The hottest show in London this summer isn’t playing in the West End. It’s at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty is pretty much sold out through August. If you want tickets, you must book weeks in advance. You are allotted a specific time to view the exhibit, and woe be tide you if you miss the appointed hour.
“Wildly popular,” says Forbes magazine, so wild, in fact, that the museum will remain open around the clock during the last two weekends of Savage Beauty’s run to accommodate the crowds anxious to experience it.
Alexander McQueen was the controversial London-born haut couture designer who worked originally for Givenchy until he started his own Alexander McQueen label in 2001.
Before his suicide in 2010 (high on cocaine and sleeping pills, he hung himself at age 41), McQueen was known as the hooligan of English fashion for the shock and awe he brought to his creations, many, many examples of which are on display at the V and A in a series of interconnected halls, grouped under titles such as Romantic Nationalism, focusing on the influence of his Scottish heritage, and Cabinet of Curiosities, the most dramatic in the exhibition, set in a starkly lit, high-ceilinged chamber lined with shelves some of which contain examples of “fetishistic paraphernalia” designed by McQueen. “I find beauty in the grotesque,” he once said.
A good deal of the stuff, as you might imagine in a collection titled Savage Beauty, tilts in the direction of the fetishistic, including mannequin heads encased in zippered black leather hoods. McQueen certainly played on fashion’s wild side, beloved by celebrities like David Bowie, Lady Gaga, and Björk who also played on that side of the fence—although, in fairness, he was also capable of creating sumptuous, exquisitely cut gowns, influenced much more by Cecil Beaton than by S and M.
The exhibition, while not playing down McQueen’s catwalks on the wild side, prefers to dwell on the designer as socially relevant and a political force who took delight in shaking up what the exhibition sees as a staid fashion world.
Another section of the Savage Beauty maze approximates a mud hut, one of McQueen’s many influences being the ancient tribes of Africa (others: everything from Alfred Hitchcock to his love of scuba diving to his hatred of the English treatment of his Scottish forebears). To emphasize the primitive nature of McQueen’s creations during this period of his life, the black leather hoods on the mannequins are gone, replaced by impala horns.
Said McQueen, who grew up, despite claims to the contrary, in a comfortable middle-class British household, and who was a success from the moment he stepped out of Central St. Martins College of Art and Design, “You’re here, you’re gone. It’s a jungle out there.”
Another phase of the McQueen oeuvre isn’t so much influenced by the primitive as the natural—Romantic Naturalism, the exhibition calls it. Nature as a work of art. A dress made of razor clam shells is on display as is one made of pheasant feathers. Another dress is partially constructed of real flowers. “I use flowers,” McQueen explained, “because they die.”
The theatricality of all this is undeniable, but just how seriously are we to take Savage Beauty? Very seriously indeed if you read the gobbledygook narration fed visitors at the V and A., a view avidly promoted by McQueen himself while he was alive: “When I’m dead and gone, people will know that the twenty-first century was started by Alexander McQueen.”
Try as one might, it is difficult to see McQueen as a twenty-first century starter. The exhibit does inadvertently shine a spotlight on high fashion’s pretentiousness, the vast disconnect between what’s celebrated on the catwalks of London and Paris and what ends up in a department store where almost nobody thinks of politics when buying a dress.
If you want a time when fashion politics mattered, one must escape Savage Beauty and head south across the Thames to, of all places, The Imperial War Museum. Fashion on the Ration: Style in the Second World War, examines in exhaustive detail the ways in which women adjusted to fashion amid the deprivations of a world war. Here politics really did play a role, not to mention the influence of falling bombs.
The siren suit, for example, was developed to provide a single, easily worn piece of clothing that could be thrown on when the fashionable ladies of the day had to head for the bomb shelters. It was possibly one of the first pieces of unisex clothing. Winston Churchill loved the siren suit and was often photographed in it.
Politics stuck its ugly head into fashion in 1941 when the war was going so badly for the British that the government started rationing clothing.
Women were told not to buy anything, but to mend their existing clothing instead. “Make Do and Mend” became the cri de coeur of the day. The government went to great lengths in order to get this point across, producing everything from films to how-to classes in sewing and dress making, using just about anything, including the silk maps provided to bomber navigators.
At the same time, the government worried that women would lose their sex appeal with all these clothing restrictions, thus affecting the morale of the boys returning home. Women on the homefront not only had to maintain a stiff upper lip, but they were also required to put lipstick on it.
“Every woman’s a hero in these days,” announced a contemporary advertisement, “but with an undeniable hint of sex appeal.” Or this: “During these rather difficult days, it is not only a woman’s pleasure to do her best, it is her downright duty.” The propaganda even went so far as to suggest it was treasonous to appear dowdy.
Fashion on the Ration argues that the war and the clothes restrictions it demanded, opened the door to the sort of mass market clothing that fueled the emergence of department stores and led to the democratization of fashion. Yet for all the emphasis on the political and social over at Savage Beauty, nothing about it strikes you as particularly democratic.
Instead, it emphasizes something the World War II industry never had to be concerned with, the here today-unfashionable tomorrow sensibility that now permeates fashion, a sense that the revolution has long since passed, but if you keep changing the clothes and the styles fast enough, and shock the locals every once in a while, no one will notice.