I arrived at the V&A’s current exhibition Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty with the highest possible expectations and left without a single one disappointed. Having looked forward to this exhibition for over a year and reading a huge number of articles in recent weeks I thought I would be prepared for the many wonders that are on show. However, it is only when you see the full variety of McQueen’s output together that you can appreciate the strength and imagination of his vision. There were ensembles that unsettled me, dresses of unworldly beauty and shoes which appeared to defy physics. In addition to this each room attempted to capture the essence of that particular collection and immerse the viewer in this idea, through both visual and audio accompaniment. This makes the exhibition an experience in itself, with even the walls complimenting the exhibits with one room filled with gilt framing and another almost like an ossuary.
McQueen’s talent for tailoring is evident throughout the exhibition, as his clothes manipulate the potential in the human form to create a variety of shapes. He learnt his skills through working on Savile Row and this confident knowledge allowed him to ignore the carefully honed rules to suggest new ways of viewing the body. He elongated the back to focus on the end of the spine by changing the cut of trousers, a principle which became sensuously clear as models walked down the runway in his “bumster” trousers and immediately entered the fashion consciousness. I was also fascinated by McQueen’s choice in fabrics, as he often married classic silhouettes with unconventional material. Feathers feature throughout his collections, sometimes flamboyantly but also discreetly, as in the dress above. Although feathers are often used to create lightness in clothes or suggest a carefree lifestyle McQueen’s dresses frequently reject this as the feathers are coated in paint or modified to reveal a harshness which is not immediately apparent in natural feathers. This unnerving technique was also used with other textiles such as flowers, shells, hair and metal but throughout this the careful tailoring continues to link his creations with their fashion predecessors.
The variety of works involved in the exhibition becomes overwhelmingly apparent in ‘The Cabinet of Curiosities’ room, which is filled, floor to ceiling, with hats, dresses, shoes and so many other objects that I had no idea where to look first. There was a skirt which relied on the shadow it created, a butterflied hat, silver jaws and chain mail to name but a few, with all the walls playing videos from many of the fashion shows these objects originally featured in. The inclusion of these catwalks allowed me to appreciate the objects as part of a larger setting and also reminded me of their original purpose, even when the practical seemed implausible. The shape of the armadillo heels is unusual but when looking at lines of models walking in them I was struck by how much more alien they appeared when worn as part of the human body. They altered the walk and posture of each model and therefore changed the ensemble completely. This effect was only enhanced by the numbers of models involved and it became clear that McQueen viewed his fashion shows as an essential aspect of each collection, therefore making them as theatrical as his clothing. Each piece cannot be truly appreciated in isolation.
The exhibition is open until 2nd of August and I cannot recommend it enough. It is a kaleidoscopic opening into the mind of a man whose imagination could finesse sublime creations but also reveal nightmarish visions. Alexander McQueen always presented women as powerful, almost frightful, beings and as the exhibition title suggests he did not believe in commonplace, soft beauty. This combination of harshness, strength and aesthics exposes the accepted standards in fashion from within and forces the viewer to question their own visual ideals. Nevertheless, if you still need convincing about what you might see the V&A have provided further information about some of the intriguing objects on display. It’s also an excellent way to see the careful detailing present in all of McQueen’s work and appreciate the variety of skills involved. However, there has been unprecedented demand for tickets so make sure you plan a visit well in advance.