Polonius said it best: “Clothes maketh the man -- but make sure they are quality, not flashy...and above all to your own self be true.” From his lips to Alexander McQueen’s ears, it seems. For those who have been buried under a rock for the last fifteen years, or, perhaps more likely, locked in their Master’s dungeon, McQueen’s sartorial splendors may come as something of a shock. To those of us who have appreciated the curve and grace of Aimee Mullins (below-the-knee parapalegic, model/actress/athlete), admired Prince Charles’s Savile Row suits, watched Björk on the red carpet, or seen Lady Gaga (Six Million People Can’t Be Wrong), this exhibition may seem more overdue than revelatory. Oh, yeah. Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, is at MMA's Costume Institute through August.
How do we describe the protean McQueen? He drew his fashion inspiration from a deep well of art, but what he produced became Culture. Not since Coco Chanel or Halston have we seen a designer whose attention to detail -- from the fabric, to the hat, to the shoes, to the presentation -- rivals that of McQueen. He appeared almost sui generis (unless one might consider that the Marquis de Sade mated with Chanel and kept the subsequent issue chained under the Council House kitchen sink for sixteen years). McQueen served his apprenticeship sewing “Charles is a Cunt” into the linings of the Prince of Wales’s Savile Row suits while designing his first collections. His models -- at his shows, as well as on their Met recreations -- were fitted with BDSM accoutrements: bruises on arms, ligature marks on wrists, and nicely laddered bums.
It only got better from there. His choice of the model Aimee Mullins, a longtime participant in the performances of Matthew Barney, as his first inspiration for shoe design speaks volumes. McQueen designed not only the shoes she wore, but also the legs, as she is a double amputee. McQueen carved the shoe-leg combo to complement her ensemble, No. 13 (spring/summer 1999), adding an additional two inches to her height for the runway show. Clothes maketh not the man, indeed, but legs are a different story.
McQueen had a sensitivity to period and tone: Victorian photography, with its subtle hints of death masks and spirit photography, provided the milky, washed-out tones of an early “line.” We use this term loosely; McQueen was only bespoke. McQ, that House that exists today, bears as ghostly a semblance to his work as does the spirit photo to the subject.
Bondage, Punk, Scottish tartans followed, each year bringing new inspiration, yet all tied together (no pun intended). It’s Only a Game (spring/summer 2005) included a series of Obi-inspired football uniforms (American football), which morphed East and West and was inspired by To Sir, with Love. Widows of Culloden (autumn/winter 2006–2007) gives us a holographic Kate Moss, engulfed in flowing white, twirling eternally, the ultimate Goth waif, with a soundtrack from Schindler’s List. Further references to Story of O and Taxi Driver punctuate his collections. An early collection, Taxi Driver (autumn/winter 1993-1994), introduced “bumsters,” which reveal the end of the spine and top of the arse, his favorite part of the body.
No detail escaped his shows -- too many to list. Handel’s Sarabande, God Save the Queen, and Björk all bring a texture of sound; haunting, when queuing through the rows of gimp-masked mannequins. As one who attended early shows of McQueen’s work (fuck, they’d let anyone in back then, apparently), I was always struck by how much attention he gave to hats and masks and veils, as if to both obliterate the predominant fashion for supermodel faces, as well as to revive the punk ethos of identity. We were all ugly; we were all the same. That was the thing that McQueen brought to the runway: stiff little fingers attitude.
This served little Stefani Germanotta well. She was shy, not particularly Angelina Jolie beautiful; McQueen designed headwear to protect her fragility inside and to provide armor for her expulsion into public life. Lady Gaga was perhaps his finest creation. The alien and armadillo shoes, the slave veils. If he designed it, she wore it, and it became another icon.
Let’s not dwell on Mr. McQueen’s own end. Somehow fashion and death and tragedy are always intertwined. Just close your eyes, for a moment. And try to remember the color of Jackie’s pillbox hat. - Bradley Rubenstein
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is at 1000 Fifth Avenue in New York City; the McQueen exhibit runs through August 7, 2011.
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.