Sunday, July 3, 2011

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty


"Comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable"

In our own fashion-centric Night at the Museum one evening last week, we had a once in a lifetime experience -- a private after-hours tour of the Metropolitan Museum's mindbogglingly magical Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. For this we have to thank Robin Schwalb, media archivist at the Metropolitan, who helped install both the astonishing visuals and the unique sounds that make the exhibition the breathtaking experience it is. The 2011 Costume Institute exhibition is breaking all attendance records, with more than 43,000 people jamming in the first weekend to see the most extravagantly spectacular fashion-based museum show ever mounted. We'd braved the exhibit once before, lining up early on Memorial Day Monday to be among first ones into the gallery, only to be swiftly overtaken by the rest of the thundering herd, even though we were literally fourth and fifth on line. Robin, who we're delighted to say is one of our readers, was kind enough to take pity on us, having seen for herself the lines that snaked across an entire floor of the museum and wound down the very grand staircase on a daily basis. Viewing the show for nearly two hours by ourselves was a truly unique gift for which we are eternally grateful -- a little bit of heaven on earth.

Robin (who appears in the middle of this photograph) also invited her friend quilter Paula Nadelstern, who currently has a solo show at the Akron Museum in Ohio.

After hours, the totally empty exhibition space took on an entirely new, very intimate aspect. We were kids in a candy store. Just walking through the empty museum to get to the McQueen show was a treat in itself. It was our own version of the Ben Stiller movie that was staged in the Museum of Natural History.

Jean says: Arguably, there are a number of fashion designers in our lifetime that have created beautiful clothing which we have loved and appreciated. A few actually touch us on another level. McQueen is one of those rare aves whose creations "speak" to me on both an intellectual and an emotional level. Alexander McQueen is to me what Issey Miyake is to Valerie.

Amazingly, the exhibit does live up to the hype and exceeds expectations. Go, and if you have to, take the day off so you can see it as it was meant to be seen. See it before it closes forever in just four short weeks on August 7th. While the mannequins and clothes could travel, the sets and installations are so site-specific, they can't be moved and recreated in another venue.

The exhibition is curated by the Met's Costume Institute's Curator, Andrew Bolton, with Harold Koda, Curator in Charge. McQueen's fashion shows' production designers, Sam Gainsbury and Joseph Bennett, are the exhibition's creative director and production designer. Graphic design is by Sue Koch of the Museum's Design Department.

Below, the red dress on the left is a flurry of feathers while the white dress is entirely covered in razor clam shells. (PLEASE click on the photographs to enlarge them.)

From the sublime to the ridiculous. McQueen combined unexpected and unrelated materials. Here's a rear view of the red dress -- this spectacular feathery creation is from VOSS spring/summer 2001, and is made of red and black ostrich feathers and glass medical slides painted red. The masks and spectacular mannequin head treatments were all designed by Guido Palau.

Fans of the recent royal wedding know that Kate's wedding gown was by Alexander McQueen designer Sarah Burton, who took over the reins of the fashion house after McQueen's death. As his design assistant for 15 years, Burton was his natural successor. This floating dress of ivory silk tulle embroidered with red glass crystals and bolero of red silk satin is from the autumn/winter 2008-09 collection entitled The Girl Who Lived in the Tree, and appears in the Romantic Nationalism section in Gallery 4. The collection was based on a dreamy fairy tale inspired by an elm tree in his country home in East Sussex.

This dramatic long pouf coat of red silk satin and dress of ivory silk chiffon embroidered with crystal beads is from the same collection and in the same gallery. Note the Faberge egg handbag and woven jeweled headdress. In person, the ensemble is breathtaking. (Jean says: This collection, especially the empire bodice and the cut of the split-front under-dress and the flat jeweled shoes, reminded me of certain Romeo Gigli pieces. It wasn't until I was researching this piece that I learned that McQueen had actually worked with Gigli.)

As many of our readers know, Alexander McQueen tragically committed suicide in February 2010, on the day of his mother's funeral. His friend, mentor and muse, Isabella Blow, who purchased McQueen's entire graduate collection, committed suicide several years earlier. Daphne Guinness, who purchased much of Isabella's extensive clothing collection at auction to preserve it, loaned several of the choicest McQueen pieces to the exhibit.

Born Lee Alexander McQueen, the designer had a prolific 19-year career after his 1992 postgraduate collection at Central Saint Martins in London, eerily titled Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims, presaging the controversial collections to come. He left behind a body of work that both challenged and expanded our understanding of fashion beyond clothing to a conceptual expression of culture, politics and identity. McQueen fashioned his collections around elaborate narratives. Fiercely proud of his heritage, when once asked what his Scottish roots meant to him, McQueen replied: "Everything". This gown, featuring an 1880s exaggerated silhouette, comes from the Widows of Culloden autumn/winter 2006-7 collection, which was based on the final battle of the Jacobite Risings in 1746.

This dress from Widows of Culloden is of cream silk tulle and lace with resin antlers.

Horns resurfaced in his It's a Jungle Out There autumn/winter 1997-98 colection. This brown pony skin jacket with impala horns and trousers of bleached denim appeared in the Romantic Primitivism gallery which was based on the theme of the Thompson's Gazelle. McQueen's dark, melancholy side was always just below the surface: "The whole show feeling was about the Thompson's Gazelle", he said. "It's a poor little critter -- the markings are lovely, it's got these dark eyes, the white and black with the tan markings on the side, the horns -- but it is the food chain of Africa. As soon as it's born, it's dead, I mean you're lucky if it lasts a few months, and that's how I see human life, in the same way. You know, we can all be discarded quite easily ... You're there, you're gone, it's a jungle out there!"

McQueen was politically as well as esthetically controversial. These dresses all feature the McQueen tartan from his Highland Rape collection of autumn/winter 1995-96. Based on the 18th century Jacobite Risings and 19th century Highland Clearances, the collection was intended to counter romantic images of Scotland and highlight instead the brutality of the English conquest and systematic oppression of Scotland. When it was originally shown, half-naked, blood-spattered models staggered down a runway strewn with heather and bracken. "What the British did there was nothing short of genocide" he said.

The exhibition's attention to detail was mind blowing. The distressed wood walls in the above shot were broken through using sledge hammers. The wood marquetry panels on the walls in the shot below contain the same McQueen tartan faintly etched on their surface to mirror the plaid in the dresses. The holes for the sound system speakers were concealed around the light fixtures. This Widows of Culloden dress of McQueen wool tartan has a top of nude silk net appliqued with black lace and an underskirt of cream silk tulle.

Costume Institute Curator Andrew Bolton best summed it up: "Alexander McQueen was best known for his astonishing and extravagant runway presentations, which were given dramatic scenarios and narrative structures that suggested avant-garde installation and performance art. HIs fashions were an outlet for his emotions, an expression of the deepest, often darkest, aspects of his imagination. He was a true romantic in the Byronic sense of the word -- he channeled the sublime." This dress from McQueen's fall 2009-10 collection, fashioned from black duck feathers, incorporates many of his signature details including exaggerated hip and shoulder treatments, and captures that mixture of beautiful verging on the macabre. Fans of The Black Swan can appreciate the esthetic.

The show examines the Romantic concept of the Sublime, merging wonder and terror, incredulity and revulsion. Liberally sprinkled throughout the space were many of the designer's most memorabe quotes, opening with: "I'm a romantic schizophrenic." Among our favorites: "I want to empower women. I want people to be afraid of the women I dress." and "When you see a woman wearing McQueen, there's certain hardness to the clothes that makes her look powerful. It kind of fends people off."

This jacket demonstrates his consummate skills as a tailor. His early training on Savile Row in London imbued him with the ability to design, cut and impeccably construct jackets. While his more exotic corsetry, slashing, fringing and featherwork may have been considered more innovative and revolutionary, they were based on a firm foundation of traditional patternmaking and technical precision. His jackets were his signature. Note the harrowing religious iconography in the material. A number of items in the exhibition featured identifiable art. Another piece we saw was printed with Heironymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights.

These dresses from Plato's Atlantis are snake patterned on silk jacquard and on silk satin and chiffon.

One room had a large black box with a narrow waist-high cutout. Inside is a 4-sided glass pyramid with a hologram of Kate Moss gradually increasing in size from a shiny white dot of light into a 2-foot figure spinning in an incredibly gorgeous layered white frock. We were impressed when Robin told us that the height of the cutout was specifically designed - in accordance with the law - to accommodate children and visitors in wheelchairs. This is the kind of detailing that went into the entire show. There were countless little surprises that we could have missed by turning our heads at the wrong moment, so it was wonderful to have Robin give us behind-the-scenes details that we couldn't even have thought to ask about. In another room, Robin pointed out the wall paper. Designs that were abstract from a distance turned out on closer inspection to be comprised of teeny little skulls, each barely bigger than a soap bubble.

The hologram was technically excellent and truly beautiful. Kate looked gorgeous wearing a gown out of a Grimms' fairy tale. That she is spinning only adds to the hypnotic effect.


The show was divided into seven galleries: The Romantic Mind; Romantic Gothic; Cabinet of Curiosities; Romantic Nationalism, Romantic Exoticism, Romantic Primitivism and Romantic Naturalism. Since themes recurred in hs collections, the clothing is not displayed in chronological order, but rather grouped in keeping with the philosophical abstractions of the Romantic Movement: individualism, historicism, nationalism, exoticism, primitivism and naturalism. Clothing from 1995-1996 appears next to pieces from 2001-2, side by side with items from 2010-11.

This outfit, from the VOSS autumn/summer 2001 collection which appeared in Gallery 5's Romantic Exoticism, combines an overdress of panels from a 19th century Japanese silkscreen with an underdress of oyster shells and a neckpiece by Shaun Leane of silver and Tahiti pearls.

Also from the VOSS collection, this exotic jacket, trouser and hat are of pink and gray wool bird's-eye embroidered with silk thread. The hat is decorated with Aramanthus.

His unique blend of impeccable tailoring married with outrageous showmanship was instantly recognizable. This dress with the magnificent collar worthy of a Walt Disney wicked witch is from the Dante collection of autumn/winter 1996-97.

This ensemble, from his autumn/winter 2010-11 and shown posthumously, featured a coat of duck feathers painted gold over a skirt of white silk tulle embroidered with gold thread.

While we can attempt to convey the visuals through photographs and our narrative descriptions, we cannot adequately convey the sound of the exhibition or its visceral impact on viewers. In one gallery in which a mannequin wears a tricorne Philip Treacy hat and a dramatic, voluminous black parachute silk cape that billows in a manmade wind, viewers are enveloped in the sound of howling wind combined with the howls of wolves. John Gosling's "Wind & Wolves" literally makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. In another gallery of lifesize bell jars with exquisite mannequins on revolving platforms, John Williams' mournful theme from "Schindler's List" moved some viewers to tears. Interspersed with Mozart (Adagio from Violin Concerto #3 and from Piano concerto #23) are other John Gosling pieces aptly named "Football Hooligans", "Typewriter" and "Chess Vox". He collaborates with Emre Ramazanoghe in "Electric Bird". Another musical piece "Dysfunctional" by Mekon was mesmerizing.

The Armadillo boots from the Plato's Atlantis collection, made famous by Lady Gaga, were even more arresting in person. This version and the dress and leggings below were embroidered with iridescent enamel paillettes.

According to McQueen, Plato's Atlantis predicted a future in which the ice cap would melt, the waters would rise and life on earth would have to evolve in order to live beneath the sea once more or perish. "Humanity would go back to the place from whence it came."

The exhibition in the Met's second floor Cantor Galleries features approximately one hundred ensembles and seventy accessories ranging from hats and breastplates to shoes and headresses; earrings and lockets to bags and corsets. The dress pictured from the Sarabande spring/summer 2007 collection appeared in the 7th Gallery, Romantic Naturalism, in a huge bell jar. The mauve silk faille and tulle dress had both silk and fresh flowers. The floor around the mannequin is strewn with petals of wilted, dried flowers.

Both of us loved the Cabinet of Curiosities, an entire room of shelves of varying sizes containing video screens showing highights from ten McQueen runway shows, mannequins with dresses and an amazingly wide variety of accessories, ranging from hats and veils to a crown of thorns, a jaw bone mouthpiece, a tusk mouthpiece, a nose bar, a coiled neckpiece, Alien-themed shoes and their mold, which look like something right out of Ridley Scott's outer space horror classic.

Jean's personal favorite: hand-carved prosthetic legs in elm wood, decorated with delicately carved flowers, and originally worn on the runway by double-amputee model and athlete Aimee Mullins. The legs themselves were an example of McQueen's Romantic Naturalism - his enduring interest in raw materials and forms from nature. Beautifully wrought, they were art pieces by themselves. That they had actual utility was just icing on the cake. They were another example of the dialectics of beauty and horror that suffuse his work. (To see “Aimee Mullins and Her Twelve Pairs of Legs”, a talk the Paralympic athlete delivered at TED, an annual symposium where the best minds the world has to offer converge and offer ideas to improve life and solve global-scale problems, click here. [For more about TED, which is open to the public, click here.])

According to Aimee, who lost both legs before her first birthday (she had no shin bones), the "only disability is a crushed spirit."

On the left of the Cabinet of Curiosities is the leather breast plate, layered lace skirt and wooden legs worn by Aimee Mullins in McQueen's 1998 Givenchy show.

Here's a shot of Aimee on the runway in the outfit.

Shown on the right of the above picture of the Cabinet of Curiosities is the famous spray-painted dress. During the runway show, the model wearing this dress from No. 13 spring/summer 1999 was on a revolving disk and while it was spinning, was sprayed with paint by robotic arms. The video of the runway show was displayed above the actual dress.

Silhouettes likewise ranged from very Victorian with bustles and nipped-in waists to Mad Max-inspired big-shouldered jacket with taxidermied alligator skull epaulets.

Valerie says: this lilac leather corset/pannier dress with horsetails was one of my absolute favorites. I also loved the razor clam dress that opens the show, and the ostrich feather and lab slide dress that stood beside it. It's so hard to ask the question: "But where would I wear any of these?" Each of these dresses requires its wearer to stand for the evening. No sitting down to cocktails in any of them. And where would you get them dry cleaned? Yet they were riveting. And don't get either of us started on the balsa wood fan dress, or the balsa wood wings!

Hats get a special mention. (How could they NOT, you so rightly ask?) Creations -- some delicate confections and some primitive head pieces with horns -- by milliners Dai Rees and Philip Treacy were a visual and intellectual delight. [Fans of our blog will remember that Stephen Jones is curating a hat show scheduled for the Bard Graduate School in September and prominently featuring Philip Treacy.]

FANATICS' TIP: For those of you who, like us, would prefer to savor the exhibition without a million of your closest friends, The Met is now selling tickets for limited audiences on Mondays, when the Museum is closed. Tickets are $50, and hours are from 9:30am to 2:30pm, with entry on the half hour.

Six Degrees of Separation in the Fashion World

Alexander McQueen tragically committed suicide in February 2010, on the day of his mother's funeral. His friend, mentor and muse, Isabella Blow, committed suicide several years earlier. Daphne Guinness, who purchased much of Isabella's extensive clothing collection at auction to preserve it, loaned several of the choicest McQueen pieces to the exhibit. Isabella, who had been an editor at Vogue, discovered both milliner Philip Treacy and Alexander McQueen. Treacy was at her home for a weekend party on May 6, 2007 when she committed suicide. At her May 15 funeral at Gloucester Cathedral, in lieu of flowers, her willow casket was surmounted, fittingly, by one of her Philip Treacy hats. Otis Ferry, son of singer Bryan Ferry, was one of her pall bearers.

Here we are, happy as razor clams at the end of the evening as we headed off to Rouge Tomate.

What we're wearing:

Valerie: home made hat comprised of a vintage plastic puzzle dog, a place mat from Gallery Gen, and gros grain ribbon from M&J Trimmings; Issey Miyake blouse and skirt; red lacquered wood neck piece; unlabeled belt; felt cuff by Omatic; Jeffrey Campbell ankle length rubber boots.

Jean: Ignatius hat; Poof shawl top; Helmut Lang shirt; Timbuktu linen harem pants; silver gum ball necklace and aluminum wire and marble craft show earrings; Angela Caputi gator cuff; 1980's silver-plated safety pin punk bracelet; Made Her Think leather and black metal stud snap on bracelet; vintage black bakelite rings; black resin Made Her Think skull ring; gold rings.


  1. You ladies are phenomenal...I found you while looking for shoes and have been here most of the day -- reading your blog! Thank you for sharing. I wrote much more but when I clicked post, my internet was not connected. So, for now, I will simply say thank you for sharing all of your marvelous finds and 'beautiful' people with us. I have enjoyed and will come back often. It is truly unfortunate that Alexander felt so alone as to leave us; however, his creations are here to remind us of him. His work is truly other-worldly. Have a marvelous week!

  2. Thank you, Valerie and Jean! Thanks to your amazing blog, I look forward to seeing the exhibit firsthand with hungry anticipation!!! Warm regards to both of you!!!

  3. This is such a wonderful blog---Valerie, your hat is AMAZING!

  4. OMG!!!!!!!! WHO ARE YOU???!!! WOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I want it all!!

  5. Totally book marking this blog