Savage Beauty: What do dresses dream of?

Other People’s Places: The Palazzo in Urbino, a tea shop in Rye in a traditional chemist which closes at 5pm, World’s End on the King’s Road.

Today I visited the Alexander McQueen retrospective ‘Savage Beauty’ at The Victoria and Albert Museum. The settings were clever, unsettling the eye,  the effect moving through a life-sized music box, mausoleum, or a Cabinet of Curiosities. I am used to Vivienne Westwood’s exaggerated Tudor and tartan narratives and skyscraper platform shoes, fashion as art, Britishness, fun, or subversion, so the show wasn’t entirely new, but it was Something Else.

The exhibition recalled another time and place; working in my office above the Dye Shop at The Royal Opera House, large vats bubbling full of tulle, flocks of tutus, creations and exaggerations hung about the room. There are echoes for me of a time spent living within the theatre, inhabiting a place where reality contained components of fantasy. I had’t expected to meet the characters from so many stories.

The pieces belong together, they whisper to each other, they glare at us, an assemblage of middle-aged women in sensible shoes filing past. Alexander McQueen was a wardrobe master, tethering materials, reining in rattling sheath dresses of clam shells, of pony skin; impossibly cinched waists, fading flowers, leather wings, silver linings, frock coats, buckles, columns and spinal columns, horned headdresses, hammered metal petticoats, exaggerated collars, imploding concoctions of different elements and icons. This is a retrospective of dying blooms.

This vast wardrobe isn’t Gothic, Romantic, or designed for Guillermo del Toro, it simply is more than it isn’t, unplaceable; a reference line drawn inward from Culloden, but deflected before it arrived at the artist. He was present on film at the start, then at the end, his face off-kilter as a hologram of a skull on the cards in the gift shop.

His clothes convey a feeling of semi-embodiment. En masse, the leather-masked mannequins are spectral, plastic stuffing in a Victorian museum, the dresses moulded stiffly in place, bones visible beneath the skin. There are tensions in the timescales, the clothes are caught between different time periods: historical references and films of the catwalk shows underline that the spectacular parties are over. As they always are. Built for momentariness, the artworks are preserved for stillness, a cloud-of-butterfly headdress pinned to a board, a shell tunic mounted on a plinth, aloof, encased artefacts. “I could wear that one?” said the girl beside me uncertainly to her friend.

What do these overwrought dresses do when we have all gone? What dreams do they have? A feathered, scarlet New Look gown suggested it could pause, in 1951, poised at the head of a staircase in Gaudi’s Casa Mila, reflected in a mottled ballroom mirror. But there it remained. Alexander McQueen would have had to build a hyper-real habitat for his clothes to descend into.

I can only glimpse one true context for this body of work. I once visited Florence during Fashion week. Monuments were wrapped in fuchsia ribbon, ballgowns suspended from the Medici Chapel ceiling. Alexander McQueen’s winged dresses should be released from the theatre, hoisted, high, from landmarks, from Westminster Abbey or the battlements of Bamburgh Castle, they should be buckled to masts and flown like banners from fishing boats launched from Seahouses. The Culloden Widows should be returned to the battlefield to let the elements tatter, weather and set them free.

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