Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty at the V&A: an experiential review

The Alexander McQueen exhibition at the V&A draws to a close over the next few weeks with the announcement that there will be all-night admissions. So what better way to celebrate this feat of curation than with an attempt to capture something of the experience in a blog? As Suzy Menkes asked in Vogue, “Can there ever have been such a sensory and stimulating fashion exhibition?”

So put on your headphones and take my hand. Hit play. And don’t expect any biographical detail. It’s OK if the songs overlap, go with it – until I tell you to press pause.

It’s all grey. Well cut. Bumsters – those strangely cut trousers. We’re not too far from Savile Row but the fogs of London are rolling in.


Romantic Gothic
Is this where they got the inspiration for Natalie Portman’s costumes in Black Swan? It’s balletic. Feathered. Crucial. Dynamite black.

Romantic Primitive
This room is claustrophobic. Suddenly dark. Are those BONES? On the walls? Get me out.


Romantic Nationalism
There’s tartan. Have we gone to Scotland? Why the Scottishness? Oh – McQueen has Scottish roots. Fine. Sorry, I promised no biography.


Cabinet of Curiosities

“I find beauty in the grotesque, like most artists. I have to force people to look at things.

#nowplaying Adagio for Strings and then Funeral of Queen Mary

And forced we are to look… It’s like you’re trapped in an anciently-modern department store – Liberty’s but silken black and eerie – and you have to crane your neck to look, into the walls and walls of cabinets.


You feel like you’re looking to buy. But you know it’s unavailable, inaccessible, too high up to reach. But everyone else is peering up, fixated, tranced by the music.

So you stare too, enraptured by crystals and skulls, butterfly headdresses, a golden dress you remember seeing someone wear once – at the Oscars? Was that it?

And then there are the videos, pixelated, of shows and human chess games dressed up to the nines, paint splattered, spinning. Shall we start the game?

It’s easier to see the things that are far away.

Too close and it’s like being in the front row of the stalls at the Royal Opera House, and all the ballerina’s feet get cut off by proximity. Savage. Dismembered. But you still dare to look.

Are we the performance art now?

Watch her as the robots dance. Who is the dancer? Wait until the stage turns midnight blue. Now pause her – the splatter paint one.

Hologram Dance
A woman wisps into being – a will o the wisp spinning effervescent – you don’t know whether to cry because Shindler’s List is playing – or to look like you understand what’s going on because there are more people on the other side of the hologram, watching you, watching.

You realise it’s Kate Moss.

#nowplaying Shindler’s List Theme

Better quality video, wrong music, if you fancy watching again:

Pause Kate.

Romantic Exoticism
#nowplaying Frosti by Bjork

Like children’s music boxes. A tiny ballerina spinning into eternity, but slowly, like she’s waiting for eternity to happen. Or a horror film, before the scare. Pretty now.

East vs West, standing off against each other. It’s all lilac and naturals, gold and silver. There’s a dress like an American Footballer, shoulder pads and all. You glide past, concerned.

There’s a model trapped in a box. More models surround her, frozen in time and space. Staring. The one who’s trapped. (Are we the ones who are trapped?) She can’t see out, her hand is up against the glass and then the lights fade and BAM.

All you can see is you, reflected, looking back at yourself. And the models are gone.

You wander and wonder on.

mcqueen shoulder pads

Romantic Naturalism
stag antlersNow there are florals – delicate silken flamboyant pastel tones, flowers so real you could rip into their delicate fleshy petals – these are dresses a girl might wear… It’s like an expensive bedroom, with black and white inscribed wallpaper – delicate patterns, a calligraphy of style.

It’s all delicate, in fact, except the mahogany show cases and the stag’s antlers. Stag’s antlers? Yes, on a model’s head.

Long shells cut deep into a dress, like long white finger nails. How could the model bear to wear it?

Plato’s Atlantis

“Plato’s Atlantis predicted a future in which the ice cap would melt, the waters would rise and life on Earth would have to evolve in rode to live beneath the sea once more or perish. Humanity would go back to the place from whence it came.”

Darwin On the Origin of Species. You survived, the exhibition – this review. You are the fittest.

Amadillo Boots, moulded alien feet
A bright white room
I mean, really bright BRIGHT

Sounds of water, rushing. Club music now.

How do I leave this room?

A semi-aquatic creature drowning sublime in a mirage.
The sublime of nature equated to digital technology
Whiteness. Brightness. Clinical like a hospital; magnetic like a modern topical utopia, a pure dystopia?

No, it’s S/S 2010.

“There’s no way back for me now. I’m going to take you on journeys you’ve never dreamed possible.”

Plato's Antlantis

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty is at the V&A until 2 August.