McQueen's Savage Beauty

Alexander McQueen has long inspired and infatuated me with his incredible work. He created dazzling, intricate worlds which we could get lost in, and brought back the idea of fashion as an art form. I was so excited when I heard that the Savage Beauty exhibition was finally coming to London and even more thrilled when I managed to get tickets! The result was spending two hours going back and forth trying to take the entire magnificent spectacle in, and soon after purchasing tickets to go again in June. The exhibition is more than just a display of his garments: they have transformed entire rooms to fit around specific collections or the core ideas which McQueen sought to explore. It is therefore not just a show for fashion enthusiasts but a feast for the eyes for anyone who appreciates raw creativity. Here is why, if you love beauty, you must go...

Entering the exhibition hall of Savage Beauty, the famous depiction of Alexander McQueen’s face slowly transforming into a skull welcomes you in, his penetrating gaze holding yours. With a large screen flashing behind rows of mannequins, the prevailing theme is his love of London: his hometown and the birthplace of the McQueen label. Murmurs, laughter and McQueen’s voice permeate the room as garments displaying tags with his own lock of hair as a way of ‘memento mori,’ perch alongside little snippets of quotes from the designer; his acute awareness of the “blood beneath every layer of skin” immortalised in gold lettering.

Passing through, another fragment of Savage Beauty unravels: a vision of decaying splendour, full of massive gilt mirrors with obscured dusty faces like a vacant, forgotten room in an old manor house, very akin to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. Gothic silhouettes rise up on elevated platforms, the blackened mirrors reflecting glimpses of jet beads, leather buckles, slashed lace and painted duck and goose feathers from collections such as The Horn of Plenty, Dante, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and the Givenchy collection Eclect Dissect. Religious paintings like Campin’s The Thief to the Left of Christ and Lochner’s Altarpiece of the Patron Saints of Cologne are mingled with a melancholic dark sexuality; an element McQueen used in varying amounts “like a masquerade.” The designer loved to work with juxtapositions, often mixing meticulous detail with a brutal slashing of fabric to create an impression of constrictive tailoring marred with fierce escapism, and here the layers of romantic Victoriana mirror this perfectly.

The next room is a dark cave. Row upon row of intricately arranged bones envelop the walls and ceiling, giving way only to allow for a glowing, bulbous glass pane which hangs overhead, depicting a girl moving in water. Primitive figures with horn mouthpieces and garments from Eshu and It’s a Jungle Out There made of hair, mud and raw natural elements stand guard in alcoves dotted around the room. McQueen disliked the idea of women looking naïve; he sought to portray an inner strength, and these primeval warriors are as savage as they are beautiful.

Exiting the cave, deep mahogany panels and flashes of twinkling gold beckon ahead. Tartan-clad soldiers of the British Empire stand tall and erect as Handel’s Sarabande echoes around the opulent room. Folds of red velvet, gold bullion and white tulle envelop mannequins armed with gold-studded masks. The Widows of Culloden in their MacQueen check dresses (painstakingly stitched so that the pattern meets and flows where each piece of fabric meets), stand representing the last Jacobite Risings of 1745 on wooden platforms opposite The Girl Who Lived in a Tree with her soft, East Sussex sensibilities and jewelled Indian diadems.

A room littered from floor to ceiling with ample divisions like a chocolate box is the next treat: the Cabinet of Curiosities. As the iconic paint-sprayed dress No. 13 rotates on a platform in the centre of the room, all around television screens flicker between collections and a variety of headpieces, shoes and garments look on from their sporadically allotted sections. Walking through into a dark passage, a vision of Kate Moss swathed in layers of dancing fabric moving as if in a trance to the haunting notes of the theme from Schindler’s List slowly unravels and finally fades. This is the finale from the Widows of Culloden show; an example of an old-fashioned technique called “Pepper’s Ghost’ which involved using mirrors and projectors to give the illusion of the presence of a physical being.

The next stages of the exhibition depict further contrasting elements such as beauty mixed with the grotesque in a bittersweet entrapment of figures in glass cases. A pale wallpaper permeated with skulls, dismembered bodies, decaying flowers and childhood dolls is offset against the voluminous floral dresses of the Sarabande collection, enforcing the strong influence of nature throughout McQueen’s work. The concepts explored in the Voss collection are translated with mannequins in garments with embroidered chrysanthemum roundels and ostrich feathers locked in a box with one-way mirrors and padded cell features, pressing themselves against the glass. The lighting in the box dims to reveal a clip of the Voss show finale: a naked Michelle Olley covered in moths breathing through a tube. This still shocking display highlights McQueen’s venture to take “something not conventionally beautiful and show the beauty within.”

The last room presents us with Alexander McQueen’s final exhibition: Plato’s Atlantis. With digitally printed jellyfish and snakeskin prints encasing silver mutant mannequins towering above in those iconic armadillo heels, it is a disturbing glimpse of the “devolution of humankind.” Behind their gleaming alien heads a large screen depicts model Raquel Zimmerman thrashing in the water while she morphs into a semi-aquatic creature. This last collection, as with each one that came before, holds an incredibly strong and intricate message at its core, one we can only aspire to fully comprehend. McQueen was more than a fashion designer: he was a true showman and an inventor, and his savage beauty lives on in his magnificent work and the unique label he has created.

‘Savage Beauty’ is showing at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London until the 2nd of August 2015.

Photography and sketching is forbidden throughout the exhibition; all of these photos were sourced from Vogue UK.

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