The high-fashion world of the late designer Alexander McQueen (1969-2010) rarely makes its appearance on this blog. But I recently braved the record-breaking crowds forAlexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, the exhibition/tribute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, and I was struck by how history so obviously inspired and influenced this unique designer. Fellow nerdy-history fanatics can be found everywhere, even on a London runway.
The show arranged examples of McQueen's garments (like the ones shown here) in roughly chronological order, including pieces that McQueen made for design school assignments. These were inspired by Jack the Ripper and 19th c. London, and already displayed his respect for historical dress and people who wore it. His work wasn't about sticking lace and a bow on the skirt and calling it Victorian. Instead he was fascinated by the structure of clothing of the past, how it shaped the body to conform to various ideals. He appreciated how the older clothes were constructed, a crucial step before he could take them apart, deconstruct them, and recreate them in another, more modern guise.
Boned bodices, Scottish tartans, frock coats, corsets, Napoleonic uniforms, bustles, padded hips, wire crinolines, leg-of-mutton sleeves, courtesan platforms, Regency white, and medieval armor: all appear in his collections as quotations from the past, translated by his imagination into something new and fresh and uniquely his own. He could back up his imagination, too. Throughout his career, McQueen also demonstrated masterful tailoring, and an attention for the smallest details of beading, embroidery, and applique that would have earned him the approval of the finest 18th c. tailor or mantua-maker. He was a story-teller who used clothing to tell his stories, with each of his collections reflecting characters that were often based in historical fact. Other designers might be inspired by Hollywood jet-setters; only McQueen could create a collection inspired by the widows left by the 1746 Battle of Culloden – clothes so viscerally beautiful and moving that my eyes filled with tears as I stood in the gallery.
"I believe in history," McQueen told British Vogue in 2002. How tragic that Alexander McQueen is now part of the history he loved so well, but how fortunate that we have his clothes as a lasting legacy of his imagination.
Here's a video tour of the exhibition, produced by the Met, but without the three-hour wait in line. The catalogue to the exhibition is a gorgeous hardcover book filled with color photographs and thoughtful essays. If you love breathtaking clothes of any era, don't think twice: you'll want this book.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.