Fierce and fantastical are the only way to describe this brilliant exhibition at the V&A and you can see why pretty much everyone in London is trying to get a ticket. If you’ve ever thought that fashion was a frivolous pastime with absolutely no artistic value then this McQueen show can absolutely change your mind, it is beautiful – both the clothes and the setting. Wandering through the rooms is like being in some enchanted fairy-tale land, becoming more wide-eyed with astonishment as each new and distinct section unfolds around you.
It’s not that long ago that the Constable paintings filled these rooms and this exhibition presents McQueen’s clothes like high art to be admired and felt. Some have complained that there’s not enough biographical detail about McQueen himself and where his inspiration comes from, but in way that’s also a good thing because unlike paintings, clothes are often used to say far more about a person. The way you dress day-to-day is indicative of your personality and in some sense synonymous with the way you present yourself to the world. You may have books and art and objects in your home which reflect your taste or interests, but none of these are seen as frequently or as widely as your clothing. If you accept that, then you have to apply that idea to this exhibition – McQueen wasn’t making clothes he would wear but ones he hoped would appeal to a wide female audience. They may be his vision but there is something the viewer or wearer must bring to them as well, so in some sense this is about your interaction with the clothes. It’s like a Saatchi Gallery art exhibition in that sense, no real information just you and the stuff with no artist in the way, which I respect.
So the exhibition’s beginnings are surprisingly tame and modest, showcasing some early tailored items from McQueen’s student and early collections in London. Although these aren’t the showstoppers we’ll see later, actually this is quite a shrewd move because you instantly get a clear sense of his aesthetic and approach to designing without being distracted by the more dramatic outfits created later. You learn how McQueen designed for women from the side because it was easier to see the body shape and creatively disguise problem areas, as well as his interest for sharp lines and powerful shapes. There’s also a clear reference to Victorian styles so plenty of frock coats in various forms, some with human hair apparently sewn into the lining which I was pleased not to see at 8am.
Then things take on a more exciting pace as the next room is decorated with tarnished mirrors and gilt to present some of the slightly harder-edged collections themed here as Romantic Gothic. There’s something quite Phantom of the Opera about this room combining a highly ornate and elaborate staging with a sense of darkness and danger. Each dummy wears a leather face mask and is surrounded by mirrors underneath, behind and to each side giving a view of the outfits from every angle as well as a disquieting sense of distortion to underline the style of these pieces. There is a grand theatricality about the outfits in this room and there’s certainly nothing romantic or wistful about them, but they also maintain McQueen’s sharp lines and powerful silhouettes.
The next section is a complete change again to focus on McQueen’s interest in natural history and animal life. The walls are corrugated with bones and each dress is couched into a recess that seems to have been gouged into the wall, all rather like a primitive cave dwelling. The clothes also reflect this tribal feel with earthy colours, animal fabrics like pony skin and strong shoulder-lines. Weirdly each mannequin has a curved plastic shape on its face that looks like a trunk or a tusk to emphasise that primeval feel. Sound and projection are used to good effect here to add atmosphere, as well as clearly distinguishing the tone of the section.
Up next was my favourite room, combining McQueen’s Scotland-inspired pieces from The Widows of Culloden (2006) with The Girl Who Lived in a Tree (2008). There’s a lot of competition but my favourite dress in the whole exhibition is a knee-length full skirted white tulle number with patterned red stones filling the bodice which nods paradoxically to the decadent purity of the eighteenth-century style, yes I could definitely wear this dress. It sits alongside a suite of similarly inspired outfits combining ruffles, feathers and elegant draping effects which are pure romanticism, striking an interesting contrast to the political statement of the Scottish pieces facing them where innovative technique in the cutting and use of fabric is clear.
The Cabinet of Curiosities is a completely new section for the London shows and is rather like reaching the centre of the maze. It is floor to ceiling stuff and everywhere you look there are countless examples of McQueen’s work; from clothes to Philip Treacy hats, to shoes and facial ornaments- including the beautiful butterfly headdress adoring some of the advertising material. All interspersed with fashion show footage. Luckily there are seats so you can sit down while trying to take it all in. In the penultimate rooms the focus is on romanticism and nature featuring outfits incorporating shells, feathers and antlers, plus ruffles and lots of floaty fabrics but still retaining that trademark structure. Most outstanding is a dress made entirely of 3-dimensional flowers which is crazy but also beautiful, while the final room has a futuristic feel with the last collection entitled Plato’s Atlantis.
As you wander out blinking into the shop, it’s pretty clear that this has been no ordinary V&A exhibition. In fact given the V&A’s poor form in its costume displays, with Hollywood Costumes, Ball gowns and Grace Kelly all being very badly curated, it’s clear that this is a touring show and, honestly, a relief. Tickets are still available and the museum is opening from 8am till late to facilitate extra time slots. I booked about 3 weeks in advance for an 8am entry (if you’re prepared to book a month ahead there are lots of tickets for any time) which I would highly recommend. At that time, the cumulative number of people is incredibly small so you can get close to each item and take your time, and you can just toddle off to work afterwards knowing you’ve had your culture fix before 10am. An 8am start also enhances the dreamlike quality of this wonderful exhibition. As I said at the beginning this is fashion at its most artistic, one of the best fashion shows I’ve seen, brilliantly designed and completely enchanting.
McQueen: Savage Beauty is at the V&A until 2 August. Tickets are £17.50 including booking fee and a range of reasonable concession prices are available for OAPs, students, disabled visitors and art fund members. Day tickets are also available from 10am and no photography is permitted in the exhibition.