On Sunday, as part of our Mother’s Day celebrations, I took my mum along to the Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty exhibition at the V&A. I had expected to be impressed by the exhibition, but I wasn’t prepared for its incredible scale and emotional impact. Savage Beauty is quite simply the best fashion exhibition I have ever seen.
The show starts quite tamely, in a room full of beautiful, but perfectly wearable clothes. I particularly admired a gorgeous, orange and black jacket with a pattern of soaring birds, which was inspired by Hitchcock’s The Birds. As we drifted further into the exhibition, though, my excitement rose as each room housed an increasingly spectacular collection.
There is a theme for each room in the show, focusing on different ideas of Romanticism (gothic, primitive, nationalist, naturalist, etc). McQueen’s famous tartans are showcased in what could be an oak-panelled room in some Highland estate; clothes inspired by tribal Africa are set against walls of bones and skulls and futuristic style garments hang from alien mannequins lit in a sterile, white room. At the centre of it all is the cabinet de curiosités, an area filled with an incredible collection of garments and accessories McQueen made in collaboration with the likes of Philip Treacy and Shaun Leane. Monitors set high on the walls display scenes from past runways. The air is electric: this, after all, is about as close to a high fashion catwalk as many of us are going to get. I could have reached out and touched the exquisite butterfly hat Treacy designed with McQueen; it was so temptingly within my reach.
Every room is made to be experienced, not just seen. The carefully chosen music that accompanies each part of the exhibition brings an added depth to the show. A hologram of a ghostly, but captivatingly beautiful, Kate Moss flutters in layers of wispy white to the haunting theme from Schindler’s List. Further on, a room full of mirrors is made to feel like a huge music box, as gowns reminiscent of Japanese kimonos rotate stiffly to an eerily tinkly tune.
Exciting as the sensory experience of the exhibition is, the shock factor comes from McQueen’s ground-breaking designs: crocodile heads embellish one jacket’s shoulders, and horns burst out of another; dresses are made entirely from feathers, shells and silk flowers. Being able to witness in person pieces made famous on the catwalk was truly extraordinary. McQueen’s incredible craftsmanship shines through every voluminous cape, perfectly tailored jacket and gravity defying heel. The spectator, though, is always uncomfortably aware of the dark twist to McQueen’s genius. His obsession with the ‘skull beneath the skin’ lends his creations more than a touch of the macabre, and at times his designs, punctuated by painfully rigid necklines and androgynous masks, suggest a shackling, rather than freeing, of the spirit. Much as this exhibition is a celebration of McQueen’s life and enduring legacy, it is also a reminder of his tragic death.
I cannot recommend Savage Beauty enough, and I’m planning to return again and again (luckily, as I’m a member of the V&A, I can do so guilt-free!).
Have you been to see Savage Beauty yet, or are you planning to go? If you have seen it already, what did you think?