What Not to Wear
Alexander McQueen gets the museum treatment.
A few minutes into “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” I suddenly realized what it reminded me of: a nineteenth-century side-show, the sort of collection of sensational curiosities that P.T. Barnum brought together in the earliest form of the American museum. It’s an interesting instance of the institution coming full circle. Ever since Thomas Hoving, the Met’s flamboyant director in the 1960s, began aggressively marketing the museum to the populace through blockbuster shows, we’ve been making our way back to Barnum.
For a long stretch, of course, art museums sought to distance themselves from their side-show origins. They represented an elite enclave of taste and sobriety, and even the artistic avant garde maintained a certain kind of respectability. Consider the cutting-edge early modern art collection of Etta and Claribel Cone now housed in the Baltimore Art Museum (some of it currently on display at New York City’s Jewish Museum), and the controversial collection of Albert Barnes that is now muscling its way out of Merion, Pennsylvania to downtown Philadelphia. If the works in these collections initially mystified viewers, they also led them, by way of formal innovation, to an understanding that both grew out of and revised a venerable artistic tradition.
Lately, however, the whole concept of art as a body of formal knowledge seems to have lost favor. Experts are increasingly replaced by impresarios and celebrities from the tabloids, and the exhibits themselves seem to be the stuff of the high-end marketplace. Having spent an afternoon only a few weeks ago at the Van Cleef and Arpels exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, I could see a resemblance between it and the McQueen show, as different in ostensible content as the two were. The Van Cleef and Arpels exhibit was essentially an ad for a tony jewelry store, while the McQueen show is a postmodern Madame Tussaud’s. Both are intended primarily to make you exclaim: “Look at that outrageous thing. Who could possibly wear it?” Then, when you realize that no one possibly could, you conclude that the thing must be art.
McQueen is quoted to have said that his clothing was an expression of his emotional life, without regard for the person who wears it. This strikes me as part of a general trend in which a practitioner, once supposed to serve people (in this case, to clothe them) ends up serving himself. My own field is not immune to this trend. Literary critics initially conceived of themselves as handmaidens to literature; now they have mostly severed that connection and exist as spinners of theoretical ideas of their own. If you want an extreme analogy for this trend, think of a surgeon who, weary of treating patients, decides to engage in the intricate cutting of human flesh for the purpose of pursuing his surgical muse. This analogy, by the way, is strangely apt with regard to “Savage Beauty,” which features a set of frock coats named for that notorious cutter-up of human flesh, Jack the Ripper.
McQueen, admittedly, is not the first fashion designer to feature clothes that in being unwearable claim to achieve the status of art. Roberto Capucci’s show, “Art into Fashion,” recently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, should have been titled “Fashion into Art.” It began with Capucci’s early wearable pieces and evolved into “studies in form,” exercises in textile geometry intended for mannequins, not women. Even McQueen doesn’t go this far; his garments have all, presumably, been shown on the runway, albeit on models that don’t look entirely human and whose health may have been seriously compromised in wearing them.
There is no denying an inventive, wide-ranging imagination at work in the garments and accessories in the McQueen show. The collections on display, which span the designer’s brief career (he killed himself at age 40 in 2010), are divided according to the following themes: the Romantic Mind, Romantic Gothic, Romantic Nationalism, Romantic Exoticism, and Romantic Primitivism. I was struck by a number of pieces — first, those meticulously tailored frock coats, titled “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims,” and, nearby, a red dress decorated with stained microscopic slides in the manner of sequins. Also made the subject of a good deal of explanatory wall copy were McQueen’s “bumster pants,” trousers that fall below the line of the buttocks, which one of the “McQueenisms” scattered throughout the exhibit refers to as “the most erotic part of the body.” Personally, I would qualify this by saying that the upper buttocks is erotic on a supermodel but not on the guy who fixes my toilet. I was most intrigued by McQueen’s 1995 line entitled “Highland Rape,” a series of tartan dresses that had been torn in various suggestive ways. An accompanying video showed live models staggering woozily down the runway in these tattered tartans as though just released from brutalizing captivity.
Other pieces that caught my attention: a spray-painted sheet dress, belted under the arms, with an accompanying video showing a live model wearing the dress and being violently spray-painted by robots; an array of accessories under the heading “Cabinet of Curiosities” (many commissioned for McQueen by jewelry artiste Shaun Leane) that included a wire-face clamp and cymbal-size earrings, as well as a molded leather body encasement suggestive of a naked torso that had been cut open and stitched back together. There was also an arm and hand piece made of armor — an ostensible tribute to Joan of Arc, but to me a high-tech variation on Michael Jackson’s white glove.
In order to put over this sort of thing, you have to give it political content — which is to say, render it politically correct and thereby reverse the message that it ostensibly sends of degrading and exploiting both women and the museum viewer gaping at it. The exhibit does this by deconstructing the ostensible message; i.e. the Jack the Ripper jacket is “a meditation on the dynamics of power, particularly between predator and prey,” as the curator Andrew Bolton puts it. Thus, in looking at it, you are presumably expressing your abhorrence of serial killing, though also your appreciation of fine tailoring. Likewise, the torn tartans are meant to decry the horrors of the Scottish Clearances, the forced displacement of the population of the Scottish Highlands by the English during the 18th and 19th centuries. As far as I could make out, these horrors, visited upon McQueen’s forbearers, may have something to do with the depressed state that led to his suicide. Nonetheless, one of the commentaries posted in the exhibit explained that he loved England, and particularly London. He also worked for many years for Givenchy, an exclusive couture house frequented by wealthy dowagers, many of whose ancestors may have been responsible for the aforesaid Clearances. The Romantic Exoticism collection displays a series of traditional Asian dresses, dramatically deconstructed. This made me wonder. More than three decades ago, Palestinian activist and Columbia professor Edward Said decried what he termed “Orientalism,” the Western tendency to turn the Easterner into an exotic other. Perhaps this is “a meditation on the exploitation of Western power.” Or perhaps it’s OK to be Orientalist if you do it with clothes, especially if they’re showcased in a special exhibit at the Met and includes visits from Madonna, Naomi Campbell, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Colin Firth (who, having played both Mr. Darcy and King George VI, is given great latitude in everything).
But, then, if the exhibition seems to suffer from cognitive dissonance, so does the fashion industry as a whole. Open an issue of Vogue, whose editor Anna Wintour was a co-chair of the opening gala for “Savage Beauty,” and you’ll likely see an article decrying genital mutilation opposite an ad for shoes that seem to derive from “Orientalist” foot-binding. In the case of the McQueen show (which featured a number of seriously dangerous-looking shoes), the fashion was edgy and angry, but also expensive and preening, with an atmosphere that mixed the faux transgression of Eyes Wide Shut with something Herman Munster-ish (a Mozart adagio adjoined to fun house yowls).
The galleries were kept fairly dark and there was such a crush of people in front of the mannequins and videos that it was hard to catch everything. I did glimpse a gown made of mussel shells and one, featured on the catalogue cover, composed of flowers that fall off when worn — perhaps, to adapt Bolton, “a meditation on the dynamics of [flower]power.” There were a number of garments in the form of molded body casts (plastic and leather), and a dress in which the arms were caught up in a straightjacket roll of material — perfect for getting your daughter to stop biting her nails. I also joined the crowd gazing at the revolving balsa wood dress with wings that, as it turned, exposed the crotch area of the mannequin. The audio tour was free to children under 12. Yes, children under 12 were present, though a note did suggest that the exhibit might be inappropriate for children under 5; this, after all, is New York City. The gift shop offered a decorative model of McQueen’s Armadillo Shoe for $25, an Armadillo shoe refrigerator magnet for $5.95, and a “Savage Beauty” slim-fit T-shirt for $25.
All of us wandering through the exhibit (with the exception a smattering of knowing hipsters) appeared befuddled. Was I the only one wondering whether Sarah Jessica Parker, who wore some pretty crazy things on Sex and the City, would consider wearing the fitted suit made of pony skin with deer antlers coming out of the shoulders? If so, would that risk impaling her husband, Matthew Broderick, if he accidentally embraced her?
I would have liked to ask the curator why all the mannequins’ heads were encased in either black leather or burlap. The enshrouded faces were disturbing. They suggested bodies prepared for hanging, the method by which McQueen killed himself. Was this rendering a prescient idea the designer came up with before his demise, or was it an oblique homage on the part of the curator?
The allusions to literary and pop culture were fast and thick at the exhibition. McQueen was an accomplished bricoleur, and if his allusions seem ultimately to evoke Sweeney Todd more than, say, the Marquis de Sade, with a dose of Shakespeare in Love and a dash of Beetlejuice, this would explain the extraordinary popularity of the exhibition. Many in attendance seem to have come to it after a Broadway matinee.
What the show does most of all, however, is reveal that people, myself included, are suckers for sensationalism, especially when it can be presented in the guise of art. Give us something titillating, add an A-list celebrity imprimatur, put it in a world-class museum, and you have a hit. Thomas Hoving understood this 45 years ago, and P.T. Barnum understood it a hundred years before that.
There is no denying that Alexander McQueen had the skills of an expert craftsman, the result of his training (repeatedly invoked) on Savile Row. He was initially employed by the venerable firm of Anderson & Shepherd, where he later claimed to have stitched “I am a cunt” into the lining of one of Prince Charles’ jackets. The story sounds apocryphal — an example of McQueen’s genius for self-promotion, learned at the feet of his Milanese mentor Romeo Gigli, for whom he worked after Givenchy. I wonder what those fussy Savile Row tailors think about their former apprentice now. And I wonder how they feel about the deluge of pierced, tattooed McQueen wannabes descending on their stodgy premises in the hope of gaining the expert tailoring skills that characterized their idol.
McQueen’s imagination was, according to the catalogue copy, romantic (which is a current euphemism for morbid). That he killed himself suggests that he was sincere in pursuing his aesthetic to its limits. He follows on the heels of artists like Vincent van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, and David Foster Wallace, whose deaths, by seeming to authenticate their vision, catapulted them to iconic status and substantially boosted their sales. The fashion industry can use McQueen’s death in any number of ways — to promote his work, elevate others, and, more generally, flatter itself. Fashion, after all, suffers from an inferiority complex as an art form; until recently, it wasn’t considered one. From this perspective alone, McQueen’s death has gained his industry a new level of respectability.
Suicide or not, I see the show as less an authentic artistic vision than a brilliant piece of marketing, especially when one considers that the same house that produced bumsters and rape tartans also made that most demurely bourgeois of garments: Kate Middleton’s wedding gown. That dress — and even more, the dramatically simple little number worn by her sister Pippa — are also examples of sartorial art. But with the added benefit of being wearable — and flattering the wearer. • 29 June 2011
Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University and host of The Drexel InterView, a talk show broadcast on over 300 public television stations across the country. She is author of four nonfiction books and four bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale Review, The American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest book is What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Jack the Ripper and Henry James. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.