Review of Savage Beauty at the Victoria and Albert Museum

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If you can, do go and see this exhibition. It is startling, shocking and visceral. Featuring a vast selection of clothes and accessories designed by the late British designer Alexander McQueen, arranged artfully in themed rooms, soundtracked and lit to make you feel detached from reality, and submerged in his world. Most of the manequins have their faces obliterated with masks or metal cages, and you can’t help but be affected by the violence inherent in these the designs.

Lee McQueen was working class, the son of a taxi driver brought up in a high rise flat in Stratford, East London. He started as a tailor aged 15, went into theatrical design, and finally entered the world of haute couture following an MA at Central St Martins. He committed suicide the day before his mother’s funeral in 2010, aged just 40.

Some of the clothes are very wearable – the beautifully sculptured tailoring on show will appeal broadly. The jacket that morphs into short dress with side splits. The subtle detail of red lining under the flap pockets, and the gorgeous buttons from waist to neck.

On the other hand some of the outfits are so outlandish it is unlikely that they could actually be worn. And yet. They are inspirational and beautiful, appropriating animal parts and incorporating them into costumes. They make you wonder about the extent of the human imagination and what else could possibly done to a coat, dress or jacket.

His “Widows of Culloden” Fall/Winter 2006 especially appealed to me. McQueen “designed from the side” celebrating the curvature of the spine – evident in this first dress. He carefully cut the commissioned McQueen tartan so that the bias cuts match perfectly. The more traditionally influenced kilt on the right is arranged over a lightweight lace blouse, embellished with black embroidery. Both dresses reveal silk tulle petticoats and are beautifully draped.

This collection is so exciting – with its 19th century silhouette  and antique lace, wonderful natural elements taken from the Scottish countryside – feathers, stag antlers, birds nests, fur. All McQueen’s design work was deeply autobiographical (in this case celebrating McQueen’s Scottish roots) and his themed catwalk shows changed fashion, style and, perhaps, the way women feel about dress.

There is a debate about whether McQueen was a misogynist, or if he made women feel more powerful than before. I am not sure what I think. But I did enjoy the exhibition very much and I would recommend it. If you come away with strong feelings about dress, image, design, art, clothes and beauty it will have been successful. I plan a couple of follow up posts – and visits – on AMcQ in the next few weeks.

At the V&A Museum, South Kensington until 2 August 2015. It is vital to book beforehand (tickets are around £15), or go with a V&A Friend to get in free.

11 Responses

  1. Jenny

    Thank you Kate. It looks as exciting and wonderful as I had hoped. I love the kilt with its petticoat. Looking forward to seeing more.

  2. sew2pro

    Argh, the free entry… I’m kicking myself as I wish I’d said ‘V&A membership’ when asked recently what I wanted for me birthday; this is exactly the sort of exhibition where it helps to visit more than once. The idea of going with a friend is a good one too as you notice different things.

    The black many-buttoned jacket you feature was one of my favourites (of about 10 favourites!). It’s wearable at parents’ evening/supermarket, impeccably tailored and contains a few surprises in the design.

    I wasn’t aware till after seeing the exhibition that McQueen had worked for Angels the costumier; it seems like an obvious home for the early years of his career, as was pattern cutting at CSM.

  3. maryfunt

    I saw this collection in NY and would go again if in London. The designs are amazing. McQueen was one of my favorite designers; so sad his life ended. I often look through Savage Beauty for inspiration. Many of the designs are timeless. His background as a tailor shows through in the impeccably crafted styles. He was one of the few designers who could actually make the clothing himself. Thanks for sharing this.

    • fabrickated

      I very much agree with you Mary – he clearly had amazing technical skills as well as being an astonishing designer. It’s so nice this exhibition has been available in NY too – it is such a privilege to connect and share an opinion with you. Thank you.

  4. Stephanie

    The tartan dresses are to die for. Could you imagine wearing one of those? His work always makes me wonder why I dress so blandly! Interesting piece, K, including background detail.

  5. sewruth

    I’m so glad that some of my virtual friends can go to exhibits like this and tell me all about them. Thank you Kate – lucky geographical you!

  6. Brenda Marks

    The feather jacket – I love it! I saw a garment by de la Renta with a similar treatment with the feathers. My eyes popped out of my head.

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