By Margaret Johnson
From mid-March to early August, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is housing “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” a tribute to the range of works by the late McQueen, who tragically passed in 2010. The exhibition is the largest and most comprehensive retrospective exhibit to display McQueen’s works in Europe yet, and provides an experience that overwhelms and absorbs the audience. McQueen’s works answer the question of whether fashion can be considered art with a definite “yes.”
McQueen’s larger-than-life character and originality is seamlessly woven into his creations. The first room of the exhibition is seemingly mild, showing McQueen’s earliest works featuring his famous “bumster” skirts and trousers, and his experimentation with unconventional cuts of articles.
McQueen’s creations shock, frustrate and exude craftsmanship and creativity. From the beginning, it is clear that McQueen does not aim for aesthetic pleasure, but rather, aims to challenge existing ideas of both fashion and beauty. His works are not meant to please, but to elicit a reaction, and he does not fail to meet this aim. For McQueen, aesthetic pleasure is owed to both aesthetic beauty, as well as the unleashing of emotion, just like any other collection of masterpieces.
The exhibit’s curation is a work of art in and of itself. The exhibit does not follow tradition, nor would McQueen have wanted it to. His clothes are not placed behind glass cases with tediously elaborate explanations placed at the foot, but are shown in a way that allows for the close examination of the creations.
The words of McQueen are put on the walls, discussing his works and fascinations, and introduce a theme for the room. The themes include, but are not limited to, sadomasochism, transformation, naturalism, mortality, nationalism and primitivism. This setup effectively gives insight into both McQueen’s character and his fashion shows.
His works radiate emotion—the audience will experience fascination, frustration and fear all at once. His works stem from a multitude of inspirations, which are unconventionally, yet noticeably, reflected in the creations. McQueen’s interest in birds is conveyed through his use of feathers as the train of intricately designed gowns. Sadomasochism is displayed with the incorporation of black leather and metal. For McQueen, the objective is for the work to be appreciated, not to be enjoyed or even understood. His creativity moves past conveying beauty and serves to challenge conventional ideas.
The title of the exhibition, “Savage Beauty,” introduces McQueen’s interest in paradoxical relationships. McQueen’s works seek to manifest paradoxical relationships, such as life and death, lightness and darkness, and deformity and beauty. He contrasts these themes in hopes of illuminating a unity among them, and he very often succeeds in a haunting, albeit beautiful, manner.
The exhibition becomes of even greater interest upon the knowledge of McQueen’s background, which prompts the realization that much of McQueen’s work is autobiographical. As a child, he was abused and later on witnessed his sister being beaten by her husband. These experiences have been translated into his works.
Some of his creations have a vague resemblance to armor and seem to offer a kind of protection to the women that wear his clothing. Very telling of this protective sentiment is McQueen’s adornment of his models with masks—a lace headpiece adorned with sharp deer antlers, for example. McQueen addressed this sentiment quite explicitly: “I want to empower women. I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.”
The notion of McQueen’s desire to make people fear the women he dressed moves past the psychological distress of his past and further delves into his desires for the future. McQueen dressed women to be fierce and strong because of his desire to move the ideals of femininity outside of societal constraints that expect females to be beautiful, docile and pleasant. His works seek to reconstruct definitions of femininity and power. Such an aim is what makes McQueen’s works much more than clothing. This aim makes his clothing art.
Art holds the responsibility not of expressing aesthetic pleasure, but rather, expressing a sentiment which progressively pushes past the societal and political constraints of its time. McQueen’s objective of destroying the politics of conventional beauty inspires and reconstructs our notions of what “beauty” is. For McQueen, “It was about trying to trap something that wasn’t conventionally beautiful to show that beauty comes from within.” While his masterpieces exude creativity and boast wonderful technical craftsmanship, it is not beauty that makes his name legendary, but his commitment to transcending the constraints of humanity and using fashion as his medium to do so.