McQueen at The Met : The Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition, a retrospective on the late fashion designer, ran from May 4–August 7, 2011 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York City.
When prompted to impart a final message on his deathbed, Karl Marx said, “Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough.” This story has come to mind many times in the past few years, whenever anyone did an Alexander McQueen retrospective, and if you’ve been paying attention, that was fairly often. Every magazine and blog that has ever run the words “goth”, “haute couture”, or “Lady Gaga” has run long, in-depth pieces on McQueen since the designers untimely death over a year ago. I suppose I was bothered by the fact that, in my opinion, McQueen was a genius, not just for the message of his art, but for the eloquence with which that message was given. What seemed perfectly clear in the works themselves has been endlessly reinterpreted, rehashed, and reiterated. McQueen was no fool, and he had certainly said plenty, even in his tragically shortened career; why do we all feel the need to put last words into his mouth?
So there is certainly something refreshing about a McQueen retrospective that is allowed to speak for itself. The Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute put together a powerful collection of McQueen’s best pieces for this summer’s exhibit, and his enduring popularity delivered. Even on off days, the lines for Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, which closed last week, were often an hour long, for the entirety of its three month run. The Costume Institute often utilized a labyrinthine layout for its exhibits. In contrast to the Metropolitan’s airy white galleries, its thin corridors, sharp angles, and dark walls were never more appropriate than for this show. McQueen’s designs were separated into themed rooms, including “gothic”, “naturalism”, exoticism”, and “primitivism”. The curators emphasized the “romantic” in each of these themes, printing quotes from McQueen, as well as rather sappy blurbs on their part, on the walls to introduce each room. Certainly, all of these motifs were present in McQueen’s body of work, but separating them each into rooms felt a little artificial and affected. While there was evolution in the designs throughout McQueen’s career, his thematic palette actually remained remarkably stable and unified. The Angel and Demon heels of his final collection to not disagree with his historically-anchored dresses from the 90s, even his favorite shade of red could be found in almost every room of this exhibit. These curators seemed to need to impose some kind of personal statement on the collection of a designer whose works were always their own statement.
Luckily, though, the interpretative blurbs were unobtrusive in comparison to the masterful displays of the truly monumental clothing, in the cultural and architectural sense. Placed staggered on pedestals draped with distressed burlap, or spinning slowly in mirrored niches, the dresses, feathers, metal, bondage, and elegance all blended seamlessly. Most intriguing to this McQueen enthusiast was the “gothic” room, which had some of the most daring, extreme non-clothing items McQueen ever put out. Leather harnesses, wooden hats and metal helmets, jewelry larger and heavier than some furniture put in one room some of the loveliest aspects of this designer’s supposed savagery. Seeing it all at once, it’s clear that there’s really nothing barbaric about the way he pushed the boundaries of the human form. Like Daedalus, he only broke with the body’s “natural” form with the intention of transcendence.
Check out the exhibition catalogue still available at The Met Store to get a glimpse of the show.
– Rena Finkel