When I’m dead and gone, people will know that the 21st Century was started by Alexander McQueen.
The V&A museum is one of my absolute favourites, and yesterday for Sarah’s birthday, we got up super early, and headed up to see if we could get tickets for the Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty exhibition. We squeezed in for the 11.15 slot, and oh my god. This might be the best museum exhibition I’ve ever been to.
Firstly: the exhibition is huge. It took us almost two hours to walk around it, and we were in pretty much the same group of people the entire way around. There is so much to look at, and I’m certain that if (when?) I went back, I’d still see things I missed.
Starting off in a bare, concreted room filled with tailors mannequins, the exhibition shows McQueen’s London influences, his incredible tailoring skills, and the early ideas that formed the basis of his later collections. This is where you can see his Bumster trouser, and how his Savile Row tailoring comes thorugh into his design. There’s a quote under one of the pieces about how he designed from the side (“the body’s worst angle”), so that the clothes worked perfectly all around the silhouette.
His MA graduation collection, Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims, had human hair sewn through the lining of the frock coat, and his early pieces had a lock of his hair sewn into them, as a memento mori.
“The inspiration behind the hair came from Victorian times when prostitutes would sell theirs for kits of hair locks, which were bought by people to give to their lovers. I used it as my signature label with locks of hair in Perspex. In the early collections, it was my own hair.”
Alexander McQueen, Time Out (London), September 24–October 1, 1997
After this, the exhibition really takes off into it’s own. From the bare grey concrete of the first room, you go straight into Romantic Gothic, full of gilt frames, burnt away mirrors, and pieces from McQueen’s “darker” collections, The Horn of Plenty, Eclect Dissect, Dante, and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. There are references to fairytales and Edgar Allen Poe, and Victorian mourning dress. It’s in this room as well that the finale piece for McQueen’s posthumous Angels and Demons collection stands. Centred in a glass case, the gold feathered coat and embroidered tulle skirt immediately draws your attention. It is utterly stunning. (As an aside, I love this article in the New York Times about this coat, and photographing it.)
Romantic Gothic gives way to Romantic Primitivism, with collections (Eshu, It’s a Jungle Out There, and Irere) referencing the idea of civilisation and the animal world. Walking into this room felt like a catacomb, with bones and skulls decorating the walls, and then a mer-woman trapped in the glass ceiling above. There are dresses caked in mud, or made from hair, and there are storylines of pirates and shipwrecks and conquistadors.
Following this is McQueen’s Romantic Nationalism, with just two collections; The Widows of Culloden, and The Girl Who Lived in a Tree. These collections show McQueen’s love of historicism, and the stories told by his clothes. The Widows of Culloden used the MacQueen tartan, mixing it with lace and tulle to soften the stronger influences of the wool, leather, and buckles. In exploring the English identity, McQueen used the collection to critique the British Empire, incorporating dress and embroidery styles from areas throughout the empire.
The central room of the exhibition is the Cabinet of Curiosities, where the walls are stacked with boxes of beautiful accessories created to add depth to the shows. Here are Philip Treacy’s hats, and Shaun Leane’s jewellery, as well as corsets and shoes and swarovski crystals. In the centre, the Spray Paint Dress rotates on top of a mirrored box.
And then there’s this…
Romantic Exoticism is next, with It’s Only a Game showing traditional Japanese embroidery and styles. Kimono sleeves are decorated with intricate embroidery, and oyster shells are hidden in dress panelling, before being mixed with typical American football helmets and shoulder pads.
VOSS recreated the staging of the 2001 Asylum show, with the mannequins inside a box, with a background of a woman connected to a monkey via a breathing tube. The woman – more specifically, writer Michelle Olley – wrote
I had my suspicions that this was going to be some kind of Angela Carter–style visceral she-beast role.
I think that sums it up perfectly. The box itself is mirrored, and as the background imagery fades, so the walls of the box do too, and you end up staring at your own reflection. Sarah said it was the part of the exhibition which made her feel uncomfortable, and I think that is the whole intention. McQueen’s shows are able to question and confront the ideas of “fashion” by completely immersing the audience.
The last two rooms are a complete contrast to the first two, with Romantic Naturalism taking place in a room with white walls and floral motifs. The Sarabande dress made of dried flowers is stunning, and the antlered dress from The Widows of Culloden is absolutely beautiful. McQueen said of it, “when we put the antlers on the model and then draped over it the lace embroidery that we had made, we had to poke holes through a £2,000 piece of work. But then it worked because it looks like she’s rammed the piece of lace with her antlers.”
Finally, the last room is that of Plato’s Atlantis. In a white tiled room, mannequins stand silhouetted against the backdrop of a changing image showing a model transforming into a sea creature, and back again, hearking back to the first gothic room and its transformations of women into birds.
As you leave, there is a quote on the wall which reads “There is no way back for me now. I’m going to take you on journeys you’ve never dreamed were possible.” The exhibition is beautiful, and though it did have some things I felt were missing – there was, for instance, almost no mention at all of Isabella Blow, which I was surprised at, and it was impossible to see some of the higher shelves in the double-height Cabinet room – I will probably go back again, and I would absolutely recommend it. I loved that the rooms and collections were shown by themes rather than as a timeline, and I loved the music throughout, and how everything fit together. Having the Cabinet and Pepper’s Ghost at the centre was perfect, as you’re led into it, and then back out again. The whole exhibition really shows McQueen’s genius, and there’s no filler here at all. It’s two decades of incredible talent, put together fantastically.