I treated myself to a birthday weekend in NYC on the 5th of May. The Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibit was the highlight of my visit. The exhibit was my first engagement with fashion as art and vision. Like many, I had not considered haute couture as something relevant to my personal life. The McQueen exhibit not only engaged my eyes but created a kaleidoscope of references that engaged my mind and spirit. It was both intellectual and persona,l invoking my love of Dante, the Victorian era and my visit to Scotland. I found so much that was relatable in this work of a working class Brit which was surprising for me to acknowledge as an African-Canadian professor.
I got to experience the exhibit anew when I shared my visit with my 8 year old nephew and his 4 year old sister. I bought the coffee table book to share the indescribable beauty of the exhibit with my sister and mother. Since the children were interested, I opened the book and had one perched on my lap and the other beside me as we went through the book together. I did not read from the book but said that the clothes were works of art that told a story. This meant they could look at each image and make up their own story. I did not reshape their imaginings by telling them what the text or your guidance on the audio tape suggested unless they were spot on. I wanted to leave their imaginings pristine without adult judgement. Some of the highlights of their observations:
The Romantic Mind: Their favourite pieces were the concept dresses. They loved, The Horn of Plenty, the raven feathered garment (72) that enveloped the model and the crimson ostrich feather and microscope slide garment (75) from VOSS. They said that it was wonderful that the women could fly. They searched in the small border images to see if they were elsewhere.
Romantic Exoticism (VOSS): The heavily embroidered garden redolent with birds in the stylized kimono (131) invoked a tactile response. They kept stroking the page to try to feel the birds and the leaves. I later learned that the dress made with mollusk shells (132) was critically panned. My nephew was fascinated that such hard objects could become a dress. He also noted that the accessories around her neck looked like they were moving in the sea. They both oohed over the dress that looked like grass blowing in a breeze (149).
Romantic Primitivism (Eshu/It’s a Jungle Out There): He and his sister marveled at a dress made out of hair (151) but were very concerned for the horses possible loss of their tails (152). My nephew’s favourites in that section was the vest of animal skin with the crocodile on its shoulder (157). He said it was so real that you could feel the animals. There is a two page image of a flowing dress that is a ravishing cascade of colours (Irere, 170/171). My nephew said that it was like a bird in flight. He traced the outline of the dress as the wings and noted where the body of the bird would be. The mannequin in the picture has no head but he noted that if a human woman wore the dress, she would have to be shaped like a bird. By this point the children were continually commenting on the accessories from shoes to headdresses. The surreal was now the norm or perhaps it is more that the surreal is always possible through the eyes of a child.
Romantic Naturalism: My nephew wondered at the dress from Sarabande (177). He said that it moved from morning to night while my niece said it moved from happy to sad. When I asked what made them feel that way – they both noted the ever deepening colours as it moved to the hem. In fact, it was this dress that caught their initial attention and caused them to ask if they could look at the whole book … if I would start the viewing all over for them.
Plato`s Atlantis, spring/summer 2010: They spent the most time on this portion of the book. Looking for the animals in the fabric and naming all the colours. They loved the fantastical imagining of animals. They found the imprints of snakes and the mottled skins fascinating. It was clear that the pages were precious to them since my 4 year old niece was the page turner. She would gently turn the pages and peek ahead to see what was coming.