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Reflections on McQueen’s Savage Beauty

The exhibit Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty provided unexpected moments for reflection and introspection.  This was my first experience of Alexander McQueen’s work and I was shocked to find myself relating to it more as art than as clothing or fashion.  I was of the view that haute couture was highly self-indulgent and not anchored in the real world.  I still believe that may well be true of a significant amount of it but Savage Beauty was clearly about art, vision and design.

McQueen’s talent was clearly architectural – a precise rendering of vision in cloth and other organic materials.  His clothing told stories of environmental degradation, human evolution, the comingling of pain and beauty, and Anglo-Scottish politics.  Lest you think that I over intellectualized the entire experience, I will share the proof. I found all the garments so astonishing that I bought the coffee table book to share with my family.  What I did not expect was the excitement that my 8 year old nephew and 4 year old niece would have for the book. I told them that the clothes told stories and they should make up their own stories from the images.  I did not suggest anything.  They carefully went through each picture of the book.  Turning the pages slowly they would gaze at the stories and sometimes collaborate on the meaning.  They looked at the garments and spoke of dresses that moved from the light of day to the deepest night (this from an 8 year old boy!).  Of a dress that was flying with the body of a bird making the model’s human head that of a bird.  I would note that these comments were made with reference to a dress in painted silk with not a feather in sight. My time with them said that there was something fundamental about his concepts that the open mind and spirit could see and feel.  His clothing lived.

There were a number of outstanding garments.  Immediately upon entering we were met by two conceptual pieces. The first was a beautiful red garment constructed of dyed ostrich feathers for the skirt and a closely fitted sleeveless bodice of red microscope slides.  The narrator pointed out that for McQueen under every layer of skin is blood.  For me this universalized the garment … its exterior beauty revealing that which is common to all.

McQueen was fascinated by death from a romantic perspective.  A companion piece at the opening was an exaggerated bird woman … a hyper-sensual raven welcoming us. There were beautifully wearable pieces later in the exhibit which used the lilac of mourning, overladen with cut lace and beading.  Delicate yet strong lines.  Less an indictment of dying so much as an acknowledgment of transition and possible flight.

McQueen was inspired by the 19th century, nature and literature.  The first collection contained precision tailored garments of which the jackets were the most fascinating.  In so many ways his approach was cubist in nature.  Having mastered the traditional form through his experience on Saville Row, he now had the foundation to deconstruct the garment revealing its essential nature.  The juxtapositioning that informed his concepts (wonder/terror, incredulity/revulsion, romantic past/postmodern present) were also reflected in fabric choices that had menswear cloth paired with fluid colourful jersey.

The artist in me was fascinated by his interpretation of Tudor and Jacobean portraiture.  Colourful high tech photo-printed fabric with stark black companion pieces.  The body outlined – at once sharp and sexy.  The piece that drew the most comments from the crowd was a golden feathered long-sleeved ball gown with a stiff upright shawl collar.  The tight almost corseted body gave way to a frothy white tulle skirt with gold beading at its base that was actively escaping its confines.

I still don’t know quite what to make of the exotic in his garments. I have a visceral dislike for Picasso’s use of African masks so was braced.  McQueen explicitly reinterpreted what he saw as African tribalism.  That part of the collection was infused with the texture of animal skins, muted earth tones and dappled colorations on fabric. His work was clearly not derivative.  I could sense the inspiration but I did not have the discomfort I often feel with the Western gaze (and distortion) of African cultural work.  In fact, it seems it was more nature than the human which inspired him.  “Animals…fascinate me because you can find a force, an energy, a fear that also exists in sex.” This can be seen in a wonderful dress constructed entirely of pheasant feathers with a strictly Victorian silhouette.

By the end of the exhibit I came to appreciate McQueen as an artist.  He eschewed mass production and made many of his pieces by hand.  He was much like any artist working on canvass or through stone and marble.  He cut where others painted, carved or chiseled.  In the end, what was revealed were unique aspects of fashion as an art form.  Radical and visionary.  It was a joy to discover him through his work.