Banish the beige, drop the drab, and refuel your fashionista spirit with a visit to “Savage Beauty,” a retrospective of the late Alexander McQueen’s sartorial extremes on display at London’s V&A.
Claire Wilcox, the V&A’s senior Curator of Fashion, has considerably expanded upon the original exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. For the London show, which continues through August 2, 2015, Wilcox sourced 66 additional pieces and included a new section focusing on McQueen’s early collections.
The result is an extraordinary selection of 240 ensembles dating from 1992 to 2010, displayed over ten themed rooms.
Here are a few “do’s” and “don’t’s” to bear in mind if you’re planning a visit.
Don’t confuse Alexander McQueen with Steve McQueen
Steve was the proto-Daniel Craig, a Hollywood hunk with ice blue eyes and a motorcycle. Alexander was the British bad boy designer who created costumes for David Bowie and worked for Givenchy before founding his own fashion line. Both McQueens, however, had a penchant for leather.
Do dress for excess
While it’s not obligatory to don studded stilettos and a leather bustier when you visit, if you’ve got the gear, this is your opportunity to flaunt it. You won’t feel out of place amid mannequins sporting fox fur Chewbacca-like sleeves, a swan-inspired feathered cape, animal skulls as shoulder pads, and a hat made of mallard wings and Swarovski-crystal studded eggs. (Not all together, mind you. That would just be tacky).
Don’t be afraid of falling down the rabbit hole
The exhibit begins in a darkened room, where a black and white film projected on a wall shows McQueen’s face transforming into a skull—and it only gets weirder from there.
The Romantic Primitivism room is reminiscent of a crypt. Bones and skulls line the walls and a film of an Ophelia-esque maiden writhes overhead. Keep an eye out for the mannequin with tusks over her mouth and a coat of synthetic hair. (I wouldn’t know whether to take that to the dry cleaner or the beautician).
Meanwhile, in the Romantic Nationalism section, a bull headdress covers the face of an ominous figure in a billowing red robe, and in the Romantic Gothic room, mannequins are rendered featureless by leather gimp masks. It’s not a fashion choice everyone would make, but it would save hours on hair and make-up.
Do read the captions
Even when you think you’re looking at a design that’s fairly straight forward and accessible, the captions reveal sinister insight. That figure-hugging Victorian-style cutaway jacket, for instance? It featured in McQueen’s 1992 collection “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims,” and it’s lined with human hair. Oh, and that chic black pencil skirt? It’s from a 1995 collection entitled “Highland Rape.”
McQueen’s own words provide a flicker of illumination into his darkly troubled mind. “I don’t think like the average person on the street,” he once said, in a fit of uncharacteristic understatement. “I find beauty in the grotesque…I have to force people to look at things.”
Don’t be afraid of ghosts
McQueen employed a 19th century holographic technique called “Pepper’s Ghost” to conjure a spectral Kate Moss, who appeared to float above the catwalk for the finale of his 2006 “The Widows of Culloden” collection. At “Savage Beauty,” the illusion plays out on a loop inside a glass pyramid.
From the darkness, Moss’s figure gradually congeals out of a mist. She swirls around in a white gown before suddenly disappearing in a Tinker Bell-like ball of light. It’s an intriguing illusion, but all I can think about is a forgotten Kleenex in the washing machine.
You can view the illusion here:
Don’t rock up in these styles at airport security
Stepping into The Cabinet of Curiosities is awe-inspiring to the point of intimidating. Stretching two-storeys high and flanked by black-lacquered cubbyholes filled with haute-couture oddities, it’s exactly how you might imagine the walk-in wardrobe of Bellatrix Lestrange, the Death Eater dominatrix from the Harry Potter films.
Some shelves feature full-height mannequins, which slowly rotate as if under a mobilicorpus spell, showcasing outfits from all angles. There’s a red flapper-style gown, a daringly sheer sheath, and a black and red strapless flared feathered dress. Nearly all of the figures’ faces are obscured by masks, whether of leather or lace or the head of an animal.
Other cubbies contain only heads. One is topped by a spiky silver crown of thorns. Another features turkey feathers painted to resemble crimson butterflies. It was created by milliner Philip Treacy for McQueen, who seemingly never met a bird he didn’t want to pluck.
In one black box, a pair of lace-stockinged legs stand at attention, while across the room, high up on a shelf, a torso is saddled with an aluminum dinosaur-like spine.
Do ponder McQueen’s True Mission
One wonders if this was how McQueen saw his models: a mere assortment of body parts to be trussed in bondage-wear and bent to his will. Or perhaps, as some of the exhibit’s verbiage suggests, he really did believe in fashion as a “metamorphosis…a transformational medium.”
Maybe, in his own subversive way, McQueen was actually trying to free the feral fecundity of the female form. His last fully realized collection, “Plato’s Atlantis” from 2010, could be construed to support that theory.
At “Savage Beauty,” this collection is represented by seven streamlined silver figures with pointed horns, standing sentry on a white platform. Each is attired in a short, bodice-hugging dress that billows outward at the hips, made of fabric imprinted with patterns inspired by snakes, moths, jellyfish and coral.
Behind them, a large screen plays footage of a nude nymph swirling in the water. As the music gathers momentum, subtly segueing from mating whales to tribal drums, her limbs multiply until she becomes a multi-tentacled creature, both powerful and sensual.
Exiting the gallery, I notice one final quote from McQueen, who succumbed to his inner demons when he hanged himself in February 2010 at the age of 40. “There is no way back for me now. I’m going to take you on journeys you’ve never dreamed were possible.”
“Savage Beauty” is a long, strange trip through the mind of a tormented genius. So fasten your seatbelt. It’s a gripping ride.
IF YOU GO
“Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” through August 2 at the V&A. £17.50 adults. £10.20 children ages 12-17. Advance booking recommended. http://www.vam.ac.uk