‘As a place for inspiration, Britain is the best… You’re inspired by the anarchy…’
Last week, fighting a hideous head cold, I made my way back to London to see ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’ at the V&A. The exhibition runs until 2nd August, and is the largest retrospective of McQueen’s work to be shown in Europe, from his 1992 graduate collection through to his last unfinished spring/summer collection of 2010. ‘Savage Beauty’ has been much anticipated, with tickets selling (and continuing to sell) fast. Lingering remnants of girl-flu were not going to stop me from missing my precious 2:30pm ticketed time-slot.
And what a visual feast it turned out to be…..
Influences and themes
McQueen had many influences and a number of recurring themes run through his collections. Nature, London, primitivism, transformation, Scotland, exoticism, Victorian gothic…. The sources of inspiration seemed limitless !
The first few rooms focused on his respect for (and mastery of) the tradition of tailoring. McQueen’s cutting and precision, as well as his incredible draping techniques, shine through in the simply displayed frock coats (inspired by Victorian London) and iconic ‘s-bend’ trousers.
The show follows several ‘deep and melancholic’ collections before we reach 2008’s The Girl Who Lived in the Tree – a much lighter collection, suggestive of ballet costumes and rich in colour with beading, feathers and tapestry. As McQueen himself said, ‘it was time to come out of the dark and into the light’. The themes of nature and primitivism continue through 2009’s Horn of Plenty and his final complete collection, Plato’s Atlantis, which explored humanity’s place in a post climatic future.
His use of materials was astonishing throughout: beads, leather, metal, horsehair, goose feathers, silk, flowers, latex… McQueen used them all in his expressive odyssey.
The Cabinet of Curiosities
The high point for me had to be the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ – a square room filled floor to (very high) ceiling with wild and fetishistic accessories and artefacts, including armadillo boots, tribal headresses, elaborate jewellery and hats created in collaboration with designers including Philip Treacy, Shaune Leane, Dai Rees and others. The focal point of the room is the tulle and leather dress that was spraypainted on the catwalk as it was being modelled by Shalom Harlow – the film of the action is displayed on one of the walls.
For me, the whole room evoked an alternative Alice in Wonderland, one in which the Mad Hatter would be wearing hand-painted turkey feathers on his head and Alice would be decked out in a ponyskin corset. It was magical and slightly sinister, in equal measure.
The only negative point was the sheer volume of people. There is a strict timed entry system, and such is the crush that it’s hard to look at everything closely. I had to bypass a few displays completely as it was just too crowded. Even the astounding ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ was really difficult to take in fully as the room was so packed.
My favourite pieces? Two stand out. Other than the various edgy black, leather and latex items (which I adore), I loved the embroidered silk tulle and painted goose feather dress in the posthumous Angels and Demons collection. It’s regal, yet strangely subversive. The other was an amazing pale mustard leather cut dress with a metal crinoline – part of the Horn of Plenty collection.
You don’t have to be into fashion to appreciate this exhibition. The detailed craftsmanship, artistry, precision, and McQueen’s overall vision was all fascinating. Go now. Don’t miss it !
Please note, photography was not permitted at this exhibition. The images included above are scanned in from the show’s postcard collection.