On the day after Osama bin Laden’s unexpected death was announced by the US President, a fascinating new exhibition was previewed at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Entitled “Savage Beauty,” it bore more than a casual relevance to the city’s attempt to grasp the right tone in the twinned face of this assassination and the upcoming decennial commemoration of the September 11th attacks.
Naturally, that strange-sounding juxtaposition needs some explanation. It has something to do with the sacred. That is to say, it has something to do with an important aesthetic and religious category very popular among the Romantics: the Sublime.
The idea was this. Beautiful things make us pause in appreciative wonder, beauty creating a mingled desire to possess or to imitate it. Sublime things stop us short, dead in our tracks, startling us into a new awareness, and new ways of seeing. Earthquakes and volcanoes can be sublime, as can the infinite expansiveness of deep space: it is part of Nature’s way of showing us how small we are, how replaceable, how cosmically insignificant.
In that sense, September 11, 2001 was a day punctuated with sublimity, the spiritual shock that stopped a nation in its tracks. It was a reminder of the savage side of human nature, and of the world, a reminder of beauty’s savage underside. Even a supernova is beautiful, if you are far enough away from it.
And yet the show at the Metropolitan showcased, of all things, a fashion designer, presenting an elegant and thoughtful combination of what were arguably the most ambitious and theatrical and sublime collections of his generation.
Alexander McQueen was born in Lewisham, South London, on March 17, 1969, the youngest of six children (and the third son) to Ronald and Joyce McQueen. He died by his own hand on February 4, 2010. He was only forty.
Alexander McQueen, more than any other living designer, managed to transform the runway show into performance art, and the fact that he choreographed four of these events each year for an explosive and creative span of five years speaks to the restless energy, the extraordinary imaginativeness, and the spiritual ambitions of the man. If fashion can be conceived as High Art, and the creation of clothing as a Spiritual practice, then it will in something like the terms McQueen—created and left—in his meteoric wake.
McQueen’s meteoric rise through the ranks of a very exclusive club reads like Romantic mythology. After attending primary school and a lackluster stint at Rokeby, he left school at age 16; he already knew that he wanted to be a designer, an artist. He worked for two years at Anderson & Sheppard (1985-1987), tailors to royalty, then for one more year at Gieves & Hawkes (1988-1989), working mostly on military tailoring. He apprenticed himself briefly to Koji Tatsuno and Romeo Gigli.
And then he bought a one-way ticket to Milan where he stayed for less than a year (1989-1990).
What he learned in all of this was every aspect of the way in which clothes are made. He learned cutting and stitching; he learned materials; he learned how to mix media. He was like a painter learning how to mix paint, to stretch canvases, and draw backgrounds—all before getting an easel of his own.
Back in London and still just 21 years old, McQueen landed a coveted place at Central Saint Martins masters program; he designed his first runway show by way of graduating in 1992. It was called “Jack the Ripper,” and a woman who would become a longtime friend, Isabella Blow, recognized the genius in the thing and purchased the entire collection.
The title of this show bears some reflection, since one of the most recurrent complaints about McQueen’s work was that it displayed a kind of misogyny common enough in one version of the homoerotic fashion gaze. McQueen went to great lengths to counter this criticism by insisting that his fashion was designed to empower women. “I want people to be afraid of the women I dress,” he said; “It’s almost like putting armor on a woman. It’s a very psychological way of dressing.” His experience with military tailoring figured in many of his early collections.
Still, McQueen flirted more than casually with bondage, leather, and S&M in later collections. “I especially like the accessory for its sadomasochistic aspect,” he observed, and in a great many cases, his costumes included masks that hid the faces of the women he clothed entirely from view.
McQueen continued to design shows between 1993 and 1997, and he met his most important collaborator, Katy England, in 1994. These shows garnered attention and remarkable appreciation. One show in particular, “Highland Rape” (1995-1996), illustrates his purposes best. Many took the name to be further evidence of his misogyny and celebration of violence against women.
McQueen found such criticism absurd, since the rape in question was clearly the rape of his native Scotland (his father was from the Isle of Skye). The show was a meditation on the Highland Clearings, and McQueen positioned himself in a stunningly original post-colonial position: as a native Scot who nonetheless adored London and cultivated his career in the capital of couture. There is great subterranean violence in his aesthetic, but no victims. The show brought him considerable and much-deserved fame.
So much so that in October of 1996, McQueen was made Chief Designer at Givenchy. Still only 27 years old, McQueen would now design four shows a year, two haute couture and two ready-to-wear collections. McQueen sold 51% of his interest in Givenchy to the Gucci Group in December 2000 and moved to Paris.
For the next decade, McQueen designed his own lines for his own house and choreographed shows that dazzled the eye and the imagination alike. Women on rotating plates were ominously intruded upon by mechanical paint machinery. Women moved on a chessboard, removing each other from action. Runway models walked through and were slowly drenched by artificial rain.
But his personal life was coming apart, Isabella Blow committed suicide on May 7, 2007, his mother died on February 2, 2010, and McQueen took his own life a week later, on February 11, 2010.
Alexander McQueen consistently identified himself as a Romantic throughout his brief career, and understood the vastly spiritual resonances of the term. To be sure, suicide at age forty is itself a Romantic trope of long-standing. A voracious reader (he deeply admired Rousseau, Byron and Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, not to mention Delacroix and Beethoven) , he explored various dimensions of the Romantic adventure in different shows. “Highland Rape” (and “Widows of Culloden”), as I noted, were exercises in Romantic nationalism, right down to the tartan plaids.
It was intellectually demanding fashion, always. “With me, metamorphosis is a bit like plastic surgery, but less drastic. I try to have the same effect with my clothes. But ultimately I do this to transform mentalities more than the body.”
Several shows [Dante, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, Angels and Demons] were done almost exclusively in Gothic imagery. “Primitivism” and “Exoticism” were examined in shows [It’s Only a Game, Dance of the Twisted Bull, Natural Dis-tinction Un-natural Selection and
Horn of Plenty] where most of the clothes were made of feathers, skins, horns, West African tribal beads and the like. “Exoticism” was linked to “Naturalism” in shows where nature’s orgiastic violence was linked inextricably to the sublime.
In all of this work the essential theme was beauty’s savagery–the savagery of material, the savagery of the beauty, the savagery of love. “People find my things sometimes aggressive. But I don’t see it as aggressive. I see it as romantic, dealing with the dark side of personality.”
This is the most perennial of Romanticism’s many obsessions, and the chief source of its allure. McQueen had the Shakespearean line, “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,” tattooed on his upper right arm. That’s from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
A posthumous show was done in Autumn/Winter of 2010-2011, and it is the line with which the Metropolitan show concludes.
Entitled “Plato’s Atlantis,” McQueen imagined it as an exploration of “Darwin’s theory in reverse.” The central theme of the collection is water, and immersion, in the wake created by the global warming and polar melting. What kind of humanism will emerge from these depths, in a world defined by water rather than land? What is striking is that this is arguably his most serene and beautiful show, yet the least savage. It is an imaginary spiritual glimpse beyond, after the deluge. Nature is sublime; in that deceptively simple statement nineteenth century Romanticism becomes twenty-first century Postmodernism.
All of it tailored to a tee.
Perhaps a poem by Pablo Neruda best captures the essentially spiritual vision in McQueen’s fashion. Here is a portion of his marvelous “Ode to a Suit”:
I ask whether someday
from the enemy
will stain you with my blood
you will die with me
it may not be
and you will gradually get sick,
you will grow old
with me, with my body,
we will enter
I greet you
with reverence and then
you embrace me and I forget you,
because we are one
and we will go on facing
the wind at might,
the streets or the struggle
perhaps, perhaps, motionless someday.
McQueen could be pithier: “There’s blood beneath every layer of skin.” And, as he knew well, moving that blood across the skein of skin is the human heart. His best work was always a heart-stopper.
A Partial Summary of Alexander McQueen’s Exhibitions
- Jack the Ripper – 1992
- Taxi Driver – 1993-1994
- Nihilism – 1994
- Banchee – 1994-1995
- The Birds – 1995
- Highland Rape – 1995-1996
- The Hunger – 1996
- Dante – 1996-1997
- Untitled – 1998
- Joan – 1998-1999
- No. 13 – 1999
- The Overlook – 1999-2000
- The Dance of the Twisted Bull – 2002
- Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious – 2002/2003
- Deliverance – 2004
- Widows of Culloden – 2006-2007
- La Dame Bleue – 2008
- Eonnagata – 2008
- The Girl Who Lived in the Tree – 2008-2009
- Natural Dis-tinction Un-natural Selection – 2009
- Horn of Plenty – 2009-2010
- Angels and Demons – 2010-2011
- Plato’s Atlantis – 2010-2011