While McQueen had many anxieties, running dry wasn’t among them. He was supremely confident of his instincts and his virtuosity. That ballast freed him to improvise, to take wild chances, and to jettison received ideas about what clothing should be made of (why not seashells or dead birds?), what it should look like (Renaissance court dress, galactic disco wear, the skins of a mutant species), and, above all, how much it could mean. The designer who creates a dress rarely invests it with as much feeling as the woman who wears it, and couture is not an obvious medium for self-revelation, but in McQueen’s case it was. His work was a form of confessional poetry.
Last week, a retrospective of McQueen’s two decades in fashion, “Savage Beauty,” opened at the Metropolitan Museum, in the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Exhibition Hall. Even if you never bother with fashion shows, go to this one. It has more in common with “Sleep No More,” the “immersive” performance of “Macbeth” currently playing in Chelsea, than it does with a conventional display of couture in a gallery, tent, or shop window. Andrew Bolton, the curator of the Met’s Costume Institute, has assembled a hundred ensembles and seventy accessories, mostly from the runway, with a few pieces of couture that McQueen designed at Givenchy, and he gives their history and psychology an astute reading. McQueen was an omnivore (literally so; he always struggled with his weight), and the richness of his work reflects a voracious consumption of high and low culture. He felt an affinity with the Flemish masters, Gospel singing, Elizabethan theatre and its cross-dressing heroines (a line from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was tattooed on his right biceps), contemporary performance art, punk, Surrealism, Japan, the ancient Yoruba, and fin-de-siècle aestheticism. In most particulars, however—including his death—he was an archetypal Romantic.
Bolton has grouped the exhibits according to McQueen’s “Romantic” fixations: historicism, primitivism, naturalism, exoticism, the gothic, and Darwinism. (In his last complete collection, “Plato’s Atlantis,” McQueen envisaged the females of a devolved human species slithering chicly back into the sea in scaly iridescent minidresses.) There is a section on “Romantic Nationalism,” which in McQueen’s case means Scottish tribalism. His paternal ancestors came from the Hebrides, and he never lost his abiding rage at England’s treatment of his clansmen in centuries past. “Fucking haggis, fucking bagpipes,” he said. “I hate it when people romanticize Scotland.” The idea of its bleakness, though, seems to have warmed him—it resembled the climate of his mind.
McQueen’s pride in his ancestry had been ingrained by his mother. (A collection on the theme of witchcraft was dedicated to one of her forebears, who was hanged in Salem.) His father, Ronald, drove a taxi, and Joyce stayed home until her son left school, at sixteen, when she took a teaching job. McQueen was the youngest of their six children—born in 1969—and they christened him Lee Alexander. (He started using his middle name at the outset of his career, because he was on welfare and he didn’t want to lose his benefits.) When Lee was a year old, the family moved from South London to Stepney, in the East End. Trino Verkade, who was McQueen’s first employee, and was part of the Met’s installation team, told me that the area had been a skinhead bastion. “Lee was never a skinhead,” she said, “but he loved their hard and angry look.”
McQueen had realized very young that he was gay, but it took his family some time to accept him as what he called, with deceptive offhandedness, its “pink sheep.” His puberty coincided with the explosion of AIDS, which is to say that he was forced to witness a primal scene that haunted the youth of his generation: sex and death in the same bed. Art, swimming, and ornithology were his primary interests at the tough local comprehensive school. He didn’t have the credentials for university, but he always knew, he said, that he would “be someone” in fashion, and when Joyce heard that Savile Row was recruiting apprentices, he applied. At his first job, with Anderson & Shepherd, one of Britain’s most venerable bespoke tailors, he learned, painstakingly, to cut jackets. (He later claimed that he had sewn an obscene message—“I am a cunt”—into the lining of one destined for Prince Charles. The firm is said to have recalled every garment for the Prince that McQueen had worked on, but no message was found.) He moved to a competitor, Gieves & Hawkes, then to a theatrical costumer, and on to the atelier of an avant-garde designer, Koji Tatsuno. McQueen ended his adolescence in Milan, working for his idol, Romeo Gigli—the modern Poiret. Gigli, he said, taught him, by example, that a designer can’t flourish without a talent for self-promotion.
When McQueen came home to London, about a year later, he thought that he might teach pattern-cutting at the art school that has educated the élite of British fashion, Central Saint Martins. There was no job for him, but the administration invited him to enroll as a postgraduate student, waiving the academic requirements. In 1992, McQueen presented a master’s-degree collection entitled “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims.” (At Givenchy, he based a collection on the character of a “mad scientist who cut all these women up and mixed them all back together.”) There is a lot of sympathy for the Devil in McQueen’s work. Bolton suggests that you consider it as “a meditation on the dynamics of power, particularly the relation between predator and prey.”
Isabella Blow, a freelance stylist who later became one of the great “noses” of the fashion world, saw the Ripper show, recognized McQueen’s gifts, and bought the collection in its entirety. (A black tuxedo with a bustle and long dagger-shaped lapels lined in blood red is at the Met.) Blow and McQueen were inseparable for a while, then, as his fame increased, less so. She, too, suffered from depression, and killed herself in 2007. Her legendary collection of clothing was saved from dispersal on the auction block by her friend Daphne Guinness.
McQueen’s five years in the Givenchy couture ateliers taught him, he said, to use softness, lightness, and draping as foils for the austerity of his tailoring—and of his temperament. Some of his best work is his most ethereal. But Paris didn’t teach him docility, and he sometimes took impolitic swipes at his bosses. Givenchy is owned by the French luxury conglomerate LVMH. In 2001, when its chief rival, the Gucci Group, offered to back McQueen’s own label, he and Givenchy parted company.
Alienation often accounts for a macabre sense of the marvellous. At the entrance to “Savage Beauty,” there is an evening gown conjured entirely from razor-clam shells. Antelope horns sprout from the shoulders of a pony-skin jacket, and vulture skulls serve as epaulettes on a leather dress. There are angel wings made out of balsa wood, and worms encased in a bodice of molded plastic. “I’m inspired by a feather,” McQueen said of all the duck, turkey, ostrich, and gull plumage in his clothing—“its graphics, its weightlessness, and its engineering.” One of his most demented masterpieces is a glossy black-feathered body cast that transforms its wearer into a hybrid creature—part raptor, part waterfowl, and part woman.
Bolton had full access to the McQueen archives, in London, and the support of McQueen’s associates (his house co-sponsored the show). Sarah Burton, who succeeded him, was busy in London with Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, but she was interviewed for the catalogue. The Norwegian fashion photographer Sølve Sundsbø took the catalogue pictures. It looks as though he bought the mannequins from a junk dealer, and it is startling to learn that they are live models disguised as dummies. Their bodies were coated with white acrylic makeup, and articulated at the joints by black strings. In the retouching process, they lost their heads. But here and there—on a torso, a thigh, an arm—the makeup has worn away, and a bruiselike patch of pink skin shows through, as if the flesh of a corpse were coming to life. The freshness of the shock is pure McQueen.
“Savage Beauty” is a shamelessly theatrical experience that unfolds in a series of elaborate sets. In the first gallery, examples of McQueen’s incomparable tailoring hug the walls of a raw loft. A silk frock coat from the Ripper collection, with a three-point “origami” tail, in a print of thorns (I mistook them for barbed wire), has human hair sewn into the lining. There are several versions of McQueen’s signature “bumsters”: drop-waisted trousers or skirts that flaunt the cleavage of the buttocks. But his outrages were generally redeemed by an ideal of beauty, and the point of the bumsters, he said, was not just to “show the bum”; they elongated the torso, and drew the eye to what he considered the “most erotic” feature of anyone’s body—the base of the spine.
The second gallery is an ornate, spooky hall of mirrors consecrated to McQueen’s gothic reveries about bondage and fetishism. One of the loveliest dresses—with a lampshade skirt of swagged jet beading—has a necrotic-looking jabot of lace ivy that reminds you what a fetish mourning was to the Victorians. Leather abounds, masterfully tortured into submission, as in a zippered sheath with fox sleeves latticed by an elaborate harness. “It’s like ‘The Story of O,’ ” McQueen said. “I’m not big on women looking naïve. There is a hidden agenda in the fragility of romance.”
“The Story of O” proves that a work of art can be distilled from stock pornographic imagery, and McQueen—who has a lot to say, in the wall notes, about the sexual thrill factors of rot, fear, and blood—manages to find beauty, as he put it, “even in the most disgusting of places.” Beyond the hall of mirrors is a “Cabinet of Curiosities,” where inventive instruments of consensual torture in the form of jewelry, headgear, footwear, and corsets are displayed like talismans. Videos from selected runway shows flicker high on the black walls, and the animal sounds of a cheering crowd and a woman moaning issue from hidden speakers. In a clip from one of McQueen’s most radical collections (Spring/Summer 1999), an homage to the German artist Rebecca Horn, the model Shalom Harlow revolves on a turntable, cringing in mock horror as two menacing robots spray her white parachute dress with paint guns. The most striking artifact from this collection is a pair of exquisitely hand-carved high-heeled wooden prostheses that McQueen designed for Aimee Mullins, a bilateral amputee and American Paralympic athlete. She modelled them on the runway with a bridal lace skirt and a centurion’s breastplate of molded leather, sutured like Frankenstein’s skull.
There were always critics who accused McQueen of misogyny, and he was chastised for “exploiting” Mullins’s disability as a publicity stunt. He brazenly courted scandal, revelled in most of it, asserted that “hot sex sells clothes,” and certainly subjected his models—like the mannequins in the catalogue—to extreme trials. They were caged in glass boxes or padded cells; half smothered or drowned; masked; tethered; tightly laced; straitjacketed; and forced to walk in perilous “armadillo” booties, with ten-inch heels. In “Highland Rape” (1995), the breakthrough collection that earned McQueen, at twenty-six, his notoriety as a bad-boy wonder, bare-breasted dishevelled girls staggered down the runway in gorgeously ravaged lace, sooty tartan, and distressed leather. According to feminist critics, the show eroticized violation. According to McQueen, it commemorated the “genocide” of his Scottish ancestors. “We’re not talking about models’ feelings here,” he said. “We’re talking about mine.” In fact, he always was.
Therapists who treat children often use dolls’ play as a tool for eliciting their stories and feelings, and one has the sense that the dolls’ play of fashion was such a tool for McQueen. He was fascinated by the work of Hans Bellmer, the mid-century German artist who created a life-size, ball-jointed mannequin—the figure of a pubescent girl—and photographed it in disturbing tableaux. “La Poupée,” McQueen’s Spring/Summer 1997 collection, paid tribute to an artist with whom he shared a kinship in perversity. Yet McQueen felt an even deeper sense of identity with the broken and martyred women who stirred his fantasies, and whom he transfigured. The real agenda of his romance with fragility may have been hiding in plain sight, tattooed on his arm, in the yearning line spoken by Shakespeare’s Helena—a scrappy girl who feels that her true beauty is invisible: “Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.” ♦