Monday, 22 June 2015

the 21st century was started by alexander mcqueen (savage beauty review)

Flowers, feathers, skulls and leather. Romanticism and the underworld play off each other in a beautiful paradox to create the melancholy wonderland that is Alexander McQueen's work, and life.


Yesterday I went to "Savage Beauty", the V&A's retrospective on the life work of Lee Alexander McQueen. Earlier in the year I binged watched every documentary on him and each one had a haunting undertone, so I was expecting the exhibition to have a similar vein running through it. However, the profound effect that McQueen's designs can have on those who view them is quite spectacular. Everyone could be seen wandering through the rooms transfixed, under a spell and there was an eerily yet respectfully mournful silence.

There was a sense of lust for the clothes, but unlike other fashion exhibitions I've attended, this was overshadowed by the bold artistry of them. It is repeated again and again that McQueen is the closest that fashion gets to art, but the worlds created by each room were solid evidence for this. However, McQueen was always acutely aware of his role as a fashion designer and considered the ultimate wearer when making his clothes. Though outfits such as the head-to-toe black swan featured on the exhibition posters would unlikely have been worn by many, "Savage Beauty" emphasises McQueen's immensely skilled tailoring, which he always did from the side to tackle the most unflattering angles. Nonetheless, even as you marvel at the technicality of such garments, there is a sense of unease creeping in as the darker pieces seem to call to you from a twisted place. They confront you almost aggressively with their murky mystery. Any curiosity is partnered with a sense of fear. You want to know more, but you're frightened of what you may find. It forces you to sit up and pay attention. These are clothes that face up to timeless human concerns; life and death, heaven and hell, the past and the future.


The exhibition was excellently curated and it certainly capitalised on the potency of the clothes themselves. The wooden panels in one room (focusing on the influence of both Scotland and England) and the dark lighting under melancholy music in another (for the Gothic influences) seemed to tug you forwards in unnerving awe. Yesterday there was a little boy refusing to move because he was frightened of the clothes; I felt similarly at time, but my curiosity and a sense of inspiration propelled me forwards.

Source: The Telegraph
It wasn't, however, the fearful elements that I found the most compelling. I found the labels explaining the collections fascinating. They focussed heavily on the Romantic movement; a similarity that becomes obvious once you read about the prominence of nature and the Sublime in McQueen's work. The collections are not fashion and tailoring standing on their own. They are inextricably linked to wider culture, from the historical to the artistic; the Highland Clearances, Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds", Edgar Allan Poe, Darwin's "The Origin of the Species." That said, there could have been more biographical information on McQueen in the exhibition. There was nothing about Isabella Blow, the controversy of collections such as Highland Rape and La Poupee or the reaction of Paris' fashion elite to his first collections for Givenchy. Links to culture were in abundance, but what about how his collections related to society at the time? You cannot simply place fashion in the context of its inspiration. It needs to look at what was happening in the late '90s and early 21st century that would inspire such an anarchist way of looking at fashion. Or was McQueen simply like a rare explosion; a great flash of light and then gone forever, acting entirely autonomously from the rest of the fashion industry?

The most overwhelming room in the exhibition was the "Cabinet of Curiosities." It would be possible to sit in there all day, but I could not help feeling that it was a waste to place such detailed garments in shelves higher than anyone could see to pick out the intricacies. I got the feeling that I was in a particularly extravagant department store. There was so much that no matter how many times you look, you still come away feeling as though you haven't seen all of it. I could not help feeling that this room was a beautiful shambles. Suzy Menkes referred to it as "the bleeding heart of the exhibition" which is a very apt description. It was a majestic room, but it was impossible to take it all in. It left me wishing that the exhibition was a permanent installation with free entry so I could revisit it and just sit in the "Cabinet of Curiosities" for longer. 

Source: The Telegraph
If you go it really is worth for staying there as long as you can because it is unlikely that there will ever again be such a thorough show of McQueen's work. When I got to the end I went back to the beginning and the second time round I could look more rationally and less listlessly; taking in my favourite pieces from each room. 

Despite its haunting melancholy, the exhibition was undoubtedly powerful. McQueen had a desire to make women powerful and frightening, stating that, "I want people to be afraid of the women I dress." The clothes were like armour. Even the skimpy ripped apart pieces from Highland Rape were powerful through their message of political resistence. Furthermore, McQueen's innovation is endlessly inspiring. It proves that even when you think everything has been done, it is still possible to shock people; to take the drab out of fashion and make people really feel.

4 comments:

  1. savage beauty looks so intriguing yet haunting - your review is so interesting and beautifully written x

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  2. i only got to see this a few days ago as well and I thought it was perfect, paying the same attention to how the clothes were presented, and the inspiration and story behind them that McQueen himself did. and it was so comprehensive, i loved that they had the kate moss hologram (I was stood behind a tiny french girl who refused to stop watching it because it was 'too beautiful')

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    1. yes, i agree. aw! the kate moss hologram was so haunting but i could watch it all day!

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