Alexander McQueen’s Savage Beauty Exhibition

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‘Savage Beauty is a celebration of the most imaginative and talented designer of our time. Lee was a genius who pushed boundaries, challenged and inspired. He believed in creativity and innovation and his talent was limitless.’ Sarah Burton, the creative director of Alexander McQueen.

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Paul Vicente/ AFP/ Alexander McQueen RTW A/W 1998/ Getty Images

McQueen’s work transcends the fashion scene and crosses into the world of contemporary and performance art. A graceful, yet faceless model wearing a slashed red dress, performs an elegant dance as the flames rise up apocalyptically around her, in the finale of McQueen’s 1998 Show. His final show in 2010, called Plato’s Atlantis set the scene for a futuristic Terminator style world, with robots amongst the models. The show subverted the fashion industry’s elitism by inviting the whole world to attend, as it was broadcast live on the internet for everyone to see.

In the words of the designer, himself: ‘You’ve got to know the rules to break them. That’s what I’m here for to demolish the rules, but to keep the tradition.’

McQueen’s signature bumster trousers caused a sensation when they were launched in the early nineties. The controversial trousers sit low on the behind revealing an indecent amount of bottom cleavage. The designer describes the trousers, which are reminiscent of plumbers and builders worldwide:

‘I wanted to elongate the body, not just show off the bum. To me, that part of the body- not so much the buttocks, but the bottom of the spine – that’s the most erotic part of anyone’s body, man or woman.’

The designer courted further controversy when his ‘Highland Rape’ collection was first shown in 1995.  It enraged the press, who thought it was about the rape of women. McQueen was adamant that it was actually about the rape of Scotland, during the Jacobite Risings of the 18th century and the 19th century Highland Clearances. The designer was proud of his Scottish heritage:

‘The reason I’m patriotic about Scotland is because I think it’s been dealt a really hard hand. It’s marketed the world over as … haggis …bagpipes’.

The Highland collection is characterised by red tartan, frayed seams and ripped garments. Scotland’s violent history is reflected in the torn and tattered clothes.

McQueen was inspired by the Victorian Gothic and the darker side of the 19th century. His ‘Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims’ coat was made of a luxurious pink silk patterned with a black thorned design and real human hair.  This coat established an autobiographical element to this work, as one of his relatives owned an Inn that housed a victim of ‘Jack the Ripper’. The designer was inspired by the Victorians who used to keep locks of hair in lockets, brooches or rings as a memento mori, which is the Latin for, ‘remember that you will die’. Memento mori’s were sometimes created to remember the death of a loved one.

The ‘Horn of Plenty Dress’, which is made of dyed black duck feathers conjures up an image of Edgar Allen Poe’s gothic tale of the talking raven. The black raven visits a distraught lover, and drives him to madness with his incessant and ominous tones.

Alexander McQueen: Paris Fashion Week Ready-to-Wear A/W 09

 Pascal Le Segretain/ Alexander McQueen RTW A/W 2009/ Getty Images

 In the designers own words, ‘It is important to look at death because it is a part of life. It is a sad thing, melancholy but romantic at the same time. It is the end of a cycle – everything has to end. The cycle of life is positive because everything has to end.’

The Raven is a romantic symbol of death, but this dress is also inspired by the 1950s haute couture. This is evident in the nipped in waist and the huge shoulders.

One of the most interesting parts of the exhibition, when it was first on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York is the section called ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’. It is inspired by the 18th century practise of collecting strange and unusual objects from around the world to make spectacular cabinet displays. It shows how McQueen was inspired by everything in the world around him from Flemish painters to Japanese embroidery to the wonders of the natural world. A curious hat made of a bird’s nest with wings looks as if it is about to take off from the models head! It may be a reference to the Victorian craze for collecting wild birds eggs and nests.

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Philip Treacy and Shaun Leane for Alexander McQueen A/W 2006

This section also features a gothic black unicorn horn hat, which maybe inspired by the 18th century practise of collecting Narhwal horns. Narhwals are unique and rare creatures with a long spiral shaped tusk, which looks like the horn of the mythical unicorn. In the Middle Ages Narwhal horns were highly prized, as they were thought to be unicorn horns with special magical properties. In the 16th century Queen Elizabeth paid £16,000 for a tusk, which was the equivalent to buying a castle!

The Savage Beauty exhibition premiered at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 2011. The spectacular show will arrive at the V&A Museum in March 2015.  Martin Roth, the V&A director, enthuses:

‘I am thrilled to announce that the V&A will bring this wonderful exhibition to London to celebrate the extraordinary talent of one of the most innovative designers of recent times. Lee Alexander McQueen was brought up here, studied here and based his globally successful brand here.’