Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty

Special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through August 7.

One can easily imagine the late designer Alexander McQueen as a painter or a sculptor. His artistic point of view is so strong that it seems to transcend the medium; it could work elsewhere. At the same time, one of the best things about his work is the craftsmanship itself: the embrace of his particular medium and the impeccable, intricate construction of each piece.

Walking through the Met’s retrospective of McQueen’s too-short career, one is dazzled by both the grand vision and the finely wrought detail, and I think it’s that—the union of stunning creativity and stunning technique—that makes his work fit in so well in an art museum. It’s what makes this art.

When you first enter the exhibition, two dresses face you, one made of razor-clam shells and the other of glass medical slides and ostrich feathers. Put like that, they sound awkward, like cumbersome costumes at best, but in fact, each dress is striking and gorgeous. The use of unusual materials continues throughout the exhibition, with shells and hair and wire and bone and lots and lots of feathers, and remarkably, it never feels like a gimmick. The shells aren’t just thrown on as an afterthought; McQueen found something truly beautiful in them and used them to create a particular texture. The glass slides and ostrich feathers aren’t a mere stunt either; the slides are painted red to suggest the blood within the flesh underneath, and the dress as a whole balances its avant-garde materials and asymmetrical, modern cut with a silhouette harkening back to the late nineteenth century. The result is breathtaking.

McQueen frequently evoked the past—playing, for example, with nineteenth-century bustles and the broad-shouldered, wasp-waisted “New Look” of the 1950s—and thoughtfully drew on different cultures, as well. The neck rings worn by some traditional African women inspired the “Coiled” Corset, constructed by jeweler Shaun Leane. Ringing a woman’s torso with tight aluminum bands, the corset is both beautiful and provocative: Westerners tend to focus on the deformities neck rings can cause, viewing the practice as exotic in the worst sense, so there’s something twistedly mischievous about using that same aesthetic in a Western style of dress that also pushes the female body beyond its natural limits.

One of McQueen’s most controversial collections, Highland Rape, is well-represented in the exhibition. It’s easy to take the title literally, especially when looking at dresses created from artfully torn lace, and leap to the conclusion that it glamorizes sexual violence. But a more measured examination reveals McQueen’s true subject: the historic subjugation of Scotland by England. (McQueen’s father’s family was Scottish.) That torn lace appears alongside tartans and leather, sometimes delicate, sometimes hard to the point of militant, and together the pieces reflect a pained but defiantly nationalistic perspective.

Not that McQueen’s fashions are always so dark and violent (and not that the suggestions of violence are always negative—there’s a strong sadomasochistic streak running through many pieces that, frankly, is pretty damn hot). Much of his work uses a much lighter touch, drawing on myth and imagined fairy tales. The lush gowns of his Girl Who Lived in a Tree collection might wink at such dreamy storytelling, but they embrace it, too, with enormous red silk coats and fantastic layers of tulle. Some of the hats (headpieces, really) he had milliner Philip Treacy create are charmingly playful, my favorite being the one that creates a cloud of butterflies around the head. And McQueen’s iconic Armadillo boots, so high and pointy as to practically force the wearer en pointe, are downright impish, finding inspiration in one of the least elegant animals around to create a parody of a high heel.

The exhibition’s curators categorize all of McQueen’s work, from the severe tartan-leather ensembles to the airiest gowns, into various shades of romanticism—romantic nationalism, romantic exoticism, romantic primitivism, romantic naturalism—and that, I think, is not only an excellent way to look at McQueen’s aesthetic but also, more broadly, at the expansive nature of romanticism itself. Contemporary culture tends to view the word romantic as referring only to Valentine’s Day bouquets and tacky YouTube proposals, but with art, in particular, romantic properly describes much richer material. Imagination, self-expression, connection with the natural world—this is romantic. Nothing about McQueen’s work suggests sappy love ballads and candy hearts, but everything about it is romantic in that deeper sense, making Savage Beauty a truly unforgettable exhibition.