2b. the employment, in speaking or writing, of sarcasm, irony, ridicule, etc. in exposing, denouncing, deriding, or ridiculing vice, folly, indecorum, abuses, or evils of any kind.
— Oxford English Dictionary
“I want to be honest about the world that we live in, and sometimes my political persuasions come through my work… Let’s break down some barriers.”
— Alexander McQueen
When I applied for my masters programme I was very specific that I was a history of dress scholar, I did not bother with fashion. My interests were lodged firmly in the past, and I did not have time to deal with all that superficiality and consumerism and modernity. I dealt with muslins and the rise of the British cotton and imitation shawl industries and things that were real, in the superior and oh-so-defensive tone of someone who has newly embarked on a course of study, as the only member in her entire department doing a dissertation on dress studies can be. Utterly and completely neglecting that today is tomorrow’s history, and that today’s socio-political issues are just as equally represented in today’s clothing, even if not described in the flowery language of Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell.
I was writing my final essays, finishing my internship, and dealing with life, the universe, and everything when the news of Alexander McQueen’s suicide broke. I felt a slight sadness that anyone would be so unhappy as to take their own life, but thought nothing more of the topic. I’m afraid I didn’t really know who he was. I didn’t even know it was time for the Autumn/Fall shows. I had “serious” academic work to be getting on with, after all.
It was not until previews of the upcoming show and teaser images from the revolutionary new catalogue began to flood my Twitter feed that I sat up and took notice. The jacket with the antelope horns on the shoulders caught my attention instantly, as did the eerie photography and aesthetics. There was something about the garments and the atmosphere of the photos that appealed to my former wannabe-goth, thirteen year-old self. But other than noticing that it was taking place in New York in May, and that I live in California so would not be able to attend, I simply admired the photos, thought “oh, that’s the sort of thing he did”, and went on to the next link.
But the teasers kept coming. They became full articles, discussing the revolutionary new way in which the catalogue had been photographed (museum collections cannot be worn as a rule, but since these were all still within the House’s collection, they were placed on models who were then photoshopped to look like living mannequins); or discussing the designer himself. Then, I purchased the catalogue, and a “well, maybe when I’m on the East Coast in July I’ll see if I have time” became “I must see this”.
I was embarrassingly late in becoming an Alexander McQueen fangirl. I still prefer historical or technical discussions of clothes to current fashion, and I am happy to admit that I am completely out of my comfort zone. And yet, I think that is the way McQueen himself would have preferred it. There is something about his work that evinces an intense emotional engagement from me, and clearly I am not alone.
The exhibit is drawing record-breaking crowds. I arrived to see it on a Monday, when The Met is normally closed, thinking the lines would be shorter. I was so, so wrong. I was surprised to discover that the normal entrance fee was doubled to $50, that Savage Beauty was the only thing you would see for that, and what’s more, I could still see the lines nearly out to the street from the side entrance. As I had at least another 24 hours in New York, I resolved to be there before the museum opened the next day to “beat the lines” (that sound you hear is hysterical, ridiculing laughter, by the way). The museum opened at 09:30, and I was there well before then, but the lines were already absurd.
The signs at the ticket kiosk said that the wait to see Savage Beauty was only fifteen minutes, but after climbing two flights of stairs and seeing the line, I had a rather sudden premonition that this could not be the case. . .
Nearly half an hour later I was perhaps two-thirds of the way through the line and still could not even see the entrance to the exhibit.
. . . I may have gotten bored.
I do not know how long I actually waited, but I would happily have waited longer.
The exhibit is nothing short of awe-inspiring. For McQueen, the show was the most important part of what he did; the garments of a collection could not be designed until he had a concept for the show itself. The Met exhibit’s creation of atmosphere and attention to detail seems almost a recreation of the designer’s own process. Each and every room is different, and specifically designed for the collection it showcases. From the plain concrete walls and raw wood platforms of the “Romantic Mind” collection that displays McQueen’s earliest work – creative reconstructions of the traditional tailoring he learned while an apprentice on Savile Row – in the first room, to the opulent, gold-leaf walls lit by flickering (electric, of course) candelabra for the opening room to the “Romantic Nationalism” section – which features the sharply tailored pieces of his Widows of Culloden collection in their bright red McQueen tartan, and the soft, flowing shapes of The Girl Who Lived in the Tree with its references to British Imperial wealth – about midway through the exhibit.
Each and every mannequin’s head is covered, the only exceptions being the “Romantic Mind” room which featured headless mannequins, and the “Cabinet of Curiosities” room, where some of the bizarre and whimsical jewellery pieces or more unsual hats could not be displayed except on an uncovered bust. Each masque fits perfectly with the aesthetic of the room. Gold, bevelled pieces for the “Romantic Nationalism” room described above, burlap sacks for the room featuring the shipwreck-themed Irere collection, and futuristic faux-metal headpieces recreating the bizarre hairstyles of the Plato’s Atlantis runway show which introduced the “armadillo” platforms for the final “Romantic Naturalism” room.
Despite the variety of the masques, this manages to create a sense of cohesion in an extremely diverse exhibit. It also continues a tradition of McQueen’s, who would intentionally obscure the features of his models, either through make up, veils, headpieces or masques; he also rarely used “supermodels”, not wanting the overall message, or visual impact of the show to be overshadowed by the model’s own fame. He even said, when he was accused of misogyny and encouraging exploitation of women in his shows (specifically Highland Rape), “We’re not talking about models’ personal feelings here… We’re talking about mine. Models are there to showcase what I’m about, nothing else. It’s nothing to do with misogyny. It’s all about the way I’m feeling about my life.” The masques, even for featureless mannequins, are very much in keeping with this mentality because despite their uniqueness, they complete the look, and almost become “background” forcing you to look only at the clothes and the designer’s vision.
The other two elements that most impressed me were the use of video, sound effects and music, and the recreation of some of the runway shows. I became aware of the background sound and music in the second room, which features the darkly gothic Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious collection, as well as his posthumous Angels and Demons. The walls are covered in what look like old, tarnished mirrors with grand, gilded frames. There is a fan for one particular outfit, which has a cape that billows dramatically as a result; but it is the sound of eerie instrumental music – sophisticated haunted house music, really – and wind as if through vast corridors which subtly reinforces the ambiance of the entire display. The Cabinet of Curiosities features a number of videos of McQueen shows, making you pause that much longer to take each one in.
After leaving the “Romantic Exoticism” room, which is music-box like in its use of turntables and mirrors, you are faced with McQueen’s VOSS runway show in miniature. A mirrored box where you confront your own reflection transforms into a display case for mannequins wearing dresses from the collection and an image of the white tiled, sanatorium surgical theatre it originally took place in with its own mirrored box in the middle as the background. The lights go down on the mannequins, and the background image comes to life, becoming a video of the final moment of the runway show in which the walls of the box within the box come crashing down, shattering on impact with the floor, and revealing a nude woman whose body is completely opposite to those of the models that have just been dancing around her. She is not tall, she is very curvaceous and of a larger size, her face is completely obscured and moths and other insects flutter about and over her. The entire display then fades back to the mirrored box it was when you approached it, and you are once again confronted with your own reflection.
I had never before realized just how important context was for museum displays of costume. The catalogue had featured a rather plain dress: black with a gold damask print painted on it, but in the bottom left corner the pattern had not been finished and instead drips of gold paint run down as though the painting had been halted part way through and abandoned to dry however it might. I simply thought it was an interesting pattern effect, nothing more. But in person, within the setting, I had a completely different, deeply emotional reaction. After the first, gilded “Romantic Nationalism” room, you are taken into a room with ravaged wooden floors and walls, in the background “God Save The Queen” is played on an electric guitar, in what can only be described as an ironic way. In conjunction with the tattered, torn, and ripped lace, leather and chiffon that makes up the other garments from the Highland Rape collection, my perceptions of this black dress with gold damask print were entirely transformed. My favourite course while doing my masters was my Jacobitism to Romanticism class which looked at the material culture of Scotland, particularly during the Jacobite uprisings, so it is perhaps the historical context that made this room so memorable to me. Yet, the combination of sound and visuals, followed immediately by the quiet, ethereal hologram of Kate Moss is still my favourite. It had what can only be described as a visceral impact on me and my opinions of this collection. Altering them forever.
As a visual display the exhibit is undeniably stunning. There were several pieces where I wished there were mirrors behind stationary mannequins so that I could see the backs or fronts that were turned towards the walls, but that would have disrupted the aesthetic presentation. My biggest complaint was with the information panels. Not the labels for the garments, but the descriptions featured to explain each room and collection. McQueen frequently, and sometimes violently, protested the stereotypes and labels he was given by the press. He hated being considered the “bad boy of fashion”, or having himself and his vision reduced to the “Michael Cain syndrome” as he referred to it, of the East End, Cockney boy made good. Bolton’s panels and his preface to the catalogue do not put McQueen in this box, but they create a loftier, more romantic one: a modern version of Rousseau’s Noble Savage; a misunderstood, melancholy prophet showing us all “the truth”. This seems in direct contrast to Susannah Frankel’s statement in her introduction to the catalogue that “… as a human being, he was far more complex, elusive, and indeed magical than any reductive media incarnation”.
People, though, are usually far more comfortable with “reductive media incarnations” than with complexities and things that are uncomfortable, even while they flock to them. The museum needs to make the artwork accessible to as wide an audience as possible, and to introduce a strange and perhaps completely unknown designer to an ignorant public. McQueen himself even acknowledged that “… Any interest in the clothes is secondary to interest in the designer”. And this is true of all art. The public is just as fascinated by Pablo Picasso the man as they are by his art, being violently offended when Arianna Huffington dragged him off a pedestal and into gritty reality with her biography in 1989. Tickets for biopics about Jackson Pollock or Vermeer – fictitious or not – would not sell if we did not want to see the myths writ large. But, all the hype is nothing if you are not a good designer, craftsman or artist, and McQueen certainly was. Whether or not fashion (said in the same condescending tone I embarrassingly used to employ) is truly art is still publicly debated, though.
In April the New York Times ran a piece on big museums “finding a place” for fashion in their exhibition schedules, which seemed to come to the conclusion that it was merely a cash cow to fund “proper” art exhibits. In July another article ran in conjunction with the opening of the Madame Grés exhibit in Paris, asking point blank whether fashion was really art or deserving of such major museum attention. That fashion exhibits sell is clearly indicated by not only the lines in my own photos above, but the fact that the Met is open on Mondays just for the McQueen exhibit, and able to charge twice its normal admission price. And get it. It is even staying open until midnight this weekend to try and meet the demand to see the exhibit during its last few days. These are unprecedented measures and changes. The Met has never been open until midnight. Or on Mondays.
But does popularity validate that something is art? There are arguments that say yes, and arguments that say no.
Another NYT review suggested that having the House itself financially and artistically involved in the exhibit was limiting and that if fashion wanted to be taken seriously as art, it needed to be removed from its commercial environment and “treated as art”, complete with analysis, comparison, and even criticism. I agree with the author, Holland Cotter, that in order to treat it seriously, it must be analyzed the same way as all other ar tforms, within the proper socio-political context, and even on occasion drawing some negative conclusions, and that this cannot be done when you have the owners of the objects breathing down your neck and demanding to be made to look good. But that sort of treatment usually happens in conferences and reviews, not exhibition catalogues. However, Cotter claims this happens in other Met catalogues, which I can neither confirm nor deny, this being the only exhibit, and only catalogue I have ever had contact with. But, in my experience it is highly unusual for museums to say “well, you know, Edward Weston is considered this amazing, early photographer… but we just can’t tell”. They are trying to sell their product. And in fact, according to psychology researcher Paul Bloom in his TED Talk, that is perfectly normal. We place a huge amount of importance and value on how a particular artwork is perceived by others, and that influences how much value we have for it. And well established museums and their curators will carry more weight in determining something’s importance and value, than say, well, me.
And yet, Cotter’s article does make one wonder if the reason fashion isn’t considered art isn’t due to this corporate, and arguably biased involvement in its museum display. Would it be taken more seriously if it was removed from all of that and treated as any other form of art or craft is? But then again, without the funding a fashion house can provide, would the Met have even been able to mount such an extraordinary exhibit?
For me, Alexander McQueen was a satirist. He did not write poetry or prose (that I know of), but he took our taboos and forced us to look at them full on, even if they made us squirm; he took our standards of beauty, our perceptions of women, our ideas about history, our stereotypes and our conformities and blew them out of proportion, distorted them into the ridiculous and made us reconsider and think about them, even if we didn’t necessarily like what we thought or felt afterwards. He was like Jonathan Swift, suggesting the Irish eat their babies in lieu of potatoes during famine. He was occasionally grotesque, but satire often is, and that is its power. There was a NYT opinion piece in April suggesting that the only real political and social change comes through satire. Once we are made to realize something is ridiculous, we are no longer intimidated. It can be changed.
McQueen himself seemed uncertain whether he was an artist or not. Towards the end of his life he spoke of going back to art school, but always referred to himself as a designer. I believe he was an amazing craftsman – the skill used to create his garments attests to that – and a true artist. Fashion, and particularly his shows “which blurred the boundary between runway show and a new kind of installation art” were simply his medium. McQueen even said, “For me, what I do is an artistic expression which is channelled through me. Fashion is just the medium”. The irony that he was discussing people’s perceptions of beauty through fashion is not lost on me. Nor was it lost on him.
The exhibit is undoubtedly one of the best I have ever seen. Anyone who cannot make it in this weekend should avail themselves of the video walkthrough on the Met’s website (next to the last, at the bottom of the page, though as a proper little acolyte, I highly recommend all the videos). It is almost as good as being there, and there is less danger of being elbowed in the ribs (all those people in the photos above… yeah, they’re in the exhibit with you).
I regret very much that I came to appreciate this man only after he had died. But I feel that to try and place him in a box whether you are a media outlet or a museum is unfair. He said that if we wanted to know him, we should look at his work.
I think the best homage we could give him would be to do just that.
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2 Comments Add yours
I really enjoyed reading this Brenna! You hit on some really great points – costume vs fashion, fashion in museums, McQueen, satire in fashion, etc.
Thanks, Sarah! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I had so many thoughts when I left The Met, and all from one exhibit. It’s reassuring to know I did them justice.