Marli Guzzetta on McQueen’s Savage Beauty & Mortality & the Sublime

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

By Guest Contributor: Marli Guzzetta

The 40-minute wait to see “Savage Beauty,” the Metropolitan Museum’s superb presentation of Alexander McQueen’s visionary genius, is proof even before seeing the exhibit that it is something remarkable.

The exhibit begins with two dresses from McQueen’s VOSS collection — one crafted from ostrich feathers and glass medical slides painted red, to evoke the blood under all skin, and another made of razor-clam shells. Feathers and shells. Skin and blood. The protective ephemera of creatures not meant to attack, but to evade, are made shimmering and sleek, feminine and fragile as they are re-tasked with “protecting” the vulnerable, pink surface of a new animal: Woman.

It’s obvious that curator Andrew Bolton deserves the global praise this show is incurring. Critics have repeatedly, accurately, used the word “triumph.” Instead of grouping outfits by collection, Bolton grouped them by the prevailing themes and images to which McQueen returned over the years — Gothic and dark, Romantic and light, Oriental, animalistic, etc. After the two-dress amuse bouche of fowl and shellfish, Bolton began the exhibit in earnest with a grouping of McQueen’s suit jackets, an article McQueen perfected as a tailor and student on Savile Row in London.

“I want to empower women. I want people to fear the women I dress,” McQueen is quoted amid the tailored jackets, with their sharp lapels, strong shoulders, high yokes and military embellishment. Displaying gorgeous, precise lines, the pieces in the first room mix a feminine agility with a masculine rigidity in a way that does seem to “empower.”

But the “fear” is through the doorway in the next two rooms, which are the dramatic standouts of the exhibit. In the second room, Gothic and even sadomasochistic pieces stand in a low light against patina mirrors, the sound of wind and moaning barely audible. The third room, the Cabinet of Curiosities, reaches to the ceiling with dozens of shelves displaying outfits, videos of runway shows and accessories that McQueen commissioned craftsmen to build.

The atmospherics of these two deeply Gothic rooms creep across the brain like fog across London streets, beautifully assisting the clothes in articulating the push and pull of human erotic and thanatotic impulses — the meat and potatoes of McQueen’s creative diet. Taken from the Eclect Dissect collection McQueen made for Givenchy in the late 90s, a fierce and predatory dress of black leather boasts a collar of red pheasant feathers, epaulettes of resin vulture skulls and black leather gloves. It rests on one of a half dozen mannequins on raised platforms, lording over awed museum goers as they crowd in. The others include a majestically flared gown of black duck feathers with preternaturally oversized shoulders and hips, a leather bodice outfitted with metal D-rings used in S&M bondage and a frighteningly gorgeous and billowing coat of black parachute silk paired with black trousers, a Venetian carnival mask and an 18th century Tricorne gentleman’s hat.

McQueen “merged wonder and terror,” the opening wall tag explains. No work of depth can include one and not the other. Walt Disney once told an old colleague that Bambi’s mother needed to die in order for the story to succeed. McQueen’s work throbs with universality because it understands that one cannot speak accurately about life without incorporating death. It deserved more of a stage after the runway, and Bolton gives it more.

However, I’m not sure why the exhibit didn’t engage much, or at all, with McQueen’s relationship to the specific women in his life who died — to Isabella Blow, the collector whose patronage helped McQueen get his start and whose suicide left a question-marked shape noose over the relationship, and to his mother, whose death from cancer lead to the drug-spiral that ended with McQueen’s own suicide only 11 days later.

Maybe it was too sensitive a subject. Maybe Bolton felt that a handful of McQueen’s own words on women were enough, and that mentioning any more, especially without a PhD in psychology, would have been overstepping.

Throughout the exhibit, the narrator’s discourse focuses on the socio-historic symbolism of the pieces, while most of the McQueen quotes mounted separately throughout the exhibition focused on the concept of women. Together, the two narratives highlight McQueen’s major preoccupation: Women in history. Specifically doomed women, a group that tended to include any woman who made history.

When McQueen was not designing for the memory of doomed women, he was designing for women’s bodies as a way to memorialize doomed people. For example, McQueen himself explained the Highland Rape collection to be “about England’s rape of Scotland” and not about women being raped.

I don’t think it’s overstepping to wonder why McQueen chose to express these concepts through women’s clothes, on the bodies of women. The exhibit makes clear immediately that McQueen was fascinated with women who existed in the cross hairs of history, as his “doomed women” quote attests.

This idea is most apparent in the room designed as a curio cabinet for these trophies. A rosary embellishing a high-heeled shoe made of wood and bone. A chain mail headdress made with coins of a bygone empire. A hat topped with the silk slippers traditional to Chinese foot binding. (It seems McQueen liked this concept so much that he commissioned two of these hats, the second a decade after the first.) A purse from the collection he dedicated to women who were hung during the Salem Witch Trials.

In one of many videos of McQueen shows in this room, two women in burqas festooned with stripes traverse the air high over a bed of nails. In another, machines “attack” a woman with spray paint as she spins helplessly in a white dress between them, while the sound of the cheering audience behind her is almost pornographic.

The room is filled with the trappings of rulers, empires, warriors and priests, which the designer repurposed almost as an act of rebellion against the injustices of history. McQueen married the high art of a fine tailor with the rebellious flourish of a jester for these women: he dressed them in the cross hairs, dressed them in images of war, colonialism, religion and death as a way to arm his models and vindicate them.

However, it also seemed that McQueen’s women were meant to be in on a profound secret. “You think you are all so important and powerful,” the ghosts of doomed women seem to be thinking, amid the opulence and trappings of conquest. “But none of it can save you from death, and you can’t take any of it with you when you die.”

McQueen knew that men are ultimately just as prone as are women. First off, because human beings have no protective coverings or camouflage, we are all vulnerable compared to the rest of the animal world, with its claws and horns, teeth and shells — which is why he incorporated these elements into in his clothing. Secondly, death comes for everyone, regardless of gender. McQueen seemed to be aware that women are more aware of their own vulnerability and as such are more wise to the ways of human existence. Insomuch as women are taught from the time they are young to acknowledge the omnipresence of danger — predatory men in a man’s world — they sustain their vulnerability with grace and wisdom. It’s wiser and therefore stronger to acknowledge one’s vulnerability, McQueen seems to suggest, than to ignore it. And so, McQueen used women as an entry point to the notion of human mortality.

“The whole show feeling was about the Thomson’s gazelle. … It’s the food chain of Africa. As soon as it’s born it’s dead,” McQueen is quoted about hisIt’s a Jungle Out Therecollection, which included a jacket with Thomson’s gazelle horns fluttering from the shoulders like wings and also a jacket embroidered with an image of the crucified Christ. “That’s how I see human life, in the same way. …You know, we can all be discarded quite easily. … You’re there, you’re gone.”

Because McQueen’s pieces represented both the male and the female, they often incorporated traditionally masculine traits alongside the feminine. For example, a dress from Widows of Culloden boasts antlers piercing through a virginal lace veil. In the same room, a dress from the Sarabandecollection bulges with massive hips, a kind of hyperbolic femininity. Yet its bodice has been fashioned with a permanent six-pack of abs. The result is an exaggerated virility.

Though McQueen used women’s clothes as an entry point to talk about human vulnerability, his clothes weren’t misogynistic; they didn’t highlight areas vulnerable to women specifically, but to all people.

A veteran professional dominatrix once told me that the nape of the neck and upper back, or yoke, are emotionally loaded areas of the body. She told me that these are places our mothers first give us comfort, and places we remain physically vulnerable. I took note of McQueen’s particular way of treating this area. In many of his pieces, the collars are oversized, the shoulders and yokes are exaggerated and sometimes armored. For some shoulders, McQueen fashioned epaulets of vulture skulls and baby crocodile heads. In It’s Only A Game series, he was so blatant as to incorporate an embellished football helmet and shoulder pads. More than any other part of the silhouette, McQueen accentuated this genderless area, and it seems he did so to inspire fear and therefore incur protection — the way a birds ruffled feathers or a cat’s raised scruff warn away would-be attackers.

Meanwhile, McQueen treated women’s breasts — typically the easiest area to use to highlight feminine vulnerability — with the same dignity afforded to men’s chests, with lapels and breastplates smoothing the cleavage and covering the nipples. In fact, the “cleavage” for which McQueen became most famous was the rounded buttocks cleavage exposed by his “bumster” pants. Contemporary vernacular often refers to this area as the “man cleavage.”

I believe McQueen saw himself, and all men, in the women he dressed.

And I believe this perspective began by seeing himself in his mother, and vice versa.

In 2004, McQueen’s mother, Joyce, interviewed him for the UK’s Guardian newspaper. She asked him what made him most afraid, and McQueen answered, “dying before you.” It’s natural for a child, of any age, to fear losing his parents. To fear dying first is to take on a parent’s worst fear, to want to protect her from it, to spare her the worst pain a parent can endure. In the same interview, Joyce McQueen asked her son what made him proud. “You,” he answered. But then he refused to elaborate.

I came to the exhibit not having been an acolyte of McQueen’s or of high fashion, really. I knew of his work. It had been to me a more enticing doorway to couture because of its grand archetypes and theatrical pathos, but a doorway I cracked only occasionally. I knew he had killed himself last year, and I knew it had come days after his mother’s death and that drugs had been involved. That’s all I knew. However, having seen the exhibit, it now seems that was a substantial starting point.

It’s cosmically unfair that the thing protecting us when we are most vulnerable — the love and care of a mother for her infant — stands to leave us so vulnerable when we are adults.

“When you see a woman wearing McQueen, there’s a certain hardness to the clothes that makes her look powerful. It kind of fends people off.” McQueen is quoted in the show.

Ultimately, I think McQueen used women’s beauty as armor. He dressed them either to highlight the vulnerability of the human condition, or to be feared as an attempt to protect them.

It is my entirely subjective opinion that his desire to protect women originated from a desire to protect his mother. And in wanting to protect his mother, he was hoping to protect himself from a world without her.