his art reaching its zenith as his life reached its lowest point. Maybe that’s the way creativity works. Or maybe it’s just the way a legend works.
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty has been extended at the Metropolitan Museum through August 7, 2011. A special $50 ticket will allow visitors to see the exhibition on Mondays when the museum is usually closed.