Who waits four hours to see anything? (Except maybe Disneyworld.)
I did, last week in Manhattan, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to see the show of Alexander McQueen, the late Scottish clothing designer who committed suicide in February 2010, leaving a bereft world of fashion editors, collectors and fans of his work.
I’d seen bits of it in fashion magazines. It was often shockingly weird, like shoe-boots so impossibly high that walking in them was dangerous. This was a level of brilliance un-knock-off-able, no watered-down mass-market versions likely to show up in next year’s competitors’ catalogues.
I knew it was beautiful and challenging. I had no idea how truly extraordinary his imagination until I spent 75 minutes with it. (The show has now closed, having become one of the most popular ever held at the Met; more than 600,000 people stood for many hours in line to see it.)
Where to begin?
Historic references. From chopines, the towering platform shoes worn by Venetian women from the 14th to 16th centuries, to allusions to Scottish history, in his collection, the widows of Culloden, which included a headpiece with a metal birds’ nest holding exquisitely jeweled eggs.
Materials. From burlap to paillettes to tulle to faille to chiffon to metal to feathers to silver to leather to….horsehair! One of my favorite dresses was made of burlap, over-embroidered with huge, almost childlike flowers in soft jewel tones, with an underskirt of tightly pleated gold. The contrast between humble and opulent, patrician and peasant, was much more powerful in opposition. Dresses made of clamshells and mussel shells? Yes, and gorgeous.
Borrowed ideas. A tailored women’s jacket…that wrapped like a straitjacket. He’s been described as misogynist for such designs, but I found it intriguing. So many demands of traditional women’s beauty force us into tortured postures as it is. Why not call it as you see it? A breathtakingly sinuous arm-cuff of sterling thorns recalled Christ’s crown. I loved the balsa-wood skirt (with leather tabs like a classic kilt) with cut-outs, that spread open like an 18th. century cut-ivory fan.
Daring. One of my favorite elements of the exhibit was the chance to watch several videos of his shows. One had a model wearing a white dress, edged on two sides by white robotic spray-painters….whose streams of black and chartreuse spattered against the skirt (and the model) created the design in front of our eyes. A piece of body armor, ring upon ring of gleaming steel, that one might wear into battle, symbolic or otherwise. A jacket with mini crocodile heads on each shoulder. Women need protection. He got it.
Sorrow. One dress, for me, is unforgettable, a long pale column of white and gray, with a photo print of statues, two doves on each shoulder. How can a garment convey such melancholy? It did.
Nature, reconfigured. I adored a long, tight jacket of gold feathers, a burst of white, bead-embroidered tulle exploding at the hem. The last collection of snake and lizard and python-printed jersey, overlaid with bronze and turquoise and mustard paillettes.
I have to thank this blogger, a New York City costume designer, for finally getting me to go to this show. After he had seen it six times (!), I thought, right, worth it.
I will never forget some of these images and ideas.
Now I understand why his admirers feel bereft.
Have you ever seen a museum show that gobsmacked you this way?