Can fashion be art?

Alexander McQueen : Savage Beauty

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the V&A

A common preconception would be to say that fashion is just surface glamour, not a ‘deep’ or ‘serious’ art, only people passionate about what they wear would appreciate an exhibition on it. Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty defies this.

If you think ‘fashion’s not your thing’ then it’s even more of a reason for you to go. This exhibition is all about the aesthetic experience. Just enter and react: it’s unavoidably provocative.

A feast of polarities, McQueen shows that beauty is the power to provoke. It is emotion, reaction, whether it makes you feel sick or euphoric or both these things at the same time. Discomfort is good. It’s about breaking boundaries and starting a ‘revolution’, making the audience ‘vomit’. You enter in darkness and leave in light. No room gives you a sense of solidity. On edge throughout, you tumble through textures like you’re in a live mood board, a theme park/zoo, each room has a unique aroma densely and complexly layered, splattered with ironies.

‘I’m a Romantic Schizophrenic’ – the exhibition lurches you between feelings, lathering you in a state of energized discomfort throughout. In a sadistic den mannequins stand with zipped leather masks, collars slice into cheekbones from lacy pink corsets, black birdwings are splayed backwards across a chest; an Indiana-Jones-like cave with bone walls, an underground jungle where crocodile heads erupt from shoulder pads and rhino horns curl out of the face like grotesque, overgrown nails; a fetishist laboratory; a giant chess board; a futuristic white washed room where snakes dance in kaleidoscopic patterns on screen behind a metallic alien-headed tribe: McQueen explodes hierarchy and convention.

You are held in awe by collisions and complexity: combinations so intense they almost threaten you, paranoia, anxiety, distress- jabbed by art, but in an expansive way. The presence and intensity of this exhibition is so strong even if you ran through it you’d get something from it.

McQueen dissects materials and body parts but proves that beauty is something un-dissectible at the same time. A silver ribcage and tail-curled spine, a headdress of skewered butterflies, a metal jawbone clamp and spine corset sit on shelves amongst Chinese inspired decorations, glittering jewelled garments and armadillo boots in the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ room. Jungle tweets overlap guitar plucks, typewriter clicks, lullaby music, futuristic zaps and heavy breathing, while pieces turn and catwalk videos play right up from the mirrored floor to the high ceiling- an eclectic overload, you can’t possibly take it all in. But this is kind of the point. There’s too much too see, which makes it exciting, and underlines that beauty can’t be pinned because it’s a bottomless experience.

Alexander McQueen : Savage Beauty

Even the descriptions written next to the garments are hard to read: gold writing on glass cabinets, tiny writing dark rooms where your shadow blocks the words: McQueen doesn’t want you to deconstruct his work but respond instinctually.

In the next room – a completely different texture and experience of beauty: a condensed intensity, stripped back into single point of focus. An achingly beautiful 3D light creation of a model spins gracefully in silk white ruffles to the main song from Schindler’s List, transfixed in pyramid structure in the centre of a pitch black room. It knocks you back, a ferociousness of beauty that conveys the ‘romance in sadness’.

It’s only a Game’: don’t go through this room quickly. Read into it. Inspired by the giant chess board scene in the first Harry Potter film, McQueen presents a game between Japanese and Western culture. Two glass cabinets filled with mannequins trick you on their cultural identities: bowed heads with straight blonde bobs, a single gold armour mask glinting underneath; western ball gown peering out from under oriental velvet prints. Confidence with shyness, one mannequin stands head bowed but hands on hips. There’s even a cheerleader/ American Football player/geisha: helmet shoulderpads kimono belt short frilly skirt knee-high boots. ‘The body is the site where normality is questioned’.

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty– suffering and empowerment; claustrophobia and freedom, imprisonment and escapism; vulnerability and aggression. McQueen doesn’t do either/or and you definitely don’t want to miss it.

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. Victoria & Albert Museum from 14 March – 2 August 2015.
As members EY people can attend the exhibition free of charge.