07 July 2011

Long Live McQueen!

Donna Anna, your costume is ready!

Visiting the Alexander McQueen exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, I began to experience the frustration that (I suspect) even hardcore fashionistas must have felt when attending the late designer’s runway shows. There was simply too much to absorb! Each piece demands to be admired, studied, understood.

Real (and crumbling) meet artificial flowers in this Romantic confection.

All the more overwhelming at the Met, where approximately 8 billion other people are crowding into the exhibit at any given moment: the show’s been one of the hottest tickets in town since it opened, in May, and it shows no signs of slacking off as its August 7 closing date approaches. Yet the Museum might easily have dedicated an extra dozen rooms to McQueen, and still we wouldn’t have had space (physical, mental) to take in everything we saw.

The 21st century starts here:
Why should Gaga have all the fun?

As even the most cursory glance at my own wardrobe will confirm, I know nothing about fashion. But McQueen made statements so strong and clear, even I get them, and the exhibit, curated by Andrew Bolton (with a major assist from the house of McQueen), lays out themes and explications in impeccably illuminating order.

Tailored, empowered

Because McQueen started on Savile Row, we start with several of the most “tailored” pieces in this collection, his naughty “bumsters” (trousers that reveal the rift between the buttocks) and his severe yet imaginative coats and jackets. You marvel at the sleek lines and intricately fitted pieces. There’s a quotation from McQueen, explaining that he wanted women to feel “empowered” when they wore his clothing, and you can see that, with these designs, he probably got the effect he wanted. You wouldn’t want to mess with these ladies.

Elsewhere, however, I got the sense that McQueen was at times like the Kids in the Hall character, a fashion designer whose “love of women” inspires creations such as a spike through the head, and “shoes” that are in truth a box full of broken glass. How “empowered” can a woman be when she’s wearing a mask that covers her eyes and stifles her mouth? (All the mannequins have been thus outfitted — since these pictures were taken, apparently.) Beyond this rather glaring contradiction in ideals, McQueen, who took his own life last year, incorporated a number of currents in his highly personalized designs, and some of these are very dark indeed — nightmares made wearable, if not necessarily comfortable.

Curiosity and Curiouser

The least comfortable section of the exhibit, surely, is the “Cabinet of Curiosities,” a collection of accessories that speak to the kinkiest corners of McQueen’s imagination. Like an 18th-century cabinet, the walls are lined with shelves of oddities, from corsets to hats to masks. In such close quarters, it would be difficult to focus on any of these objects, much less all of them, and the space is not only tiny but also awkward and (ah, human nature!) jam-packed. You can’t linger or study (though fashion students busily sketched and annotated every item in the entire exhibit).

One of my favorite pieces, this dress combines meticulous beadwork and a skirt of horse hair.

It’s a little easier to breathe elsewhere in the exhibit, and even the neophyte can gain an appreciation for McQueen’s recurring fascinations: Scottish history, Gothic romance, nature at its wildest, and futuristic constructions that grant the designer’s wish: “… When I’m dead and gone, people will know that the 21st century was started by Alexander McQueen.” Many of these ideas are played out simultaneously, whether in harmony or in opposition, so that I found it impossible to look at any single piece without multiple reactions.

Mad for fashion: What every Lucia yearns to wear.

One of these — perhaps inevitably — was regret that costumers in opera haven’t been quicker to take up the gauntlet dropped by McQueen. Why should Lady Gaga have all the fun? Some of the billowing, sweeping designs from the series entitled The Girl Who Lived in the Tree (autumn/winter 2008–09), are ready to drop into almost any Baroque or bel canto opera, the ruffles and billows reflecting the music beautifully; and the Scottish-themed Widows of Culloden (autumn/winter 2006–07) would elevate any production of Lucia di Lammermoor. And those are only the most obvious possibilities.

And pray tell, is this not a costume for Alcina?

How often do I have such strong reactions to fashion? Almost never. But seldom have I been able to appreciate fashion as art.

My 12-year-old goddaughter, who knows more about this stuff than I ever will, responded even more strongly than I to the exhibit. Tossing aside her audio headset, Ilana declared that “I’d rather make up my own stories than listen to the ones they’re telling me.”

McQueen would have been pleased, I think.

Every piece tells a story.

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Free with museum admission, Tuesday–Sunday
(Priority to Museum members, especially on Sunday);
Or purchase tickets for “Mondays with McQueen,” here.
Through 7 August 2011

NOTE: All images here come from the Met Museum website.


TEGaskins said...

I simply love his gowns. Works of art, indeed.

Anne said...

Off to see the show for the third time...every time I have different reactions, see different things. That first section, the tailleurs, had me in tears. McQueen's appreciation for the female body is unsurpassed (at least in my cut of world experience.) And amazingly, that is 'body' as experienced BEING a woman--one's skeletal structure--not breasts, or legs or whatever seen as individual objects of desire or derision--but a female structure. As a woman this lifetime, I felt elevated by his work.

Phew! THAT was intense! Not sure if it is coherent, but that reaction was strongly felt. Going today with a woman who helped put up the Gaultier show currently on view at the Musee de Beaux-Arts in Montreal--so no doubt there will be new perspectives.