Review: Savage Beauty @ V&A

The frankly unsettling ad for the exhibition (copied from the V&A website but obtained via Flickr)
The frankly unsettling ad for the exhibition
(probably copied from the V&A website but obtained via Flickr)

**disclaimer: I’m “reviewing” this exhibition in the sense that I’m trying to make sense of how it made me feel and what I enjoyed about it. I’m no fashion professional and I’m a newby at most things, so forgive me if the references I’m supposed to understand fly over my head. Like all opinions, this is only one of many. So if you’re not into it, that’s cool. 

I LOVE the V&A. It is without a doubt one of my most favourite museums in London, and henceforth the world. It’s the apotheosis of crazy decorative bumpf and is marvellously OTT. Its galleries are stuffed full of the beautiful, the obscure and the marvellous, with the most stunning emphasis on the craft of things. The feel that things are made, are constructed by feats of human creativity meeting human ingenuity, is very important in a way. It is art which is made, as well as felt. And it recognises that a thing which is beautiful can be beautiful of itself and because it is useful.

Plus, it’s feckin gorgeous and serves a mean lunch. I mean:

A fist-sized sausage roll with enormous portions of harrisa-grilled carrot and fennel salad and pea, bean and mange tout salad which I am nicking as a concept asap.
A fist-sized sausage roll with enormous portions of harrisa-grilled carrot and fennel salad and pea, bean and mange tout salad which I am nicking as a concept asap.
View from the inner courtyard.
View from the inner courtyard.

So it was with much love and trepidatious excitement that Flatmate and I headed today to see the much-hyped “Savage Beauty” exhibition – a retrospective of the work of Alexander McQueen.

I should be straight with you upfront. I am not by any stretch of the imagination “fashiony” – my relationship with fashion is like that of my relationship with most art. I like it, want to understand it, engage with it and respect it. But if I’m buying it for myself I want it to be nice. Which as a word is a horrible fate for any art or fashion.

I do, however, have a massive amount of respect for fashion designers, creators and makers. Having lived with the Maker (the incomparable Sian Evans) and also with the Milliner (the super-talented and just gorgeous Piers Atkinson), I have something of an insight into the world of making – this is by no means any expertise, sadly. But it has allowed me to grasp the difficulty of the job, the utter devotion needed to dedicate yourself to your craft full-time and the relentlessness of the discipline – and I mean that. The needs of the fashion seasons, the caprice of buyers, the need to construct your seasons from the ground up and the sheer joy of a job well done, which gives birth to the stuff in your head – it’s heady but really beautiful stuff.

That said, every so often there’s an individual who leaps beyond the world of fashion and just imprints herself or himself on the world beyond. I guess Alexander McQueen is one such – one of those people who created stuff which moved, which stunned, and which challenged people. So much of what we wear today and consider “fashion” is influenced by his work. I know for a fact that the lace and silk, the tailored jackets, the tight pencil skirts in my wardrobe owe a debt to the way in which he redefined the female silhouette.**

That said, I wanted to know more about how he worked, where his influences came from, and how the development of his distinctive vision was reflected over the years. So I had high hopes for the exhibition. In this, a lot of my expectations were met. The sheer amount of STUFF is simply astonishing, and you get a full review of the entire oeuvre of the man. The exhibition itself is simply gorgeously laid out: different rooms reflecting the different facets of McQueen’s relationship with his creativity – romance viewed through the prism of the gothic, the exotic, the primitive, the dark, and the futuristic. Stunning tailoring, the unexpected materials, the startling accessories. Some of the “greatest hits” were on show, and didn’t fail to impress. The infamous “bumster” trousers. The razor-clam, feather, and glass creations. Those crazy crab shoes.

SS 2001. Picture by Victor Soto, Flickr (found via creative commons search)
SS 2001. Picture by Victor Soto, Flickr (found via creative commons search)
AW 2000. Picture by Victor Soto, Flickr (found via creative commons search)
AW 2000. Picture by Victor Soto, Flickr (found via creative commons search)
S/S 2001 - the razor clam dress. Picture by Victor Soto, Flickr (found via creative commons search)
S/S 2001 – the razor clam dress. Picture by Victor Soto, Flickr (found via creative commons search)

More specifically, I felt that this show really focussed on McQueen’s creative relationship with the female form. Flattering, revealing, exposing, disguising, distorting and ultimately mutating the underlying female form in various ways. The blurb accompanying the clothing talked about his desire to transform the female figure into something impressive, and terrifying. To empower the woman beneath. And it’s true that you saw so much of this. You also got a wonderful insight into the shows that he produced, fabulous multilayered, multidimensional spectaculars that challenged the audience instead of simply showing them stuff. In VOSS (Spring/Summer 2001), trapping his models in a mirrored box, and finishing with a larger lady, covered in insects and butterflies and seemingly artificially wired to the ceiling. Holograms of models. Dancers, actors and gritty, unexpected and challenging settings.

Another triumph was the staging of the exhibition. The different rooms truly felt like different dark personas, reflecting the clothing within. The stunning catwalk creations were housed in a multi-level “cabinet of curiosities” (which I found a little hard to see). The imperialistic “The Girl in the Tree” collection (home of a particularly beautiful red-feather and white ruffled creation) was housed opposite the “Widows of Culloden” collection in a wood-panelled room. The startling and challenging (and for me, slightly uncomfortable from a intersectional perspective) Eshu collection of 200/1 was housed in a room lined with bones. Every room felt like a new, unsettling and disturbing discovery, and left you overwhelmed, suffused with imagery and a little bit overcome. Flatmate and I spent over an hour in the show and both felt exhausted at the end.

A few observations, however:

1) When I say this exhibition was about McQueen’s relationship with the female form, I mean it. It excluded any real examination of his work in male clothing. This is the man who popped dudes in corsets, who used his tailoring in new and unexpected ways in men’s fashion. The glimpses you got of the men’s clothing was as interesting as the focus on the female. For why, V&A?

Picture from S/S 1998 collection. Picture by Victor Soto, Flickr (found via creative commons search)
Picture from S/S 1998 collection. Picture by Victor Soto, Flickr (found via creative commons search)
Picture from S/S 1998 collection. Picture by Victor Soto, Flickr (found via creative commons search)
Picture from S/S 1998 collection. Picture by Victor Soto, Flickr (found via creative commons search)

2) I agree with a recent Guardian review – for all its beauty and grandeur, it felt a touch superficial – and didn’t examine the man. Ostensibly this is a sensible creative decision; and not to say sensitive, in light of his suicide. Perhaps a fuller exhibition digging beneath the surface to put his creativity in the context of his life, experiences and beliefs could only be an exhibition put on with the benefit of distance. But it’s hard not to compare this show with the excellent Isabella Blow exhibition “Fashion Galore!”at Somerset House, which confronted the personality behind the persona head-on, and fearlessly tackled the dark matter of her soul and her fate (while also showcasing a lot of the stuff on show here). “Savage Beauty” felt like a bit of a dream-like fairytale, which is beautiful and inspiring. But there was a lack of backbone, of the personal. You saw the anger and raw sexuality of his early work give way to a more mature, forward-looking kind of work, before giving way to angels and dreams of the future in later seasons. It’s tempting to read into this, but the show refused to. It left you with a lot to do, if you’re that way inclined.

3) It also lacked the kind of technical insight that I find particularly interesting at these shows. In 2007 I went to see the Golden Age of Couture Show – an education in the nature of fashion, the technical insight into how couture fashion works. There, clothes were deconstructed and you got to see beneath the surface of the tailoring. It was massively educational and one of my favourite shows I’ve ever seen. This show tempted and teased. It spoke about McQueen’s mastery of tailoring and inspiration from Victorian clothing, but stopped short of showing you the how. A pair of s-bend trousers, cut so that they lie on the floor in a circle but are gathered at the front and flat at the back were teasingly described, but the angle of the model simply showed a pair of baggy flares. It boasted of his technical ingenuity but left you to piece it all together. I have to say I got more insight from this very good review from the Independent than I did from the show itself.

Still, a stunning opportunity to have a really comprehensive look at a retrospective of one of fashion’s finest minds. Worth a look while it’s still on.

 

**NB This is not the total content of my wardrobe. Fuckssake, I am not Dita Von Teese. I WISH.

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