Feminist & artist. Writing & visuals.

McQueen: Mastering the Unsettled

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Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty Feminartist

It's one-thirty am, half an hour until our viewing slot and four hours until McQueen: Savage Beauty will close it's doors and become the UK's most popular paid exhibition of all time. Those leaving the V&A are buzzing (their complimentary Horn of Plenty masks sure to frighten the unsuspecting dog walker) but I cant help but wonder if a weekend planned around a show made a reality by a six-hour bus journey and 24 hours without sleep leaves us susceptible to disappointment.

Fortunately, a failed pilgrimage this was not.

Admittedly, I'd never been largely concerned with McQueen prior, so I approached this retrospective of his work from a position of ignorance. A high fashion lightweight, trawling around Selfridges earlier that day had already left me with enough designer lust coursing through my veins to see me through the next few weeks. Aghast by the numbers on these price tags - or the the lack of (labels are so pass√©) - my covetousness in this instance had simply left me bored. Savage Beauty, on the other hand, has a different impact. Rachel Cooke makes the distinction: "McQueen’s work is of a different order altogether. Even as you wonder at its technical accomplishments – a dress of razor clams! A skirt made from plywood! – your awe is already shading into unease."

Disquieting, Gothic, elegant, Kafkaesque - the rooms feel claustrophobic with something more than visitors and couture. If a pane of glass or an arms-length mannequin were too accessible, entering the high ceilinged Cabinet of Curiosities - with it's distantly shelved pieces surrounding centred seating  - is a frustrating reminder that we are simply Alices in the rabbit hole of McQueen's romantic schizophrenic creativity.

While most of the garments are undeniably beautiful, all of them are confronting. The mannequins are somehow made more anonymous with their masks on, as if in the dim light underneath there may very well be real faces, concealed, blind to the visitors testing the no-photos rule with their iPhones (I had the advantage of being very stealthy with a DLSR). 

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty Feminartist

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty Feminartist

With the size of the collection it's inevitable to find yourself unimpressed by some of the work: for me personally, this was the final room, which was a bit too Alien-y deviant art for my taste, though I later learn it's considered his strongest collection. I found myself surprised by the fetishistic elements - leather and bondage in art usually leaves me with about as much satisfaction as an anaesthetised masochist. Not since Madonna's notorious Sex have we really been all that shocked by BDSM, the embarrassingly popular Fifty Shades of Grey made the sub-culture palatable, and we see numerous campaigns that drawing on the dominant/submissive - I'd go so far as to say it's predictable. Anyone who has seen The Night Porter could've predicted Sex, anyway - repeated once more by McQueen patron Lady Gaga in Love Game. McQueen's juxtapositions in feather, lace, leather and fur, however, left me intrigued, not rolling my eyes. Welcomed into the gift shop by Venus in Furs, I reflected on the beguiling quality of McQueen's unorthodox dresses, especially considering BDSM usually has me reaching to my radical feminist reading

It was one dress in particular that had me sold: made from nude sheer tights, the lower half ripped and cascading, it demonstrated a nuanced and critical approach to fashion and femininity. Highland Rape, Sex doll lips, Armadillo shoes - dismissing his work as misogynistic would be to deny its complexity. The same can be said of McQueen and cultural appropriation - It's Only a Game (2005) perhaps a response to any such accusation. Truly inspired by the likes of India, China, Africa, Turkey and notably Japan, he said: “My work will be about taking elements of traditional embroidery, filigree, and craftsmanship from countries all over the world. I will explore their crafts, patterns, and materials and interpret them in my own way.” The exquisite embroidery in  Romantic Exoticism could not be anything but testament to this awe and appreciation.

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty Feminartist

Undoubtedly destined for historic significance, I'm now breathing a sigh of relief that I was able to discover McQueen's work in such a memorable way. One explanation for the V&A exhibition's record-breaking success may very well be the privileged feeling that can be boasted after viewing a such a collection, one I  didn't realise beforehand how much I wanted to see. If there ever was a distinct line between fashion and art, McQueen has blurred it brilliantly. Rules, boundaries, preconceptions...mastering the unsettled, McQueen: Savage Beauty reads like a water-damaged map.