Savage Beauty

1 McQueen polished varnished clam shellsMy 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.

1 McQueen tailoringI 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…

1 kate mossThe 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: Cabinet of Curiosities Images

Link: Booking is essential so check availability here

                     Link: Woman’s Hour interview with ‘Lee’s’ sister and his biographer

1 papagena

1 romantic naturalism

1 romantic nationalism

14 thoughts on “Savage Beauty

  1. Thank you for an interesting write up Mariana. The prosthetic limbs/boots were inspired by 17th woodcarver Grinling Gibbons and made for Aimee Mullins – the model and Paralympic champion. Like Oscar Pretorious she was born without shin bones and had her legs amputated below the knee as a baby. She opened the show No 13 (Autumn 1998). Most people watching did not realise this and many fashion editors got in touch to ask if they could feature the boots.

  2. Great review Marianna. Perhaps I should pay a visit when I come over in April instead of forking out 5 times as much for a West End show which will inevitably disappoint me – they nearly always do.
    That tartan dress is just gorgeous. Oh to be young enough to wear something like that again – but then, of course, I’d still have trouble matching those pleats up 🙂

    • Soon as I walked into the tartan room, I thought of you! The first exhibit – bias cut tartan trousers with a front seam on each leg – was examined pretty closely for imperfections in the match (but it was pretty good!)

  3. Thank you for this review. It looks worth every penny of that steep entrance fee. He was a tortured soul but just look at what his imagination produced. So exciting.

  4. I am planning a visit to my daughter, to include this exhibition. I am happy to hear that it sounds as though it includes much not seen at the (wonderful)Isabella Blow exhibition. Thanks for your review.

  5. Great blog post as always! That’s something I do miss about living near London, we don’t get too many avant garde fashion shows on the edge of the outback! I will live vicariously through you x

  6. Loved this review! I always get chased down by security guards in exhibitions as well, not for my knapsack but because I linger for a long time in front of paintings, looking at all of the details. It makes them skittish! The cards you picked are gorgeous…am trying to imagine wearing that flower-filled neckline. In fact, it would be a dream to wear any of the final three, including that fantastic kilt dress. Definitely makes me want to leap out of my conservative style bubble.

  7. Marianna, that’s a great review, I am really looking forward to seeing this show, it looks fascinating. Did you catch the Woman’s Hour interview this week with his sister and his biographer? Very touching and worth a listen. They explained why his clothes make women look scary and untouchable, his response seeing his sister and his own experiences of terrible abuse.

  8. A wonderful review for those of us who can’t see the exhibition – thank you. How I miss living in London (sometimes!). Thanks Marianna. McQueen has been as inspirational as Viv.

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