My first opportunity to scrutinize Alexander McQueen designs came via the Isabella Blow Exhibition at Somerset House last year so I arrived at “Savage Beauty,” the Alexander McQueen retrospective at the V&A, keen to see more leather or wool (my favoured materials of late) and hoping to get inspired to take a more daring approach in my own pattern-cutting.
The exhibition intends to emphasise how McQueen took his influences from nature and there’s a lot of it in use: feathers, shell, wood, beaks, hair and horn. We’re talking more than just trim: one whole coat seemed like a bubbling eruption of dark hair coils which my friend dubbed “the Dr Who Monster”! The other angle of interpretation is Romanticism. Four rooms are named Romantic Exoticism, Romantic Horror, Romantic Nationalism (this would be of the Scottish kind) and Romantic Naturalism. In the last, I spent a while admiring a hessian full skirt embroidered with straw flowers of the kind I haven’t seen since I was a child when they were a popular design on straw handbags. There were dresses and bodysuits inspired by the kimono and sleeves of silks printed in the style of chinoiserie but updated to more vibrant palettes. It’s a winner of a room, full of freshness and calm.
Not so Romantic Horror, a mostly black collection from McQueen’s days at Givenchy when he apparently imagined the creations of a disturbed surgeon who dismembers women and recreates them as animal hybrids. Here the female form towers imposingly in her raven-plumed ball gown or in her leather-bandage dress with beak epaulettes. She’s not so much frightening as dressed for defence, but from what?
If I entered the first room, or two, looking to learn from and to copy – a simple twist on tailoring can create an immediate swing from the traditional to the original – by room three, I abandoned such schemes. My mind instead was shouting “who the hell has the balls to wear this stuff!?”
Of course, many of these are display pieces which made McQueen’s reputation without making it to a production line. Nowhere is this more obvious than with the pair of wooden legs shaped like gnarled stiletto boots and carved extravagantly with grapes and vine. They were made by a either a prosthetist or a wood carver (or both). McQueen had a myriad of highly accomplished collaborators without whose skill he wouldn’t have been able to realize his visions so prolifically.
I got told off! Apparently, I shouldn’t have been wearing my skinny leather rucksack on my back but in my hand like a bag in case I should bash into someone. Later I did notice a couple of men in the crowd carrying backpacks on their chests, like papooses, so as to comply with the regulations… go on London, just TAKE our dignity! The guard who pounced upon me had all the charm of a Cold War James Bond villainess which put me in a nervously rebellious mood and so with shaking hands I took a couple of contraband phone pics of appalling quality (left, also the polished, varnished clam shell dress at the top).
If you can get to the V&A by August the 2nd but are reluctant to pay £17.50 for a ticket, think again! Gone are the days of fashion exhibitions displaying static rows of frocks. The game has upped somewhat. Almost each room here is a built set and a couple are rather elaborate. The music is wonderful too (and adds to the effect of this being a staged event). Sarabande by Handel in the “Widows of Culloden” hall; while in the “Cabinet of Curiosities”, the largest of the rooms packed to the rafters with exhibits, we’re served the eerie lullaby sung by Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby (my favourite ‘pregnancy movie’ ) As for the ‘hologram video’ of a Widows of Culloden bride Kate Moss spinning slowly like a dust mote, it’s worth a quarter of the admission on its own…
The postcard of Moss in the silk mille feuille wedding dress is one of four I picked from the selection in the seriously tempting Savage Beauty gift shop (those trying to rein in their expenditure are advised to wear blinkers as they pass!). Also included is a postcard of the golden feather coat which reminds me of the opera The Magic Flute, then there’s my perfect kilt dress and one from the Naturalism collection. If you think these would be good on your mood board, leave me a comment below and I’ll draw in early April then post them to the winner.
Link: Booking is essential so check availability here
Link: Woman’s Hour interview with ‘Lee’s’ sister and his biographer