Although I might not look it, I am actually pretty fashion literate, in that I take more than a passing interest in the work of various designers, even if I will probably never be able to actually own anything that they make. As you might expect though, my tastes definitely lean more towards the gothic and historically inspired and so naturally have been a huge fan of Alexander McQueen’s gloriously romantic and at the same time boundary pushing work for a long time. I even felt like, out of all the designers, he was a bit of a kindred spirit as like me he was fascinated by the dark side of history, with themes like Jack the Ripper (his Victorian London inspired graduate collection was called Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims), Culloden and the Salem witch trials appearing in his work over the years.
Like loads of other people, I’d watched enviously from afar as Savage Beauty, a retrospective of McQueen’s work took New York by storm a couple of years ago and so was thrilled when the Victoria and Albert Museum announced that the groundbreaking exhibition would be coming to London this spring – a homecoming that was only right and fitting due to McQueen himself being a proud born and bred Londoner and also the fact that he was apparently a great fan of the V&A. The news that the London version of the show was going to be even bigger, with over sixty additional garments and accessories, was just the icing on the cake.
After months of excited anticipation, I was delighted to finally find myself making my way to the Victoria and Albert Museum a few days ago for the special press preview of the exhibition. Anticipation definitely mounted as I joined the huge queue of bloggers and press waiting outside the exhibition rooms, all of us clearly agog with excitement as we prepared to enter the hallowed portals.
Clearly this was going to be no ordinary exhibition – the V&A collaborated with Gainsbury and Whiting, who worked with McQueen on his catwalk shows, in order to ensure that each section of the exhibition, which is laid out like a gloomy and wonderful labyrinth, ‘captures the essence of McQueen’s provocative, dramatic and extravagant catwalk presentations, through installation, music and film’ and it really is a fully immersive experience as you make your way through the different rooms, all of which have their own lighting, sound and ambience, all carefully calculated to reflect the garments on display, while at the same time showcasing McQueen’s inspirations and also giving a sense of what it was like to attend one of his phenomenal and innovative shows. It’s all extraordinarily theatrical and put together with an attention to detail that brings McQueen irresistibly to mind.
The first part of the exhibition is entitled simply ‘London’ and focuses on McQueen’s early collections: The Birds (S/S 1995), Highland Rape (A/W 1995) and The Hunger (S/S 1996), all of which already feature themes that would later go on to become classic McQueen – tartan, lace detailing and a sense of brutal romanticism. After this, the exhibition moves on to look at Alexander McQueen’s signature silhouettes, the result of his innovative cutting techniques and skill at tailoring.
The next room, themed around ‘Romantic Gothic’, was perhaps my favourite as it is full of amazing black lace and silk gowns, all amazingly accessorised with huge platform shoes and boots. Poignantly too, this display also features pieces from McQueen’s final collection, which remained unfinished at his death and was later privately shown in an old hôtel particulaire in Paris. McQueen’s fascination with the gothic and macabre runs through the entire show but it was most explicitly demonstrated in this room, with its dark atmospheric lighting, church organ music and huge tarnished mirrors behind the pieces. It is absolutely stunning, almost overwhelmingly so, like being in a haunted house attraction at the fair.
The next room, Romantic Primitivism, is something of a contrast as it is almost cavelike in construction and intended to explore McQueen’s interest in the animal world, which was clearly a source of great inspiration to him. The dresses here are mounted on horned mannequins set into the walls, almost like exhibits in the Natural History Museum just down the road.
After this there comes the Romantic Nationalism room, which showcases pieces from McQueen’s celebrated and iconic Widows of Culloden (A/W 2006) catwalk show and looked at his fascination with his own Scottish ancestry (something that I can really sympathise with!) and history in general. The outfits in this room are absolutely divine and I was particularly smitten with the wonderfully cut tartan dresses displayed along one side – they’d definitely be my first choice of garment if I followed Clare Fraser of Outlander fame through the stone circle to 1746. I’m already going to be burned as a witch thanks to my blue hair, so I might as well look good when it happens – although, I’ll be honest, the thought of sacrificing vintage McQueen on a pyre smacks of heresy to me. I like to think he would have approved though. In fact, I think that if he could have got away with having a model burning on a pyre as a centre piece to one of his shoes, he would totally have gone for it.
Anyway. Moving on. The next room, called The Cabinet of Curiosities, is perhaps the centrepiece of the whole show and certainly acts as the heart of the exhibition, presenting its wares on three uneven levels like an eponymous cabinet of arcane curiosities, with each box displaying something extraordinary. It’s a sumptuous display of clothes an accessories, spanning right across McQueen’s career, interspersed with video footage of his catwalk shows, while at the very centre of the room there revolves the amazing paint painted dress from his S/S 1999 collection.
I wandered around the Cabinet of Curiosities in a bit of a daze, as there was just so much to see and appreciate. I fell totally in love with several pieces on display, from a gorgeous red sequinned dress to a huge diamanté star headband, designed to evoke a victim of the Salem Witch Trials. I have, as is probably well known, something of a fondness for star themed head gear but this really was something else completely.
Once I’d had enough of feasting my EYES upon such wonders, I wandered througn to the darkened room behind, where, in a state of reverent hush, a group of us gazed in wonder at Pepper’s Ghost – a hologram, originally projected on to the catwalk of the Culloden Widows show in 2006, of a spectral Kate Moss dancing in rippling, undulating organza to melancholy music. So beautiful and romantic and a reminder, I thought, of the fact that the man who created all this beauty and wonder is sadly no longer with us.
After this, I wandered down a darkened corridor to Romantic Exoticism, a room devoted to McQueen’s interest in Eastern cultures, where I was treated to a display of beautiful garments in sugared almond hues of soft mauve and buttercup yellow, inspired by traditional Japanese dress forms and decorated with floral motifs.
After this there is a homage to McQueen’s infamous S/S 2001 Asylum show, where the audience was seated around a giant mirrored cube, lit so that they were forced to look at themselves for an hour before the show began. This effect is recreated at Savage Beauty, although thankfully I didn’t have to look at myself for very long before the lights came up and we were treated to a display of gorgeous garments, with a video of the original, rather disturbing Asylum centrepiece (a naked model in some sort of gas mask) rolling behind.
As a contrast to this, the next section Romantic Naturalism, was an exquisite display of the frothiest and most romantic dresses imaginable, from the famous beige silk ‘oyster’ dress to a frock completely covered in flowers to the fabulous cream lace gown from the Widows of Culloden show. This was an unashamed and wonderful tribute to the romantic side of McQueen’s lifelong love of nature, its beauty and fragility, and his astonishingly versatile imagination, which produced some of the most jaw droopingly beautiful gowns of all time, albeit with that ever constant edge.
The show’s magnificent finale is a look at McQueen’s last fully realised collection Plato’s Atlantis (S/S 2010), which is ‘set in a futuristic narrative where the ice caps have melted and humanity has had to evolve in order to live under the sea’. Regarded by many as McQueen’s greatest achievement, it really was an astonishing production that merged his passions for technology and nature to dazzling effect. Fittingly, the last thing you see as you exit the exhibition are McQueen’s own words, stencilled on to the wall: ‘There is no way back for me now. I’m going to take you on journeys you’ve never dreamed were possible’. So true as I felt, after a couple of hours spent exploring the delights of his imagination, that I had indeed been taken on an extraordinary, beautiful, tragic and wonderful journey that I would never forget.
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty is on at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London until the 2nd of August 2015. You really REALLY need to see this but I’d recommend booking tickets as soon as possible as it’s already sold a record breaking amount and is going to be really popular.
For those of you who can’t make it in person, there’s a wonderful accompanying book.
Set against the infamous Jack the Ripper murders of autumn 1888 and based on the author’s own family history, From Whitechapel is a dark and sumptuous tale of bittersweet love, friendship, loss and redemption and is available NOW from Amazon UK, Amazon US and Burning Eye.
‘Frothy, light hearted, gorgeous. The perfect summer read.’ Minette, my young adult novel of 17th century posh doom and intrigue is available from Amazon UK and Amazon US and is CHEAP AS CHIPS as we like to say in dear old Blighty.
I don’t have adverts or anything like that on my blog and rely on book sales to keep it all going and help pay for the cool stuff that I feature on here so I’d like to say THANK YOU SO MUCH to everyone who buys even just one copy because you are helping keeping this blog alive and supporting a starving author while I churn out more books about posh doom and woe in the past! Thanks!