12/05/2014 § Leave a comment
At the time of writing (May 2014) it’s just been announced that the Savage Beauty exhibition, a retrospective of the work of Alexander McQueen, is coming to the V&A in Spring 2015. Having already shown to sell-out crowds at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2011, its arrival in London is big news indeed. When the announcement was made, Twitter exploded into a flurry of tweets and retweets. Facebook status updates were in raptures. Many people have bought tickets already, a year in advance of the opening.
There is no other exhibition in the world that would generate this sort of response. This frenzy of excitement is reserved exclusively for Alexander McQueen.
Why? What is it about McQueen that makes a retrospective of his work an epoch-defining event?
The other designers that made up the firmament of British fashion stars in the 90s and early noughties have either fallen from grace (John Galliano) or faded into obscurity (Hussein Chalayan). Meanwhile the McQueen brand has gone from being a hotbed of creativity and radicalism during his lifetime, to being a vertebrae in the backbone of British establishment fashion, accepting the invitation to design a Royal wedding dress when McQueen himself refused almost every commission ever offered to him. (The exception being the costumes for the modern dance piece Eonnagata, more of which later.) Meanwhile, Alexander McQueen, the man, the artist, the couturier, the designer, has become a legendary figure, the like of which we almost certainly will not see again.
Throughout his career, Alexander McQueen was regularly accused of misogyny, of glorifying rape (with his Highland Rape collection from 1995), and of racism (particularly with La Poupee 1997 and Eshu 2000/01.) A lot of this criticism misses the point of his work, which was that he was far more interested in the unspeakable truth than the glossy lies that give our world its veneer of civilisation. For McQueen, violence is a fact of life, the feminine experience is one that consists largely of brutality and marginality, and white Europeans in general and the English in particular have an unedifying history of oppression that they would do well to remember. He shows this is his work.
There is a difference between stating the fact of the dark underside of human existence, and promoting it. The censorious idea that talking about something is the same as promoting it has been used to shut down discussion of everything from homosexuality to illegal drugs. But not talking about something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and silence will not make the unpalatable truth that humanity is often nasty and brutish go away.
He has become the great Leviathan of fashion because he gives a unique voice to ideas that usually are silenced, in fashion as much as anywhere else. In terms of gender particularly, most mainstream male designers, if they think about it at all, follow the tired canard than femininity is reliant on men. They then produce this entirely artificial idea of what womanliness is, and assume that, as John Galliano once said, a man saying “I have to fuck her” is a compliment and the end-game of every woman’s existence.
McQueen, on the other hand, wanted women wearing his creations to be, as he said, “so fabulous you wouldn’t dare lay a hand on her.” His vision of femininity, and what is possible for women and men who do not follow oppressive gender regulations, is remarkable. He offers an entirely different vision of gender and sex and sexuality, one that is subversive and liberating. He rejects the patronising notion of empowerment and suggests instead that power is not given but innate, and is either repressed, or unleashed with all sorts of magnificently terrifying consequences.
And in a world where women cannot walk down the street without being stared at, ogled, letched at, cat-called, and groped, in a world where one in four female victims of violence are attacked by their partner and a similar proportion will be raped, in a world where women’s genitals are mutilated in the name of honour, and women can’t even participate in education without the fear of violence and death, shouldn’t we have more women who are so fabulous you wouldn’t dare lay a hand on her?
His creative integrity during his lifetime led to clashes with one of the biggest corporations in the fashion world, Gucci, where he worked for a short time. For McQueen fashion was never about shopping. He was producing a body of work that had a profound conceptual underpinning, and it was crucial that he remained true to himself in the process. He refused all commissions bar one – the costumes for the modern dance piece Eonnagata, performed at Saddlers Wells in London in 2009, by Sylvie Guillem, Russell Maliphant and Robert Lepage. Eonnagata was the story of the Chevalier d’Eon, a French 18th Century courtier, soldier and spy. The Chevalier lived their life as both a man and a woman, and on their death were subject to the most advanced autopsy available at the time. Even after this autopsy, the Chevalier’s gender remained a mystery. It still was not clear whether they were a man or a woman. Who else but McQueen could render that indeterminacy in costume?
McQueen had an abiding interest in the dereliction of the gender norms that circumscribe our lives, and that disadvantage almost all of us in one way or another. His work carefully and thoroughly demolishes the myths, in particular, of femininity and sexuality. No-one working in fashion today, or previously, has presented gender in such a radically subversive way as Alexander McQueen. His work reminds us what we have repressed in order to be able to function in the world, but what we know in our unconscious minds to be true – and that, I think, is why a retrospective of it elicits the response that it does.