“When you see a woman wearing McQueen, there’s a certain hardness to the clothes that makes her look powerful.” — Alexander McQueen
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. By Andrew Bolton with contributions by Susannah Frankel and Tim Blanks. Photographs by Sølve Sundsbø. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 240 pp., $45.
By Janice Harayda
Americans know Alexander McQueen mainly through the wedding dress his design firm created after his death for Kate Middleton, a gown demure except for its plunging neckline. But he made his name with clothes that took more risks – anatomically correct bodices, trousers that showed “bum cleavage,” a jacket imprinted with an image from the painting The Thief to the Left of Christ. On the cover of this catalog for a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a hologram turns a portrait of McQueen into a skull. It’s visual metaphor not just for his suicide at the age of 40 but for the difficulty of pinning down a man who made armadillo-shaped shoes fanciful enough for Lady Gaga and hand-carved wooden leg prostheses practical enough for a Paralympics champion.
Alexander McQueen suggests but does reconcile the contradictions of its subject. The London-born McQueen had Scottish roots and professed to deplore the romanticizing of the land of his ancestors. But he created romantic clothes for collections that invoked two of the greatest tragedies in Scottish history. In “Highland Rape,” he used luxurious, torn fabrics as a lament for the eviction of thousands of Scots from their lands during the Highland Clearances, an event he called “genocide.” And in “Widows of Culloden” he embellished tartans with jet beads in memory of the dead in the 1746 battle. If Scottish history isn’t romantic, why honor it with “romantic” clothes? If the Clearances were genocide, what makes “Highland Rape” morally better than designs inspired by Nazi death camps? Any beauty in the clothes co-opts the tragedies that gave rise to them. It’s as though Ralph Lauren’s more aggressive and ghoulish younger brother had created collections called “Antietam” and “Widows of 9/11.”
McQueen’s contractions may reflect his early work as a costume-cutter for London shows that included, he says, Les Misérables. Many of his designs, such as a winged, hooded dress made of black duck feathers, suit the stage better than the street. They look more like costumes than clothes, even for women who attend events that justify spending $20,000 for a gown. And unlike Middleton’s wedding dress, they are memorable less for their elegance than for their theatricality. Conventional elegance seems to have held little interest for McQueen, who said he wanted to “empower” women by making people afraid of them: “When you see a woman wearing McQueen, there’s a certain hardness to the clothes that makes her look powerful.” Middleton showed courage in choosing the firm of a designer who once said of his runway shows: “I don’t want to do a cocktail party. I’d rather people left my shows and vomited.”
Best line: A quote from McQueen: “[I design from the side,] that way I get the worst angle of the body. You’ve got all the lumps and bumps, the S-bend of the back, the bum. That way I get a cur and proportion and silhouette that works all the way round the body.”
Worst line: More quotes from McQueen: “I hate it when people romanticize Scotland. There’s nothing romantic about its history.” And this one about “Highland Rape”: “Fundamentally, this collection is luxurious, romantic but melancholic and austere at the same time.”
Recommendation? This book doesn’t include a photo or information on Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, so it’s not for anyone who is looking for those things. But it could make a good gift for people — and there were many of them — who couldn’t get into the Met show or spend as much time as they wanted there.
Published: May 31, 2011
Furthermore: Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty was the eighth most popular show in the history of the Met and drew more visitors than any exhibit mounted by its Costume Intsitute. Holland Cotter reviewed the show for the New York Times. The blog for the museum includes a brief video about McQueen and photographs of some of the clothes it displayed, which appear in the catalog.
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© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.