(Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 1862 as quoted in "Coup De Théatre" chapter of Alexander McQueen)
Yesterday was 14th July, 2015. I imagined someone somewhere posting a neat aerial trick set to a Bastille track and shouting "Vive la Révolution!" What an auspicious day to finally be seeing the Savage Beauty of Alexander McQueen at the Victoria and Albert Museum. McQueen actually worked on coats and waistcoats for Les Mis, the musical, and revolutionary frock coats were the signature of his graduation collection Les Incroyables, I've since learned.
What to say about Savage Beauty? Simply that it is the most exhilarating exhibition I will ever see. It has filled me with both awe and an acute sense of loss. Those who the gods love die young, they say. The curse of those who challenge the gods, whose courage and creativity brings the envy and wrath of Olympia crashing down. There is nothing sacred for McQueen, who mines the depths of darkest sensuality and traps the ethereal in a pyramid of glass. I was fascinated to learn that, in his early collections, McQueen would pin a lock of his hair in each garment as a "momento mori" and death underpins the collections, as does a certain gothic romanticism drawn from Edgar Allen Poe and McQueen's Scottish heritage. As someone who filched Poe's short stories from our convent school library (the copy is still on my bookshelf!) and was schooled in Scotland's grizzly history, through numerous trips to the Edinburgh waxworks and glowering Highlands, such a spirit felt very familiar.
As I walked round the exhibition I felt the Raven brush against me, the dark bejewelled velvets of Mary Queen of Scots slip through my fingers, and the executioner's heavy breathing on my neck, through his black leather mask. McQueen's monstrously captivating hybrid birdwomen, the regal tartans of his Culloden widows, and the gimp masks, all suggest that danse macabre through history and traditions that McQueen then reforges. "You have to know the rules to break them" he says. And so McQueen rescues the aesthetics of an exotic orientalism from the association with paternalistic Victorian collectors, and exquisitely refashions kimonos counterpoised with American football helmets. I thought of Midori, an American artist of Japanese origins I once met at a talk, years ago, who appeared on the cover of her book dressed in a kimono, next to Dita Von Teese literally tied up in knots. McQueen would have loved that. We shared a taxi afterwards and swapped notes on immersive theatre company Punchdrunk and the Argentine circus De La Guarda (now Fuerzabruta) - both of which she had seen in New York. This promenade through the world of McQueen, was connecting me to a journey of my own.
Elements of tribalism also pervade the collections as a creative interpretation of the fact that "it's a jungle out there". So I watched women writhing in snakes or encircled by rings of fire (circus everywhere) with the same repellent fascination as I would a sideshow of freaks. "I find beauty in the grotesque, like most artists. I have to force people to look at things" McQueen said, and used the medium of shock on the catwalk to connect us viscerally to our most intimate fears and desires. McQueen tore up the social fabric of convention and created a breathtakingly beautiful body of art for a woman not afraid to be the spectacle, to push the boundaries and to know no limits. That, for me, makes McQueen the go-to designer for the circus strongwoman. And yes, I do have a dress by McQueen, one that despite the softest of fabrics, silk and tulle, makes me feel savagely sexy and in my element. Seeing the exhibition made me feel that too. Not for the faint-hearted, check it out at the Victoria and Albert Museum. You will find an unparalleled adventure awaits.
"There is no way back for me now. I'm going to take you on journeys you've never dreamed possible."
Alexander McQueen (1969-2010)