“Beauty can come from the strangest of places, even the most disgusting of places.”
It is the summer of 2011 and the legendary steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art are inundated with anxiously waiting patrons all eager to catch a glimpse of the museum’s latest fashion exhibition. If you are lucky, you can walk straight into the museum and cool off in line, as you sit, wait, and walk through the labyrinth leading to the exhibition’s show room. However, for many that forty-five minute to an hour wait was merely the final stretch of an additional lengthly outdoor journey. As you finally approach the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Exhibit Hall, the clean white museum walls suddenly turn to graphite and you are introduced to two shadowboxes holding mannequins in ornate and captivating dresses. The left mannequin wears a vermillion dress, made of painted medical slides and ostrich feathers that fade to black, while the right mannequin is adorned in an intricate gown made solely of seashells. The lights become dim as you turn right and slowly get lured in to the deeply disturbing yet grossly compelling world of the late Alexander McQueen. The artist is McQueen, and the exhibition is Savage Beauty.
Entrance to Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Throughout the exhibit you are slowly introduced to the vast range of McQueen’s interests as well as the sensationalist prospective that encountered the majority of McQueen’s work. As you enter the exhibit the two dresses, both from VOSS, Spring/ Summer 2001, demonstrate the ways in which McQueen utilizes both fear and fragility in the creation of his work. While the red dress morphs the traditional fitted bodice and billowing skirt form into a haunting and asymmetrical garment, the cream dress deceives a delicate and cascading image with razor sharp shells. Throughout his career, McQueen’s intention was to bring into conversation societies expectations of the female body by representing it in a unique way. To do this, he played with both the internal and external structures of the female form, and managed to create a repertoire of work that both frightens and fascinates its viewers.
For centuries, fashion, as an industry, has been woven into history and has helped fabricate a variety of cultures. The industry’s opinion and representation of “ideal beauty” is one which is admired as well as adhered to in many societies around the world. However, with that being said, McQueen has proven to serve as somewhat of an anomaly within this group, demonstrating his perspective in very strong, dark, and unconventional ways. Where at times he has chosen to accentuate odd parts of the body, and play with what contradicts societies standards, he still manages to create something beautiful, and amounts to being an esteemed voice in the high fashion world.
McQueen’s marvelous and romantic mind jarred his patrons perceptions and exceeded their expectations, until February 11th, 2010, when the legendary british fashion designer committed suicide leaving the fashion world in much shock and despair. Months after his death, the Condé Nast Foundation and The Costume Institute held the MET Gala in his honor and arranged “Savage Beauty” to be displayed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In it’s three month run (May 4th-August 7th, 2011) the exhibit became known as one of the most sought after spectacles that the museum has ever shown. Designed by Sam Gainsbury and Joseph Bennett, as well as the curator for the Met’s Costume Institute, Andrew Bolton, Savage Beauty featured over one hundred garments and accessories of McQueen’s short lived but long lasting career; ranging from his post graduate designs and work at the House of Givenchy to his untitled and unfinished collection from the Autumn/ Winter 2010 season.
In her essay, “An Argument About Beauty,” Susan Sontag discusses the differences between what is “beautiful,” what is “ugly,” and what is “interesting” (Sontag), as they pertain to both art and societies expectations of women and beauty. “Beauty can illustrate an ideal; a perfection” (Sontag), Sontag writes, but it is those notions of perfection that McQueen strives to complicate. Through his meticulous craftsmanship, McQueen has managed to bring together gore and glamor, having them interact in symbiotic harmony. Where fashion is focused on the materialistic and extrinsic aspects of a woman, couture puts more emphasis on the artistic details of the garment, allowing what might at first glance be viewed as “ugly,” suddenly, “interesting” and even “beautiful” (Sontag). “I try to draw attention to our unrelenting desire for perfection. The body parts that I focus on change depending on the inspirations and references for the collection and what silhouettes they demand” (McQueen), states Alexander McQueen. While in a way McQueen’s occupation may require him to minimize women into parts, he chooses to combine both the superficial components of fashion design with the personal creative concepts of couture, and uses the female form as his medium of design, allowing the collaboration to emerge as one interesting piece of art.
“It is the ugly things I notice more, because people tend to ignore the ugly things” (McQueen), McQueen once said. His designs derive from a relentless fascination of the inner workings, both physical and emotional, of human desire. In reference to his Spring/ Summer 2003 collection, Irene, he refers to himself as a “romantic schizophrenic,” although superficially he may seem somewhat savage, there is always an underlying sensitivity in his work. “I think there has to be an underlying sexuality. There has to be a perverseness to the clothes. There is a hidden agenda in the fragility of romance…I’m not big on women looking naïve. There has to be a sinister aspect, whether it’s melancholy or sadomasochist” (McQueen), he says.
Towards the end of the 18th Century, the period of Romanticism began to evolve, a historical era associated with liberalism, radicalism, and nationalism. The artistic movements of the era are classified as having a significant hold in the emotions of the aesthetic and prized themselves on the awe factor. In an article in the New Yorker, written by Judith Thurman, Alexander McQueen was described as an “archetypal romantic” (Thurman). These “Romantic fixations” (Thurman) also seemed to find their way into the Savage Beauty exhibit through display galleries categorized as; “The Romantic Mind,” “Romantic Gothic,” “Romantic Nationalism,” Romantic Exoticism,” “Romantic Primitivism,” and “Romantic Naturalism.” In an effort to ease it’s spectators into the grandiose and sometimes gruesome aesthetic of McQueen’s garment repertoire, the exhibit begins with a sampling of uniquely tailored, yet seemingly pedestrian jackets, dresses, and bottoms. These pieces, shown at the start of the exhibit, are somewhat symbolic of the start of the designers career where “he learned, painstakingly, to cut jackets” (Thurman) at the British tailoring company, Anderson & Shepard. However, as you start into each adjacent space the richness and roughness of McQueen’s work becomes increasingly apparent.
In a review of the show, Holland Cotter, writer for the New York Times writes: “The show, or rather what’s in it, is a button-pushing marvel: ethereal and gross, graceful and utterly manipulative, and poised on a line where fashion turns into something else…Clothes become costumes, with sensuous, sumptuous lives of their own” (Cotter). The garments are momentarily interrupted in an adjoining gallery entitled “Cabinet of Curiosities” which displays over seventy accessories; shoes, handbags, and headwear, from the designers recently ending career.
Alexander McQueen was more than just a fashion designer. He was also a conductor, a poet, and a sculptor who chose fashion as his medium of artistic expression. “The designer who creates a dress rarely invests it with as much feeling as the woman who wears it, and couture is not an obvious medium for self-revelation, but in McQueen’s case it was. His work was a form of confessional poetry” (Thurman) Thurman once said of the designer. A couturier by traditional definition, McQueen catered to a variation of A-list cliental, and was a notable, respected, and revered voice in the fashion world as well as among other legendary couturiers. However, even in the public eye, McQueen tenaciously shaped his career to be a manifestation of his own personal reflections. In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar McQueen once stated: “you can get insular with fashion. Sometimes, I let you see what I am going through. It’s biographical, but all my work is biographical in some sense. It has to be, otherwise there is no soul to it” (McQueen/ Godfrey).
Different fashion designers work within their own processes but the general structure of garment production usually remains the same. After a designer has been inspired or struck by their muse, the first step is usually the creation of a concept board. McQueen has created work in reference to a variety of concepts and ideas that he has encountered. Each collection that McQueen creates tends to reveal a deeper aspect of his own inner self whether it be through Plato’s Atlantis, where he fabricates his experience scuba diving in the Maldives through his work; through Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, where he distorts the idea of a child like fairy tale with a darkness inspired by director Tim Burton; through Highland Rape, where he reflects on conflicts “close to home” representing disturbances between his fathers birthplace, Scotland and his own birthplace, London; or through It’s a Jungle Out There, where he used a series of animal skins to bring into conversation the startling and raw similarities between animal and human.
In the process of garment production, once a theme or idea has been established, a colour board is formed. Many collections typically have a similar colour scheme which highlights the designers intention for his collection. In the third step, the hypothetical concepts come to surface as the designer and his creative team discuss and select fabric and colour swatches from which to materialize the collection from. In many design houses designers will get particular fabrics made with the specific design or pattern they have in mind. In one of McQueen’s earlier collections, Highland Rape, the clothing was mostly “built on remnants from fabric shops” (McQueen). However, as his career progressed, intricately woven fabrics were created to satisfy his ideas. After the fabric has been selected and assigned to specific garments the actual clothing is created. Many of the patterns are first designed with a draping material and then once perfected replicated with the aspired fabric. Once the garment has been made, proper seams and measurements are attended to. “My designing is done mainly during fittings” (McQueen) McQueen stated in an interview quoted in his tribute book Savage Beauty, “I try to draw attention to our unrelenting desire for perfection. The body parts that I focus on change depending on the inspirations and references for the collection and what silhouettes they demand. When I design, I try to sell an image of a woman in [my] mind, a concept that changes dramatically each season” (McQueen). The world of couture is usually defined by two specific seasons which are shown in four prominent fashion weeks; New York, Paris, Milan, and London, all held in both the fall and spring, allowing high fashion designers to showcase their collections to a variety of media, editor, press, clients, and high fashion personnel. The two fashion seasons are usually defined as Spring/Summer, held in February and Autumn/Winter, held in September.
McQueen’s sensationalist visions found their way onto the runway, making his shows some of the most coveted events on any fashion mogul’s itinerary. However, his cutting edge couture also found its place off the runway, and into his many ready to wear collections. In another essay titled “Women’s Beauty: Put Down or Power Source?” Susan Sontag argues both the privileges and disadvantages of the concept of beauty in relation to women. “To be sure, beauty is a form of power. And deservedly so. What is lamentable is that it is the only source of power that most women are encouraged to seek…. it is not the power to do but to attract. It is a power that negates itself. For this power is not chosen freely – at least, not by women- or renounced without social censure” (Sontag). Through his designs, it shows how McQueen has grappled with Sontag’s theory and has paradoxically used beauty and the female form to create a template that exhibits women by empowering them. “I want people to be afraid of the women I dress,” McQueen once stated, “when you see a woman wearing McQueen, there’s a certain hardness to the clothes that makes her look powerful. It kind of fends people off….It’s almost like putting armor on a woman. It’s a very psychological way of dressing” (McQueen).
Alexander McQueen uses the female body much like a sculptor uses a block of stone. By chiseling away from it or adding pieces to it he creates a clear cut structure. You can see his variations on form in his bodice work, which goes as far as mimicking the female waistline to actually revealing the shape of a woman’s nipples and bellybutton; in his silhouette work, which exaggerates the curves of a woman’s body while muffling the imperfections; in the stitching of his garments, where he specifically places decorative thread to define the musculature of the body; and in his choice of embellishment, which draws your attention to specific areas of the body through ornamentation.
In a bodysuit from the collection Irene, Spring/ Summer 2003, made of nude silk embroidered with black glass beads, McQueen suggests the musculature of the human body. By displaying the beads at specific angels McQueen mimics the downward sloping slant of the external obliques as well as the vertical rectus abdominus line of the abdomen; the dome shape curvature of the deltoid, which cups the shoulder girdle; the twisting lineage of the biceps brachii and brachioradialis in upper and lower parts of the arm; and the bisecting lines of the adductor magnus in the inner thigh. These details bring into focus the complicated pathways of the female form in an aesthetically pleasing way, and challenge the audience to look beyond the garment at the inner workings of the human body more closely.
In another haute couture piece, a dress made out of cream hand painted leather, from the collection Sarabande, Spring/ Summer 2007, McQueen brings to focus the more superficial aspects of the female body. From the collar bone to the outer reaches of the hips a leather bodice has been sculpted to show the naked female body. A modest cream coloured seam wraps horizontally around the circumference of the upper ribcage acting as an extension of the wearers actual body. Breasts equipped with the nipple and areola hang from the seam, and sit above a carefully flexed six pack, which then stretches to a pelvis with exaggerated hips that almost look like the dome of a flattened umbrella encircling the woman’s pubis and pelvis.
These garments, as well as the numerous others that make up McQueen’s repertoire demonstrate the way in which McQueen chose to accentuate the female form, without exploiting it. In a collection entitled The Girl Who Lived in the Tree, Autumn/ Winter 2008-9, McQueen chose to portray “a feral creature living in a tree [who] when she decided to descend to earth, was transformed into a princess” (McQueen). The entire collection is roman gothic in a sense, clothed with vivid crimson silk, lavish tulle, and illustrious jewels. The entire collection is almost cinematic in its grandeur, portraying a more sensitive and vulnerable side of McQueen. Sontag writes that “unlike beauty, often fragile and impermanent, the capacity to be overwhelmed by the beautiful is astonishingly sturdy and survives amidst the harshest distractions. Even war, even the prospect of certain death, cannot expunge it” (Sontag). In accordance with this idea of “the beautiful” (Sontag) being an overwhelming experience, McQueens intention for this collection was to get away “from war and disasters, and remind yourself there’s beauty in the world” (McQueen). It is both poetic and melancholic in a sense, collectively Romantic in its intention.
“I find beauty in the grotesque, like most artists. I have to force people to look at things” (McQueen), Alexander McQueen, as well as his body of work, was the antithesis of subtle, but it is exactly that, which made him a deeply alluring and provocative artist. Whether it be where he challenged Sontag’s claim that “beauty is not ordinarily associated with gravitas” (Sontag) by creating solemn, sturdy, and significant garments, or where he deconstructed and then reshaped the female form, without allowing it to lose its integrity, McQueen has challenged the set point of the beautiful. He has taken what would be perceived as ugly (animal skulls, dead and diminished sea shells, medical slides), and made it interesting. Perhaps even, he has made it so that truly unconventional art – a bodice made to show the nipples and belly button of a woman, a skirt that revels the butt crack, a garment with slashes cut across it – is what can now be perceived as beautiful. Through his intentional impulse to create art out of what disturbs us, he has created collections which compel and fascinate its viewers. He has allowed us to become enamored with what we see as taboo, perverse, or gruesome. He has eased us into a world that we might have otherwise been too afraid to enter, and has allowed us to indulge in our reckless desires. He has stitched for us a collection of wearable poetry, a moveable, tangible, and tactile piece of confession, vulnerability, and romance. For the world he has created art, for fashion he has created history, and for himself he has created a legacy that will live on to challenge, inspire, and provoke the minds that dare to question him. He has forced us to look, and what we see is Savage Beauty.