7:12 am May. 4, 2011
In one respect, the royal wedding was a funeral: the bride wore "Alexander McQueen"—a white gown produced by the fashion label of that name, a member of the Gucci Group, which is a subsidiary of the French holding company PPR.
Slim, flowing lines; lace sleeves and shoulders. Save for the train, which was scaled for Westminster Abbey, there was nothing unusual or arresting about it. It was as serviceably handsome as Prince William was, and in the same mode.
Lee Alexander McQueen, the London clothes designer, would not have made that gown. He might have made something agreeable for the occasion—anti-monarchist Commander of the British Empire that he was—but not something bland.
McQueen the person, however, is dead. He killed himself last year at the age of 40. He has passed from the realm where bodies need new clothes and on into the eternal, a change marked this week by the opening of the exhibition "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" on the second floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
There are white gowns in the gallery that would, if they could, sprout fangs and tear that innocuous wedding dress to shreds, blameless queenlet included. At Monday morning's press preview of the show, one such gown stood just inside the entrance, a spotlight flashing off its brilliant, jagged-yet-flowing surface—a surface made of razor clam shells, gathered by McQueen from the beach at Norfolk and lugged into the studio. Next to it stood a gown the color of fresh blood, with ostrich-feather skirts and a bodice made of painted glass medical slides.
"This exhibition is made possible by Alexander McQueen," read the wall text nearby.
That was meant to refer to McQueen-the-commercial-entity, one of the show's sponsors, not McQueen-the-person. The other sponsors are American Express and Conde Nast. "Courtesy of Alexander McQueen," said the text on his "Oyster" dress of 2003, made of nearly 300 yards of ivory silk taffeta. Imagine those uncountable layers, a rippling mass of them, undulating down the aisle on worldwide television. The monarchy would have been prolonged, or shortened radically, on the spot. The instant-knockoff-wedding-gown industry would have imploded.
After a quick foray into the gallery, the press was herded back downstairs, thundering through the permanent displays to the European sculpture court, for the day's official remarks. There were some 300 chairs, with handbags reserving even mediocre seats. Antonio Canova's Perseus (c. 1804-1806, a replica of the one in the Vatican) brandished the head of Medusa above. Perseus wore a winged helmet, a drapery over one arm, and nothing else. Coffee was served in gold-rimmed china cups, with saucers.
Met director Thomas P. Campbell told the press the museum was hosting the "most spectacular museum costume exhibition ever mounted." McQueen's work, Campbell said, "fits so easily with the discourse of art."
McQueen's work fits with the Met's art easily enough. The echoes were obvious just hurrying to and from the gallery: a be-nippled bronze breastplate here, a metal-studded wooden Kongo Power Figure there, off to the left a room of hammered golden trinkets. Perseus himself was the former property of a Polish countess; rich people like to buy gorgeous things. Some of those things are art.
The discourse of art, though—the discourse would be a problem. But first came the discourse of celebrity. Stella McCartney, of PPR's Stella McCartney label, took the podium, to "honor the genius of my friend." Camera shutters; fek-fek-fek-fek-fek-fek. She "rarely got to go to" his shows, she said, "because I was busy doing collections myself." She had, however, gone to one McQueen show, where she had donated a photograph of her mother's horse to an auction. McQueen "bought it for himself."
Then came Sarah Burton, designer of the royal wedding gown, Alexander McQueen's former collaborator and the current creative director of the McQueen label. She praised the dead man's "emotion, passion, and attention to detail," and reminisced about the bags of razor-clam shells.
"He truly was a genius," Burton said.
Genius, genius—but was it artistic genius? Andrew Bolton, the curator of the Met's Costume Institute, told the press that McQueen was a Romantic. This, unfortunately, is the organizing principle of the exhibition: that McQueen's work can be mapped onto the academic themes of the Romantic movement. McQueen, like the Romantics, pursued the Sublime; his work evokes such Romantic concerns as Nationalism, Exoticism, Primitivism, and Naturalism.
No, really. The Met's embarrassment about its involvement with the fashion industry is now more embarrassing than the fact of displaying fashion in the museum ever might have been. Or should be: what's the point of having a Costume Institute, if the curator has to condescend toward fashion's fashions? It was as if a fine-arts curator were arguing that some painter, b. 1969, d. 2010, was an artist of consequence because he was a Romantic—though it means his work belongs to a movement that had passed more than 150 years before him.
The conceit is not just insulting to the audience, but to the clothes. Upstairs in the gallery—the press, after swarming Stella McCartney, returned for a more leisurely look—the rooms are divided not according to some vulgar chronology, which might have showed McQueen's work adapting or developing, but by Bolton's Romantic-pedantic categories.
After one introductory survey of McQueen's tailoring, for instance, the visitor is plunged into a room of "Romantic gothic": all tarnished mirrors and grungy gilt, with ambient haunted-house music, as backdrop to one relentlessly black garment after another, a whole span of work smashed together in the name of witchy-poo. Black duck feathers, resin vulture skulls, black leather. Is there a blower to make a black parachute-silk coat billow on its mannequin? There is a blower to make the coat billow.
The Hall of Witchy-Poo, the Hall of Royalty and Tartan, the Hall of Severe Accessories …. Mercifully, these constraints are too flimsy to withstand the clothes. Alexander McQueen's work belongs in a museum because he was, as the speakers said, a genius. His genius was both straightforward and occult: he saw dazzling things in his mind, and he made them a dazzling spectacle in the world, by the medium of fabric. The obvious, literal references—primitive mud and horsehair, Victorian black-on-lilac mourning clothes—were a shifting surface, beneath which ran a constant, powerful vision.
The ravaged lace of McQueen's 1995-96 "Highland Rape" collection is not connected to the flawless, form-hugging pheasant-feather gown of "Widows of Culloden," 11 years later, because both happened to be inspired by Scottish history. They are connected because an Alexander McQueen looks like an Alexander McQueen.
Fashion, the regular old in-and-out that moves merchandise off the racks, occupies the foreground only once, with a display of McQueen's once-sensational "bumster"-cut pants and skirt. Here's what was shocking 15 years ago: a rise so short you could glimpse the top of someone's butt cleft. The base of the spine, McQueen said, was "the most erotic part of anyone's body." Not when everyone's been showing theirs off for years now.
The show's catalog includes an interview with Sarah Burton, in which she discusses McQueen's working style: "There were situations when, if he didn't have a garment but he had blots of fabric, Lee could literally create a dress on the spot—embroidery here, fabric there, chop this, and he would completely have it. He would cut on the stand ….The way he designed was so organic that he didn't really sit and sketch."
Not even McQueen was particularly good at illuminating it. "I especially like the accessory for its sadomasochistic appeal," one quote of his, on the wall text, non-explains. "This collection was inspired by Tim Burton," another quote reads.
The catalog—$45, hardcover, with a lenticular portrait of McQueen's face layered with a chrome skull—and the exhibition's audio tour both testify to his virtuosity, in a tales-of-extraordinary-people way. He could chalk a freehand pattern on felt and cut out a flawless frock coat on the spot. The shoulders of his tailored jackets stood up on their own, with no padding or structural support, through sheer perfection of shape. He survived when young and broke because he could make clothes from start to finish himself, without needing to contract out the technical work.
Those details don't explain where the clothes came from, but they're more convincing than the conceptual arguments. At one point, in the audio tour, Sarah Jessica Parker—apologetically, because she's saying something really out there—ventures her pet theory that his work is "ugly-beautiful."
Elsewhere on the tour, Parker recounts going to the Met's Costume Gala wearing McQueen, with McQueen as her companion. They rode all the way uptown in a car together. "What I probably would have wanted to do...was ask him questions," Parker says, hypothetically counterfactually. What she did do was to sit in silence.
What's mostly unstated, but implied throughout, is that McQueen was better at making clothes than making friends. There was a generous and celebrated creative force, Alexander McQueen, and there was a closed-off and isolated Lee McQueen behind it, a man who followed his mother to the grave only a week after her death.
The season's other cultural-hero suicide, Dave Wallace, trading as David Foster Wallace, seems to trail along through the Met gallery. At the far end of the gothic room is a more brightly lit case, containing the lavish outfits that were presented as his posthumous final collection: snowy whites, lush computer prints of oil paintings, gleaming expanses of gold. The show was untitled, but it was hard to look at these last garments shining there without thinking of them as "The Pale King."