A hairstylist friend of mine used to place leather bondage gear in her downtown shop window to scare off what she called “the wrong element,” meaning anyone wanting a nice wash and trim. She wanted to be sure that if you sat in her chair, you were ready to accept whatever look she decided on for you, because it would change the way you saw yourself in the world. That was the deal.
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a survey of the career of the British fashion designer who died last year, a suicide at 40, is similarly about control and change. The show, or rather what’s in it, is a button-pushing marvel: ethereal and gross, graceful and utterly manipulative, and poised on a line where fashion turns into something else.
Part of its dynamic is old-fashioned shock. In galleries that combine the look of baronial halls and meat lockers, clothes come at you like electrical zaps: a blouse threaded with worms, a coat sprouting horns, shoes that devour feet. A pert little jacket is printed with a crucifixion scene; the hair on a full-length hair shirt is carefully waved and combed; a corset has a cast-metal animal spine curling out from behind.
And everywhere there are arresting delicacies. The yellow-green beadwork is so fine it looks as soft as moss. Floral-patterned lace has been cut up, flower by flower, then stitched together again, but only partially, to give a dress the illusion of having being torn.
The details pull you back to the start of the show after your first wild ride through. And it’s on the second, slower look that some of the prickly contradictions that underlie McQueen’s work, and fashion as a genre, start to emerge.
McQueen grew up in London, the son of a cabdriver. He made much of his working-class Cockney roots. They were, along with his homosexuality and rebelliousness, part of his insider-outsider credentials, his wrong-element-wherever-I-am identity.
At 16 he landed an apprenticeship with a Savile Row tailoring firm that catered to the British royal family, and he was a more than apt pupil. A virtuosic grasp of the mechanics of clothes making — cutting, sewing, constructing — became early hallmarks of his design, with drapery skills developing later. He was always a hands-on worker: in art terms, a formalist as much as a conceptualist.
But it was the conceptualist, the idea man, the storyteller, who began making news. After a stint with a theatrical costume company he went to design school and quickly gained a reputation for distinctively dark, louche brilliance. He titled his graduate show Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims, signing each piece with a stitched-in lock of hair. He turned to violent films like Taxi Driver and The Shining for inspiration, and to tales of persecution (17th-century witch hunts) and martyrdom (Joan of Arc).
In 1994 he had some commercial success with designs for ultra-low-rise “bumster” pants that helped start an international trend. But he was still most interested in narratives, in making each new collection an attention-grabbing drama. One way to get noticed was by alienating people, and the runway show for his Highland Rape collection of 1995-1996 drew some serious heat.
He said that he meant the show as a commentary on England’s pillaging of Scotland, where he claimed ancestry. But the sight of zonked-out models stumbling around in torn dresses brought accusations that he was cashing in on abusive images of women. The bad-boy image, which was already part of his kit, intensified and stuck.