“DID YOU SEE ME in the Bill Cunningham film?” a well-dressed woman asked her companion, referring to a recent documentary about the legendary New York Times chronicler of society events and chic women on the street. That’s the kind of crowd it was at the preview last month of “Savage Beauty,” the Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute (now extended until August 7, with special hours on Mondays, when the Met is usually closed). The scene was like an upscale version of Black Friday at a chain store—more than slightly claustrophobic.
The weirdness was amplified by the clothes, if one can call them clothes. Most are neither functional nor, in the conventional sense, attractive, and although I was drawn to a quotation from McQueen about how he wanted his designs to empower women, the more I looked at them, the more they seemed likely to inspire shock rather than confidence. I loved some black coats and jackets from 1998-99 (McQueen was an apprentice on London’s Savile Row, the ultimate in tailoring) with wacko details–deconstructed sleeves, floor-length lapels, a trompe de l’oeil vest–but much of the stuff is exaggeratedly theatrical and outrageous: jewelry that resembles a crown of thorns; aluminum corsets, one with a spiny tail; shoulders sprouting impala horns; a skirt made of oyster shells; a helmeted coat of black duck feathers….
It makes sense to regard this brilliantly atmospheric show more as modern art than as fashion. Although I did hear a woman call one of McQueen’s off-kilter plaid dresses “wearable,” her voice had a dubious note, as if to say that nothing else was.
Besides his design acumen, exquisite workmanship, and iconoclastic gestures, McQueen is famous for having committed suicide last year, at the age of 40, in the wake of his mother’s death; and for having founded the label, carried on by heir apparent Sarah Burton, that produced Kate Middleton’s acclaimed (and quite traditional) wedding dress.
Contradictory? Yes. That is the name of McQueen’s game. And a game it is. The word I would use is decadent. Oscar Wilde said it: “Classicism is the subordination of the parts to the whole; decadence is the subordination of the whole to the parts.” Or, to put it in more contemporary parlance, McQueen’s collections are a clever mash-up…a crazy quilt of influences and references and odd juxtapositions that almost require explanatory footnotes. All the trendiest trends are there—ecological, tribal, anticolonial, art-historical—but joggled about. A jacquard print based on a scan of a 15th-century painting by Hieronymus Bosch. Obi-like embroidery topped with acrylic shoulder pads and helmet. A horsehair and lilac leather ensemble that looks like updated armor. Hooflike boots embroidered with paillettes that mimic armadillo skin.
Reproductions of this last item were sold as miniature ornaments in the exhibition shop ($25, the cutest of the lot and back-ordered at the moment), along with the usual tee-shirts, catalogue, magnets, and wall calendar. I bought the calendar (I almost always do).
As I left, the floor of the exit passage was strewn with floral detritus: One of McQueen’s gowns incorporates real blooms, and apparently at this early stage of the exhibition, the Met’s staff hadn’t quite got the hang of topping it up. The Rembrandts don’t require that sort of maintenance.