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Alexander McQueen
Alexander McQueen ensembles from his It's Only a Game collection, 2005, in "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art


May 2, 2011

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute has a winner with "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty," May 4-July 31, 2011, featuring approximately 100 ensembles and 70 accessories in a spectacular kitsch-fest that should have boomers reaching for the LSD, punks tearing holes in their clothes and Goths slathering on their black makeup double-thick. [image: Alexander McQueen, "Alien" shoe mold, Plato’s Atlantis, 2010]

"McQueen is a great artist," proclaimed Met director Thomas P. Campbell at the press preview, with admirable directness. Invoking the late designer’s "legendary runway shows" -- recreated at the Met via trompe l’oeil hard-core settings, with ’60s-style light shows, video on the ceilings and soundtracks ranging from howling wolves to techno music -- Campbell unabashedly called the extravaganza "the most spectacular museum costume exhibition ever mounted anywhere."

Designer Stella McCartney, an old friend of McQueen’s and co-chair of the Met’s gala tonight, called McQueen’s esthetic "dramatic, subversive and just plain beautiful." The much-liked Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton, not to be outdone, similarly showered his subject with superlatives, saying that "the idea of the sublime" provided the foundation of the exhibition.

Among the themes in the show are "The Romantic Mind" (technical ingenuity, precision tailoring, spontaneous draping), "Romantic Gothic" (historicism, dichotomies of life and death), "Romantic Nationalism" (patriotism, history, McQueen’s Scottish heritage), "Romantic Exoticism" (the ideal of the "noble savage") and "Romantic Naturalism" (raw materials, nature).

All hype aside, the show does include truly over-the-top material by McQueen and his collaborators, notably hat designer Philip Treacy, among many others (the variety of inhuman mannequin heads, which contribute much to the exhibition, are by Guido Palau). The Horn of Plenty (2009-10), for instance, is an oversized uterus-shaped garment made entirely of black duck feathers, while a VOSS bodice (2001) is assembled from concatenated mussel shells and a pair of earrings designed the same year by Shaun Leane mix pheasant claws with gray pearls and silver.

A spray-painted white cotton muslin dress from 1999, named simply No. 13, is displayed along with a video of its making, in which the model takes melodramatic poses in between two large robotic arms that squirt spray paint on the dress, and on her.

Viewers in search of McQueen’s signature "Bumster" trousers, which gave him his first notoriety in 1995, can find a pair in the first gallery, though the "bum" is marked on the featureless mannequin only with a faintly visible v-shaped pair of stitches.

An inventory of the show’s oddities could go on and on. Fine-art types might not be convinced that all this inventive grotesquerie really amounts to anything, but it’s fun, and definitely worth a look. Maybe get stoned first?

-- Walter Robinson

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