A unique museum phenomenon recently ended in New York City. Hordes of admiring visitors descended not on the Museum of Modern Art and not even to gaze at art per se. No, it was an exhibit of haute couture by a fascinating and recently deceased fashion designer held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Adding to the allure of the designer’s cache was an innovative, remarkably designed and staged presentation of fashion and accessories that may serve as the gold standard of museum display for years to come.

Rebecca Annand reports for AJF: Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Enter New York’s Metropolitan Museum through the Great Hall. Pass by the entrances to Greek and Roman Sculpture and Egyptian Galleries to a narrow side escalator. Go up to the second floor along the balcony, through Buddhist sculptures and past cases of Islamic decorative arts. Depending on the day, the line to get to this point may have taken up to an hour. If you went during the final week of the show, then it almost certainly took longer. The last Sunday afternoon, the exact wait time was two hours and forty-five minutes, with still another hour, and an entire Hellenistic Sculpture collection, to go before reaching the official entrance. This is the line to Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.McQueen was a designer with sweeping interests in art and social history, popular and world cultures, literature, politics, and especially the history and traditions of his medium. These influences become siphoned through a single distinctive personality that produced the featured collections, and all within two decades. The show, which ran from May 4- August 7, 2011, displayed over 100 pieces from throughout the late designer’s career. Thematic rather than chronological, distinctive environments emerged to separate the collections into pointed views, all surrounding the central theme of Romanticism.

Rooms included a warehouse-like space with concrete slab walls for his graduate collection Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims (1992).  This room, “The Romantic Mind,” also included various suits with stylized silhouettes and served as an introduction to McQueen as designer and his background as a tailor on London’s Savile row. Further on in the show, viewers were treated with a trip to a bizarre parlor in “Romantic Nationalism.” Wooden parquet walls and faux candle sconces made up a room with an electric guitar rendition of “God Save the Queen” echoing between tartan clad pieces from the Widows of Culloden (Autumn/Winter 2006–7). In a separate room, a “Romantic Gothic” scene played out with blackened mirrors and gilded molding. This dark suite highlighted pieces from several collections including Dante (Autumn/Winter 1996-1997) and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (Autumn/Winter 2002-2003), a collection heavily influenced by Tim Burton. Leather masks and corseted gowns in varying shades of black with the occasional purple were staples in a room of opulent constructions complete with beading, fringe, feathers and leather straps.  

Alexander McQueen
It’s Only A Game (Spring/Summer 2005) boasted its own strange hallway. In its initial public presentation, It’s Only a Game was literally a life size chess game, with each model’s garment embodying a specific game piece. Displayed on slowly revolving turntables against infinitely mirrored spaces and the sound track of a child’s music box, the Metropolitan’s housing, part of the “Romantic Exoticism” grouping, sought to continue the game for the retrospective. Elegantly patterned pieces that drew from a both Japanese and English textile traditions combined with pieces dressed for battle in the re-imagined pads and helmet (made fashionable) of an American football player.


McQueen designs on the runway would not be complete without the accessories. In an exhibition of fabulous garments, the jewelry, shoes, crowns, and assortment of what could be described as body additions, garnered their own room. In the designer’s own words, “I especially love the accessory for its sadomasochistic aspect.” Entitled the “Cabinet of Curiosities,” a deliberate reference to 19th century practice of collecting items of interest, McQueen’s cabinet contained floor to ceiling shelving, each housing its own object. The variety of pieces included carved elm wood prosthetic legs designed for Aimee Mullins, a leather and horse hair unit that distinguished the Knight piece in It’s Only A Game, and elaborately formed biomorphic shoes from his last fully realized collection, the Spring/Summer 2010 Plato’s Atlantis. Jewelry and accessory functioned as an important element in much of McQueen’s work; fully incorporated into the ensemble, pieces existed to enhance the narrative and overall visual presentation. Several collaborations between McQueen and celebrated UK jeweler Shaun Leane resulted in perfectly crafted objects that embrace the personality of each collection. A wild headpiece for The Widows of Culloden (additional collaboration with milliner, Philip Treacy) was constructed of a nest and bird wings with eggs comprised of Swarovski Crystals set in silver eggshells. Other McQueen-Leane moments, there were several in evidence, included a coiled corset, an elaborate silver plated shoulder piece of fabricated blooms entitled “Orchid,” as well as crowns of metallic thorns fit for decent into the dark Dante collection. Setting these items apart, the Cabinet of Curiosity drew from all of McQueen’s past shows, and highlighted the beauty of the individual objects away from their particular ensembles. This is not to say they were left without context. Across the high walls of the space, screenings of past shows and stages showed the works in motion, as they were clearly intended to be.

Alexander McQueen

It’s Only A Game (Spring/Summer 2005) boasted its own strange hallway. In its initial public presentation, It’s Only a Game was literally a life size chess game, with each model’s garment embodying a specific game piece. Displayed on slowly revolving turntables against infinitely mirrored spaces and the sound track of a child’s music box, the Metropolitan’s housing, part of the “Romantic Exoticism” grouping, sought to continue the game for the retrospective. Elegantly patterned pieces that drew from a both Japanese and English textile traditions combined with pieces dressed for battle in the re-imagined pads and helmet (made fashionable) of an American football player.

McQueen designs on the runway would not be complete without the accessories. In an exhibition of fabulous garments, the jewelry, shoes, crowns, and assortment of what could be described as body additions, garnered their own room. In the designer’s own words, “I especially love the accessory for its sadomasochistic aspect.” Entitled the “Cabinet of Curiosities,” a deliberate reference to 19th century practice of collecting items of interest, McQueen’s cabinet contained floor to ceiling shelving, each housing its own object. The variety of pieces included carved elm wood prosthetic legs designed for Aimee Mullins, a leather and horse hair unit that distinguished the Knight piece in It’s Only A Game, and elaborately formed biomorphic shoes from his last fully realized collection, the Spring/Summer 2010 Plato’s Atlantis. Jewelry and accessory functioned as an important element in much of McQueen’s work; fully incorporated into the ensemble, pieces existed to enhance the narrative and overall visual presentation. Several collaborations between McQueen and celebrated UK jeweler Shaun Leane resulted in perfectly crafted objects that embrace the personality of each collection. A wild headpiece for The Widows of Culloden (additional collaboration with milliner, Philip Treacy) was constructed of a nest and bird wings with eggs comprised of Swarovski Crystals set in silver eggshells. Other McQueen-Leane moments, there were several in evidence, included a coiled corset, an elaborate silver plated shoulder piece of fabricated blooms entitled “Orchid,” as well as crowns of metallic thorns fit for decent into the dark Dante collection. Setting these items apart, the Cabinet of Curiosity drew from all of McQueen’s past shows, and highlighted the beauty of the individual objects away from their particular ensembles. This is not to say they were left without context. Across the high walls of the space, screenings of past shows and stages showed the works in motion, as they were clearly intended to be.

In the weeks leading up to the exhibition’s closing, it was apparent that the popularity of Savage Beauty was not relegated to the expected crowd of fashion and design students, white haired museum members, or bustling tourists that enter the Metropolitan as one of many  stops on the New York grand tour. Of course these expected groups were all admirably represented in the McQueen visitor roll call, but they were not alone in the lines and this was the first gallery show in my personal experience were pre-show preparation included the need to pack a book, umbrella and bottled water. For the first time in the museum’s 141-year history, special extended hours went into effect, allowing visitors to get in line (which at times stretched from the museum’s 82nd street entrance past 79th street) until 12:00 am on the final Saturday and Sunday. The Met released the final attendance to be 661,509 people, with over 23,000 new museum memberships purchased since the show opened in May 2011. The massive attendance places the exhibition in such company as the 1963 showing of the “Mona Lisa” or the Treasures of Tutankhamen exhibit from 1978 for highest attended. Beyond the work itself, the enthusiastic reception became a spectacle in its own right, an appropriate tribute to a rich and extravagant, however short, career.

Alexander McQueen