Fashionista contributor Long Nguyen is the co-founder/style director of Flaunt.
One of the 100 dresses featured in “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” the Met’s Costume Institute retrospective of designer Alexander McQueen, is an ice blue and khaki lace dress, sliced to reveal nude underwear below the waist. It’s a dress I’ve always remembered from my first exposure to Mr. McQueen’s work.
In March 1995, during my first year as a magazine editor, I went to London to attend London Fashion week. Late in the afternoon, on the third day of fashion week, I ducked into a tent to see the collection of a recent Central Saint Martins graduate who had been making waves.
Dirt and leaves were scattered across the long runway and loud music screeched over the sound system as the models rampaged down the catwalk. The clothes were unlike anything seen at the time–a black sheath dress with a deep v-cut, exposing a naked breast; a metallic bluish grey lace sheath dress with a torn shoulder and a hole cut around the crotch revealing pink underwear; a black long sleeve sheer-lace dress with the chest cut-out, paired with red tartans under-shorts.
Titled “Highland Rape,” the show featured disheveled hair and makeup that made the models looked slightly battered–an illusion aided by beautifully cut clothes that were torn to simulate actual violence. This show instantly propelled Alexander McQueen onto center stage of the fashion world. Courting rather than eschewing controversy, McQueen explained that the show’ s concept was the century-long British rape of the Scottish Highlands, namely the bloody battle of Culloden in 1746. Many interpreted the show as an espousal of misogyny and violence towards women.
Every McQueen show that I have seen since the Highland Rape contained biographical and historical references: it is as if the designer was saying that fashion can only happened within a realm of history. The brouhaha over theme of that fall 95 collection eclipsed the beautifully and creatively cut clothes–an hourglass brocade and lace dress, a black lace, single-breasted jacket with folded panels tailored to fit the body and flared in the back, and a red military coat over wool pants–foreshadowed McQueen’s signature style. Unlike many designers who took years to refine their look, Mr. McQueen established his silhouettes with his first few shows in the mid 90’s.
“I really care about a woman’s independence. I don’t like her to look so naive and so fragile. I like her to look stronger. If a man goes up to her, he has to have balls to go up to her. I don’ t like her to be taken advantage of,” Lee McQueen said to Charlie Rose in a 1997 interview when asked how he liked to dress women. In the fourteen years since this broadcast, few people in and outside of the fashion world would associate Mr. McQueen’s work with the empowerment of woman. Sometimes, words like misogyny and degradation were uttered when exiting one of his fashion shows–shows that featured a masked woman sitting a cage on stage for spring 2001, or the plastic and leather molds that restrained the body from McQueen’s fall 2007 show, or the metal mouthpiece from fall 2000.
The exhibition at the Met is divided into six themes that bear the hallmark of Mr. McQueen’ s work rather than a chronological approach to display the clothes. The Romantic Mind explores his command of technical skills from bumpster pants to fine tailored smoking jackets; Romantic Gothic examines his preoccupation with the Victorian Gothic and the interplay of opposites like life and death, or lightness and darkness; Romantic Nationalism exposes his proud Scottish heritage and his embrace of the history of England as a narrative board for many collections; Romantic Exoticism shows his enchantment with other cultures; Romantic Primitivism reveals his fondness for the notion of the noble savage; and Romantic Naturalism reveals his uses of forms and materials from nature.
Surely the exhibition conveys the notion that for Mr. McQueen fashion is all about spectacle. In the spring 97 show “La Poupée” a model was restrained inside a metal cage, like a marionette production by German puppet master Hans Bellmer. And who can forget model Shalom Harlow as a dying swan wearing a massive white strapless gown as she stood on a wooden turntable while robots sprayed painted her gown for spring 99?
And behind each of his shows’ perfect hone of theatrics and themes, Mr. McQueen displayed the dazzling tailoring skills he acquired as a youth in Saville Row and then perfected at the Givenchy ateliers.
One remembered models rushing down the runway simulating an escape in the Highland Rape show but not the exquisite tartans dresses, a few torn and re-sown; the faceless girls wearing those wooden Massai warrior masks
with large hair tentacles but not the puff shoulder silk dress; or the two robots spraying yellow and black paint on Shalom Harlow but not her delicate white tulle dress.
Lee’s extraordinary design techniques triumphed over styling. The 100 mesmerizing outfits at the Met prove this beyond a doubt. Examine the clothes closely and you will see the difficult work performed on each dress or coat.
As I walked down the stairs to leave the Met, I thought, ‘How perfect a setting the world’s premier museum is to showcase Mr. McQueen’s fashion work that encompasses a deep sense of history, of art, of humanity and of craftsmanship.’ That’s what so many masterpieces inside the museum are about. It is also that Mr. McQueen worked against the grain of modern fashion, like an outsider poking at the conventions of our times. His clothes were meticulously cut and embroidered in the age of Helmut Lang’s minimalism–they were highly individualistic in the era of bland brand logo-mania; and they were cerebral in an era that catapulted sex as the main driver of commercial designer fashion. Mr. McQueen’s aesthetics were the last form of resistance to modern fashion–a final barrier against the inevitable encroachments of today’s fast fashion. Content and message were the foundations of his shows–they were not another extravaganza to sell accessories and perfumes. In a digital age, he never abandoned the urge to synthesize past memories and history.
And for those of you who can’t make it to New York to see this fantastic exhibit, here’s a look inside (but we highly recommend making the trip):