"I want to empower women," said the late fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen. "I want people to be afraid of the women I dress." The first major museum show dedicated solely to McQueen, "Savage Beauty," has just opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. As an introduction to his work and his mind, it almost couldn't be better.
The show begins with rows of mannequins wearing some of McQueen's most celebrated pieces — his red dress made of glass microscope slides, his dress made of razor clam shells (they look like oversized fingernails), any number of impeccably tailored pieces in black and red. At once, you understand his skill set — McQueen trained at Central St. Martins, one of the best fashion schools in the world, and served an apprenticeship at the Savile Row tailors Gieves and Hawkes — and his particular way of seeing. From those, derive even the most elaborate of his later works.
The centerpiece of the show is a room styled as a Cabinet of Curiosities, on whose dark wooden shelves are displayed yet more McQueen pieces on mannequins, as well as hats and jewelry created for his shows by Philip Treacy and Shaun Leane. The white dress that Shalom Harlow wore in McQueen's Fall-Winter 1999 show, in which she stood on a rotating platform while two automotive robots sprayed her with paint, hangs on a mannequin. Above it, video of Harlow in the show plays on a loop.
I wished that the Met had made more extensive use of footage from McQueen's shows, which are perhaps the best argument for his being an artist — McQueen shows were installations with clothes. They were elaborate, provocative, and fully realized. In his seasonal shows, McQueen brought to the fore the obsessions and preoccupations that drove him; seeing the clothes outside of the shows is only part of the story. One piece of footage the Met does make use of, which I had not seen anywhere else before, shows
Naomi Campbell model Debra Shaw struggling to walk gracefully down a set of stairs and onto the runway. Her arms and legs have been attached at the elbows and knees to a large, square metal frame. Everything McQueen had to say about the female body and power, about disfigurement and strength, about how clothes enable and disable us, is in that 1997 clip.
Luckily, you can watch most of McQueen's best shows on YouTube. (A technophile who livecast his last fully realized show, Plato's Atlantis, online, McQueen would probably approve.) You can see the deranged-looking Karen Elson, Jessica Miller, Daria Werbowy, Mariacarla Boscono et. al. dancing in Spring-Summer 2004, which was inspired by They Shoot Horses, Don't They. You can see models playing chess on a life-sized board in Spring-Summer 2005. You can see the Spring-Summer 2001 show, which took place inside a giant mirrored box. For over an hour while the room was filling up, the audience could see only their own reflections. During the show itself, the models could not see the audience from inside the box. Then, suddenly for the finale, the mirrored glass walls of second box in the middle of the room came crashing down, revealing a naked woman in a mask — the fetish writer Michelle Olley — surrounded by moths and breathing through a tube. (The tableau was inspired by the 1983 Joel-Peter Witkin photograph Sanitarium.) You can even see the hologram of Kate Moss which floated above McQueen's Fall-Winter 2006 runway. (Although in the case of that last one, seeing it at the Met, as an actual hologram, is appreciably better than watching on YouTube.)
The Met's wall copy makes an argument that McQueen's work is best seen as part of the Romantic tradition, and the show is organized into categories — Romantic Naturalism, Romantic Primitivism, Romantic Nationalism, Romantic Exoticism, Romantic + Gothic Cabinet of Curiosities, The Romantic Mind — apparently intended to underline this supposed theoretical accord. As conceits go, the idea that McQueen was a Romantic is thin: curator Andrew Bolton offers only McQueen's interest in nature, his remark in an interview once that he was "overly romantic," and his "unfettered emotionalism" as evidence. McQueen's own influences, including They Shoot Horses, Don't They, Witkin, Lucian Freud, Hieronymus Bosch, Francis Bacon, the writings of Darwin, range widely in period and aesthetic mood, and included some (Darwin) that would seem to be necessarily incompatible with Romanticism, what with the Romantics' dismissal of Enlightenment rationalism. Bolton does not demonstrate any fundamental link between the postmodern artist McQueen and an 18th Century artistic movement that was based on the idea of the idea of the individual genius and his Sublime. Nor does Bolton seem interested in situating McQueen within his generation of British artists.
So the idea of the show is wide of the art-historical mark, but at least that doesn't get in the way of appreciating the clothes. The show spans McQueen's entire career, and includes garments from his Central St. Martins graduate collection (most notably a coat whose fabric contains "encapsulated human hair"), as well as his short tenure at Givenchy. A few of the curatorial decisions are questionable — why display his famous "bumster" pants so that you can't see them from behind? — but for once at least, the Met has dialed back the distracting, "contextual" bells and whistles and allowed the clothes to come to the fore. (McQueen's creations in particular are also strong enough to stand on their own.) Elaborate styling, stupid wigs, and busy show design in these kinds of exhibitions is not only unnecessary, it's disrespectful to both the clothing and its audience — because it sends the message that a dress, unlike a painting, can only be understood with significant curatorial intervention. Two years ago, the Costume Institute mounted a show ("The Model As Muse") that was as intellectually unambitious as it was unambiguous in its messaging — a giant flashing neon sign of a show full of ticky-tacky little scenes, like a diorama of mannequins intended to look as though they were seated at Studio 54. There were even unlit cigarettes in the ashtrays, and to get to see that particular set of clothes, you had to walk through — wait for it — a velvet rope. Thank goodness there's nothing like that here. McQueen, at least, mostly gets to speak for himself.