Exhibition Review: Savage Beauty

Savage Beauty is a retrospective of the work of fashion designer Alexander McQueen. Revered by the fashion industry, he is always described in superlatives. This exhibition begins to explain the attitude by delving into the designers motivations. By taking a chronological path through his career, the show reveals the breadth of his rapidly evolving inventiveness. McQueen turns out to be more than just a fashion designer.

Savage Beauty begins with a display of McQueen's remarkable tailoring skills. Image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Savage Beauty begins with a display of McQueen’s remarkable tailoring skills. He was responsible for the ‘bumster’ trouser – when everyone was wearing trousers on the hips. Image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The show opens with McQueen’s exquisite tailoring. The designer began his career as an apprentice on Saville Row before securing a place on the Fashion MA course at Central St Martin’s. By acquiring the skills of tailoring, he was able to desconstruct and reconstruct garments to create striking new silhouettes. Looking at the jackets and trousers on show, it’s often difficult to imagine how flat pieces of fabric have been cut to create these elaborate structures.

From this intriguing start the show explodes into the wildest and weirdest reaches of McQueen’s creativity.  Neatly catalogued into chapters, the show covers:

  • A Gothic Mind – inspired by Victorian gothicisim, this is a brutal collection of zipped face masks, black feathers, skull adorned dresses and billowing capes, alongside lighter than air chiffon gowns and delicately beaded dresses
  • Romantic Primitivism – housed in a cave like room plastered with bones, this collection reflects McQueen’s fascination with the ‘noble savage living in harmony with the natural world’. Based on Yoruba mythology, the garments contort aspects of primitive dress – grass skirts, leather, bones – into modern garments
2015 04 20 Romantic Primitivism
in Romantic Primitivism McQueen explores the idea of a ‘noble savage’. A bodysuit is adorned with crocodile skulls while a dress has a grass skirt. Thesetting evokes the spirit of a cave. Image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
  • Romantic Nationalism – driven by McQueen’s deeply nationalistic views, this collection gathers pieces from his Highland Rape series: a passionate cry against the perceived exploitation of Scotland by England. And a British Empire collection of beaded India-inspired head-dresses, feathered gowns and silk tunics .
  •  Cabinet of Curiosities – a fascinating room filled from floor to ceiling with a multitude of pieces. McQueen worked with a number of talented crafts people, notably milliner Phillip Treacy.  The results of these collaborations are presented here. Shoes, head-dresses, necklaces and garments are interspersed with screens showing his stunning catwalk shows on a loop.  All the loops converge when the robot sprayed dress appears – the spectacular end to one show.
2015 04 20 Cabinet of Curiosities
It would be easy to spend hours contemplating this treasury of goods. The room is filled with eerie music which constantly calls your attention to different elements. While the show stopping spray dress creates a moment of stillness as everyone stops to stare. In the following room is a powerful projection of Kate Moss as a ghost. Image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
  • Romantic Exoticism – some of the designer’s most exquisitely detailed garments are in this room. Fascinated with Japan, McQueen deconstructed the iconic kimono into new shapes and silhouettes and drew upon the country’s archetypal textile designs to create flamboyant, yet elegant pieces.
  • Voss – the darkest room of the show, this reproduces part of McQueen’s Voss show which was set in a vast two-way mirrored box. Looking into the box you only see yourself. Light slowly fills the room to reveal the garments. Then a film runs on the background showing the original box and its astonishing, disturbing contents.
2015 04 20 Spray paint dress
The show stopper – both when it was first revealed as the conclusion of a catwalk show and today in the Cabinet of Curiosities. It is simple yet highly theatrical and magical. Image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
  • Romantic Naturalism – McQueen was constantly drawing on nature; this room displays gowns inspired by natural materials, including a gown of real and silk roses, pheasant feathers and razor clam shells.  They are delightful, delicate and yet powerful.
  • Plato’s Atlantis – the show ends with McQueen’s final show – the one being prepared when McQeen died. Drawing on Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species, it considers a world in which sea levels have risen and man has to devolve back to living in water.  The armoured dresses are printed with detailed patterns inspired by sea creatures in a cacophony of sea greens and blues.
2015 04 20 Platos Atlantis
The final line up of the show and of McQueen’s life. The space age mannequins, feminine dresses and gorgeous prints set against a video installation form a stunning conclusion to the show. Image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The range and breath of McQueen’s imagination is remarkable. The clothes swing from delicate, tenderly feminine gowns to powerful, strong, aggressive pieces. The attention to detail, scale and harmony of each collection is impressive.

The show is not without it’s faults.  There is no historical context and the explanatory text is sometimes hard to find or read. But these are minor drawbacks.

Savage Beauty is a show for anyone interested in creativity, design or art.  It is probably inevitable that one day, this exhibition will become the basis of a museum dedicated to the designer.  He was a remarkable talent and the industry reverence is justified.

Links: Savage Beauty at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

All images courtesy of the V&A.

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