Why We Need More ‘Savage Beauty’ In Life And Fashion

Why polarized opposites in fashion might be just the thing we desire.

The recently opened Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute is a darkly romantic celebration of an increasingly taxidermied world and the subversive tailoring of our lives, showcased in a manner that is unsettling but wondrous to behold. How do we process the current excitement circulating around Savage Beauty’s display of sadomasochistically-corseted mannequins, Swarovski feathered creations, or sculpted shoes in the shape of mutated spines or iridescent armadillos? Does the brilliance of this deceased designer and the assembling of close to one hundred of his looks, and seventy of his accessories illustrate a vast wilderness mired in outlandish fantasy, or do we dare to look at and maybe even adopt them as personal costume? “Savage Beauty” lures us into this paradoxical lair, and pillages our politically correct assumptions about what might be “sustainable,” and essentially rule breaking in contemporary fashion.

‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’ on view in the Met’s Cantor Galleries

Whether or not you are an ardent fan of the late Alexander McQueen’s designs is really not the issue up for debate, as this exhibition is such a marvel of art, fashion, and design innovation that it is a mind-blowing success simply as a museum installation feat. Like the designer’s runway shows or multi-media presentations, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute team really went the distance to create a visual feast of romanticism on overdrive, and in such a short period after McQueen’s death. The extremes of modern nature and the depths of the designer’s savage styling techniques are brought to life using digital technology, a fashion hologram, dramatically lit mannequins, and dioramas of the imagination that seem otherworldly but anchored in tactile materials.

Ivory silk “Oyster” Dress from Irere, Spring/Summer 2003

Andrew Bolton,  the curator of the exhibit, describes in a video transcript how “Savage Beauty very much epitomizes the contrasting opposites in McQueen’s work. As you enter the exhibition, you’re faced with two mannequins—the two mannequins that I think represent many of the themes and ideas that McQueen revisited throughout his career: polarized opposites, whether it’s to do with life or death, lightness or darkness, predator/prey, man/machine.” Continuing with this theme of polarity, the five collections on view explore McQueen’s engagement with the romantic sublime and the dialectics of beauty and horror: Dante (autumn/winter 1996-97), Number 13 (spring/summer 1999), Voss (spring/summer 2001), Irere (spring/summer 2003), and Plato’s Atlantis (spring/summer 2010).

“Jellyfish” Ensemble, Plato’s Atlantis, Spring/Summer 2010

The poetic references and the extreme craft involved are all about the dream that this immensely talented designer embarked upon, and in this case, ventures far beyond the concerns of conventional season-to-season output and retail concerns. The untimely death of McQueen in February 2010 threw into question the unbearable pressures of the fashion industry and the houses that set unrealistic delivery expectations and bottom line goals. It is no wonder that McQueen set out to push our buttons, challenge us like never before, and drape us in the very shrouds of life and death that we rotate through as consumers.

I am not going to pluck apart this exhibit by highlighting certain pieces or favorites, as this would be like dismembering a multi-headed organism that is so much more than the sum of its parts. We all know what the showman McQueen artfully and cleverly served up upon graduation from Central Saint Martins in London and his time at Givenchy. He shook the fashion world then, and he continues to now, even with Sarah Burton at the helm.

Widows of Culloden, Autumn/Winter 2006–2007

What I took away from my initial visit to “Savage Beauty” was just how much we need to address those fashion conventions that genuinely stifle our creativity and ideas about self in relation to the environment. Not everyone will relate to McQueen’s tartan-infused Highlander designs or condone the use of exotic (animal) references in gowns that mimic wild creatures or repressed beings contorted into exaggerated silhouettes. What one can marvel at though, is just how apt the “polarized opposites” are for the dialogue that we need to have with our psyches as “Rulers, keepers, or stewards” of  the natural world.

Spray-painted cotton muslin, No. 13, Spring/Summer 1999

It is not very sustainable to live in a tidy state that revolves around only one part of the equation. We need to look the other half in the face and try it on, feel its threads, and reweave “it” into something of an unprecedented, rule-breaking design. Savage beauty is not safe; it might not even be beautiful as we have come to tame it. But we are definitely at a crossroad where sustainability and fashion should not be safe either, to the degree that we isolate ourselves from unprecedented change and repeatedly deny that the grotesque is actually part of true desire and an even deeper connection with the natural realm.

Images: Metropolitan Museum of Art blog (photographed by Sølve Sundsbø)