Savage Beauty – Alexander McQueen at the V&A

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to see this incredible show at the V&A this weekend, and have come away feeling it was the best exhibition I have ever seen to date. Rather than it being just about the costume, it was a wholly immersive theatrical experience that endeavoured to recreate the wonder of a McQueen fashion show.

Despite having already researched his work and read Watt’s 2012 biography of him1 in preparation for this project, it still felt unfamiliar and new. The staging of each room together with mood-setting music and lighting with elaborate sets made the exhibition feel like a permanent museum that took you on a journey. We were initially upset at not being allowed to sketch in the exhibition, but once we got in there I was glad as we were able to enjoy the experience in a holistic way, focussing in and out on detail with fluidity. I bought the book accompanying the exhibition2 to have a record of things such as materials used in each dress, but also because it features a lot about McQueen’s influences and sources for each piece. I always find it interesting and helpful to look at another artists’ way of working to inform my own practice.

The exhibition started in a stark white room, displaying pieces from his MA project Jack the Ripper and His Victims, Dante and an incredible piece of tailoring from It’s a Jungle Out There. From here we moved onto a dimly lit room with ceiling-high antiqued mirrors with large gothic gold frames and a huge ornate glass cabinet housing a selection of five pieces of mainly white and gold, whilst the rest of the pieces on display were black romantic gothic in style, some covered in jet beads, evocative of Whitby and Dracula. As I am focussing more on the individual pieces in my paper presentation, I will not repeat myself here.

We moved through one room with walls of moulded bones and skulls to look like an ancient mausoleum, and a domed screen in the low ceiling with a video of a model swimming in a McQueen dress. Part ossuary, part aquarium, the pieces on display were from It’s a Jungle Out There, a collection featuring taxidermy crocodile heads, hair, fur and leather. It made me think how things have changed since numerous supermodels would rather go naked…

One room entitled Cabinet of Curiosities was just that, floor to ceiling cabinets with open fronts on every wall with a selection of costume pieces, accessories and video playbacks of catwalk shows. In the centre of the room was the finale piece Look 79 from his show No 13, a cotton, synthetic tulle dress with a high leather belt around the upper chest on a wooden turntable. The dress had been sprayed in black and yellow paint by robots as it rotated, modelled in the show by Shalom Harlow, 1999. Eerie music played along with the click-clacking of a typewriter, whilst the dress rotated as if in a jewellery box. For me, some of these cabinets were too high to be able to appreciate the pieces properly, and it was frustrating to not be able to see details. I noted that in the Metropolitan show in New York, the cabinets were not stacked so high, and I presume that the dimensions of the rooms in the V&A forced this arrangement.

I bought a postcard of this central sprayed dress, the photo having been taken during the catwalk performance.  You can actually see some members the audience gasping, and I can imagine McQueen considering how precious people are about fashion. As he had said in interviews in the past “…at the end of the day they’re just clothes…they’re not going to cure cancer or AIDS…”.3 It’s not the only time that he had shown irreverence to his pieces on stage, his Bellmer La Poupée 1997 collection having been walked through a flooded runway, soaking the hems.

I was excited to see the actual set and performance of Kate Moss’s hologram ‘ghost’ that was the finale for The Widows of Culloden in 2006. Using Victorian techniques with mirrors and projectors, a three dimensional hologram of Kate Moss dancing was projected into the centre of the catwalk. We were also able to see a number of the collections together with the original video backdrops used in the shows. The final room was a stark bright futuristic setting, with a massive video used in his final completed show prior to his death ‘Plato’s Atlantis’. This was the most aesthetically challenging collection for me, which is strange as it has so much in common with pieces by one of my other chosen designer/artists Mary Katrantzou. In many ways, it feels as if her work has almost continued on where this collection left off, with her use of digital printing and architectural forms.

This show was as much a show case of Philip Treacy’s work. His hats and accessories were every bit as incredible as the main costumes and integral to the final looks. There was so much in this show to talk about and explore. I haven’t even touched on talking about the innovative use of materials ranging from shells, wood, latex, spray-on fabrics, or the combination of traditional oriental embroidery with the experimental in It’s Only a Game. I went to this exhibition with the intention of coming away with a clear idea of a piece to select for analytical focus, but it is going to be a challenge to select any one item apart from its collection, let alone apart from the whole body of work.

 

References:

 

  1. Watt J 2012 Alexander McQueen: Fashion Visionary London: Goodman
  2. Wilcox C (ed) 2015 Alexander McQueen London: V&A publishing
  3. https://www.youtube.com/ FT: The Incredible Life and Tragic Death of Alexander McQueen PREVIEW

 

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