Why is the V&A’s Savage Beauty exhibition so powerful? The atmosphere inside the galleries, even when full, is electric. Some of it is down to the scene-setting: low lighting, elaborately-constructed settings and elegaic music (including Purcell’s Funeral March and Barber’s Adagio) all of which highlight the dramatic impact of the clothing on show.
There is something else though and it only became apparent to me when I sat down on a bench in the central space, the Cabinet of Curiosities. The walls of the room are crammed with compartments, each showcasing an item, a look, jewellery, a video-screen, a hat. All together they represent some of the most celebrated moments of McQueen’s career as well as the influences that directed them. The overall impression is of an onslaught of ideas.
Though McQueen is often celebrated for his extraordinary tailoring skills, the more you explore the collection on show here, the more you understand that this is not just about constructing clothes. It is a raging, howling storm of emotion. Balancing this, however a theme of restraint also emerges – in zipped leather masks, kimonos styled as straightjackets, the stays of a corset.
And this piece, for me, was the most beautiful item. This corset was the closing look from Dante, McQueen’s AW 1996 collection. I’d seen the show on video at Somerset House’s Fashion Galore exhibition last year and remember standing mesmerised watching the loop again and again (see it here).
The corset is a wonderful balance of influences. The masculine collar frames the face and the deep décolletage. The lilac silk faille overlaid with black lace and jet beading evokes Victorian mourning clothes but with a sci-fi feel. Where do you go from there? Acclaim and Givenchy was the answer.
This show spans the designer’s career from his 1992 MA show, Jack the Ripper stalks his victims, to his final posthumous AW 2010 show*. Over the course of nine galleries it charts some of the major themes of McQueen’s work: the military and tailoring influences in his early career; gothic splendour and melancholy; tribalism; romantic nationalism; Japonism and exoticism; primitivism; nature, and the environment; with the Cabinet of Curiosities at the centre.
This show is not about fashion. It is the journey of a creative spirit, uniquely combined with extraordinary talent.
*The full list of the shows: MA Collection (1992) Jack the Ripper stalks his victims; Taxi Driver AW93; Nihilism SS94; Banshee AW94; The Birds SS95; Highland Rape AW95; The Hunger SS96; Dante AW96; La Poupee SS97; It’s a Jungle Out There AW97; Untitled SS98; Joan AW98; No13 SS99; The Overlook AW99; Eye SS00; Eshu AW00; Voss SS01; What a Merry-go-round AW01; The Dance of the Twisted Bull SS02; Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious AW02; Irere SS03; Scanners AW03; Deliverance SS04; Pantheon ad Lucem AW04; Its only a Game SS05; The Man Who Knew Too Much AW05; Neptune SS06; Widows of Culloden AW06; Sarabande SS07; In Memory of Elizabeth How, Salem 1692 AW07; La Dame Bleue SS08; The Girl who lived in a Tree AW08; NATURAL DIS-TINCTION UN-NATURAL SELECTION SS09; The Horn of Plenty AW09; Plato’s Atlantis SS10; Posthumous show AW10.
BFC Designer of the Year 1996, 1997, 2001, 2003.