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Review: Alexander McQueen’s Savage Beauty

Wednesday 18 March 2015
Words Ailis Mara

We think that three things sum-up the reputation of Alexander McQueen – bumsters (low-cut trousers), shock-inducing titles (his 1995 show Highland Rape landed him in predictable but profitable trouble), and his tragic end (suicide). Five years on from his death, with this long-awaited exhibition we have an opportunity to remind ourselves of why his star shone briefly but brightly on the catwalks. What especially awaits us here to grab our attention?

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Curator Claire Wilcox (the Museum’s Senior Curator of Fashion and Professor of Fashion Curation at London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London), has given us a feast of fantasy, fetishism, and formalism. Military-style coats jostle with the tartan dresses of McQueen’s Widows of Culloden (2006) collection. There is a hologram of Kate Moss. But the show’s climax is, arguably, the Cabinet of Curiosities, a double-height gallery displaying, as if on tiers of shelves, designs produced by McQueen in collaboration with the likes of jeweller Shaun Leane and milliner Philip Treacy. The effect is as if we’re trapped within cliffs of creativity from which we cannot escape.

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McQueen’s creations were a welcome breath of fresh air when, after the exuberance of the New Romantics had faded to grey, fashion seemed to be entering the doldrums. Some will sense hanging over his work the spirit of Vivienne Westwood’s combination of anarchic intentions and traditionalist tailoring along with the larger-than-life, shock-horror ethos of club host/designer/performance artist Leigh Bowery. But there is a deeper significance here than the desire to exuberantly shock for the sake of it. We now know that his work seemed to have a more sombre meaning, that it was an attempt to use his creative abilities as a way of overcoming the deprivations of his childhood, a period of alleged sexual and physical abuse combined with low expectations. Like the 1950s’ playwrights and writers dubbed the ‘Angry Young Men’ he looked back in anger and mined success by doing so, but via the runway rather than the stage or the page. The exhibition is visually impressive, but it is the realisation that it depicts McQueen’s attempts to escape the dark side of his life that makes us stop to think of how savagery and beauty can go hand in hand.