This summer, there’s confusion at The Metropolitan Museum of Art: museum or runway? The source of the confusion is the exhibition ‘Savage Beauty’, a retrospective of the work of fashion designer Alexander McQueen. Three friends (Meagan Elliott, Josh Franco, and Landrie Moore) went to ponder for themselves one Saturday afternoon, fighting the crowds, but ultimately giving in and buying memberships just to skip the lines. Worth it? One reviews and two converse.
Josh T Franco [JTF]: There were two major things that struck me at the show: one was the use of natural materials, and natural refuse more specifically, shed feathers, discarded shells, etc. It makes you wonder what could have been down the road? Like–and I say this with utmost expectation he and only he could pull it off–petrified feces clasps on luxurious silk skirts, with silkworm cocoons still half-wound in their natural state?1 The other thing was the utter success of the spray paint dress. The Art and Technology [A&T] movement, or moment as it were, of the 60s was fraught with technical failures. And for a majority of critics this meant conceptual failure, but I think everyone I’ve talked to has only had acclaim for that piece. And why not? The model performed like a seasoned actress, [with] transfixing/ed expressions and appropriately torrid and self-surprising body language and the robots produced an inimitable, wearable, striking piece of couture. Of course it’s unfair to compare these two really different contexts, but the A&T stuff just came to mind. I wonder what they would think?
Meagan Elliott [ME]: The use of natural materials in such non-natural ways was striking to me, too. I went into this show not knowing anything about McQueen or his work. I don’t follow couture, so I was actually just hoping to get a sense of why I was hearing reverberations about the exhibit all over the country.
JTF: Did you end up feeling like you “got it” or not? What were people saying in other parts of the country? I assume you’re talking about the Midwest?
ME: Well, I don’t have my ear to the ground of the entire Midwest. But yeah, people there were excited to see the show on their trips to New York. And conversations like that coincided with my friends here [in New York] discussing the exhibit… so maybe it was just on my radar more than any other recent exhibit at the Met. As for “getting it,” I don’t know how to answer that. I was blown away by the richness of his materials and his capacity to render them in this totally whimsical way that really evoked each of the narratives he was trying to tell. Or at least what the audio tour told me were the narratives he was trying to tell.
JTF: The mixed crowd was interesting, especially the people who thought it was a Steve McQueen show!2 But it brings up a good question: are the people you talked to regularly into fashion? Or do you think their interest signaled that Alexander McQueen has a broader or different appeal than most fashion designers?
ME: I think he does. Walking through, I got the sense McQueen was interested in extracting his work from the loftiness of couture, clothes that no woman (or man) could ever actually wear paraded on stage and turning them into pieces of art with a political message. Like the wooden boot/leg. Even the armadillo boots are supposedly (surprisingly) easy to walk in. But of course, you would never see someone outside of Manhattan strutting in armadillo boots. Maybe in Lubbock, but those are of a different sort. Also, yes! The comment about Steve McQueen was awesome! Especially because most of his work were these minimalist black and white films… there’s nothing minimalist about Alexander McQueen. I think that was why I liked it so much.
JTF: Sure, by his own words he was involved in that de-lofting, mostly by reference to his working class background. But it’s hard to forget that his breakthrough came by way of Isabella Blow,3 legitimate aristocracy, though perhaps that doesn’t mean so much anymore, but it means something. But maybe another angle has to do with something I discovered anew at the show: I didn’t realize to what degree McQueen was responsible for forging the trendiness, the sexiness, of ass cleavage. You’ll remember the display of ‘bumsters.’ It made me recall a typically bro’ed out episode of The Hills I came across once that was basically an hour–half hour? too much–of the guys on the show demonstrating their different displays of asscrack teasing in their boardshorts, and the girls debating the appeal…or the ‘totally gross, duh’ factor. I am not sure if they are in the same lineage in any concrete way, but culture does seem to trickle and go where you least expect like that, so it’s likely. Then there’s other places it shows up, for example, how one wears Apple Bottoms…I see weird coincidences like that and have to wonder how coincidental they really are. This is all a roundabout way of getting at that question brought up by the mixed, confused, crowds at the show. Who’s coming from where culturally and how they have moments where they are suddenly faced with one another in the same space.
ME: (laughing) “How one wears Apple Bottoms.” Mighty formal, Joshua. But I’m so glad you reminded me about the bumsters! It came at the very beginning of the show, at which point I was completely unimpressed (gasp!). Yeah, thus far I had only seen a few (albeit beautifully rendered) military jackets and the two counterpoint dresses (red and white) that begin the show. So then we arrive upon stretchy ass crack pants I am really struggling to see this as art. Though I will say this idea about causality–that trends originate from the top–in fashion really gets to me. Designers are constantly absorbing the expressions of dress in the worlds around them. So while he may have been propelling the trendiness into worlds that found it unacceptable prior to his collection and was transformative in that sense, how many ass-crack beauty pageants had already been going on around him that were just considered faux pas? Lindsay Lohan coin slot-style.
JTF: Yes, but there’s something not to be ignored in there about intention and craftsmanship. While there’s no accounting for taste—though I could argue against that sentiment and many have, the entire discipline of Art History—there are different ways to do it. I mean, Pippa Middleton in a pair of McQueen bumsters is going to have a totally different vibe than the worked-out beachheads from The Hills in their trunks. The least of these differences being the sheer care for the object and years of technical training that went into the pants and skirts. Really, in this conversation, I think we’ve hit on one of the underrrated, perhaps totally missed, confoundings of a binary that McQueen offers. The show is premised on his “fusion” of savageness and beauty,4 but the bumster lives at this other supremely interesting intersection that we’ve begun fleshing out.
ME: I see what you’re saying about elegantly crafted pieces instead of mass produced board shorts in your Middleton/Conrad comparison. There is a distinctive tone of old versus new money that comes across as classist… If someone on the Hills wears bumsters it’s conspicious consumption but if Pippa wears them, it’s a statement. But I don’t feel like that’s the important part of what you’re getting at here, right? It’s more about the craftsmanship and care that goes into the pant itself. I agree with that! The thing is, those selections [the bumsters] looked like they were poorly crafted. I know by this point McQueen had had extensive technical apprenticeship, but moving through his collections we are offered more and more decadence and the craftsmanship is dripping from every crevasse. I didn’t get that from the bumsters. It makes me feel like I’m in an Emporer’s New Clothes situation: everyone else sees how amazing these pants are and all I see is an ass crack. Is it my untrained eye?
JTF: Maybe it’s actually your, or our, very particularly trained eyes. Like seeing in reverse. Our generation, unless you grew up somewhere really cosmopolitan and with some money, wasn’t really exposed to designers like McQueen until his arrival on the pop culture scene, particularly through Lady Gaga’s endorsement, though that’s a little later than I mean. We have, however, grown up going to the mall, and going to the mall, and going to the mall where we’ve seen hundreds of thousands of black pants and skirts whose style gets updated every season in some small way that we perceived as novel. They were marketed to us as novel, as trendy, and new. What we didn’t know in our working-class or middle class generally suburban upbringings is that most of those things weren’t new at all, but were the late mass-produced iterations of innovations farther back and higher up in the high fashion worlds. So, I’m not doing anything to combat the justifiable accusation that I’m being classist, but that’s not really my beef at the moment. I’m reminded of the scene in Devil Wears Prada where Meryl Streep’s character takes Anne Hathaway’s assistant character to task for being flippantly ignorant of the provenance of a particular shade of blue-green, cerulean. She sharply traces this color’s trickle from Yves St. Laurent’s military inspired collection decades earlier to the discount bins where she assumes Hathaway’s character shops.
And yeah, I’m dangerously close to endorsing the absolutely disgusting classism Streep’s character rehearses. But as much as I can without totally going there, I do want to voice how much I appreciate the care for the history of clothes she also demonstrates; I mean, we have really intimate relationships with these objects and we depend on them every morning to be the vanguard of the multiple impressions we leave on everyone we encounter throughout any given day. They’re way more important and worthy of investigation than they are usually given credit for, except by those who live in this admittedly too exclusive world of fashion. It’s a much bigger quandary that I’d love to talk about more elsewhere but my point here is that perhaps its not that your eye is untrained, but it just witnessed that day the carefully and wonderfully crafted innovative style that we are more used to receiving in its mass market distilled version. Does that make sense?
ME: It does. I agree about our close relationship with the clothes we choose as representations of some elements of our identity. In general, I think there is almost a disdain associated with materiality—as if our true essence is somewhere ephemeral and disconnected from the seemingly meaningless objects of our daily lives, when really they are both embedded in one another. But I guess I keep returning to the origin story, because over and over again we seem to be idealizing the role of the creator (McQueen, Yves St. Laurent, or any other) and disregarding that fashion is not a simplistic chain that eventually reaches the masses. Cerulean was at some point just a combination of indigo and woad. I don’t mean to make light of your point, but perhaps I just don’t see value in the influence of his work on the fashion world as much as I do when I see it as art for art’s sake: the careful mastery of the cloth, the precision of his cuts, the performative elements of Kate Moss floating, or of the robots’ chaotic emissions of paint. Perhaps it’s too de-contextualized, but that’s the stuff that made me fall for McQueen.
JTF: So you’re hitting on the difference of contexts from the runway to the museum. Really interesting actually. And for you the latter is more interesting than the former? As the art world and the world of fashion, inasmuch as they can be categorized as such on their own, grow increasingly imbricated in one another, the real complexity of this question has fallen out of focus. I think it would be good, as a large project for someone, to kind of inventory that history, that relatively recent and still current history. As a sociologist and an art historian, we might be the ones to do it! [laughs] In any case, it was a totally rad show, fashion or art, and it was really fun to go with you and Landrie. As my last comment, I’d like to point out that the Richard Serra drawings show was also up and didn’t get enough attention because the crowds were all there for McQueen. Too bad—I actually teared up in a couple of those galleries, and the emotion may have been heightened by going from McQueen to Serra, perhaps as aesthetically opposite as the two McQueen’s we started out talking about. In any case, I’d go back for both. What about you?
ME: Yeah, let’s do it.
1. Perhaps the biggest crowd pleaser, or at least the largest bottleneck in the exhibit, is the “Cabinet of Curiosities,” a large boutique-type room that features accessory collaborations between McQueen and jewelers or milliners including Philip Treacy. Each wall cubby holds something more fantastic than the next – Macaw feather earrings that wrap around the back of the ear, a hat made of artificial butterflies that hover around the entire head, wooden prosthetic legs carved from elm wood that McQueen sent down the runway in 1999 on Paralympic athlete Aimee Mullins, a corset with an attached spine, and the notorious Armadillo shoe made famous by Lady Gaga.
2. One month prior, we’d attempted to see the show and made the mistake of coming on opening weekend, which also fell on Mother’s Day, only to be assaulted with a two-hour line. This time I’m determined. The line is full of families in from the Midwest. A woman in front of us asks if this was the line for the “Steve McQueen Show.”
3. [McQueen] gained a reputation for impeccable tailoring skills, which he learned as an apprentice on Savile Row at sixteen, followed by studies at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. Here, fashion editor Blow—credited with launching the careers of McQueen as well as model Sophie Dahl and milliner Philip Treacy—bought his entire graduation collection, quickly becoming his muse and mentor.
4. Andrew Bolton chose two gowns from the 2001 spring/summer collection entitled VOSS to open the show and articulate the extremes that flowed through McQueen’s work – life and death, beauty and horror, light and dark.
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Landrie Moore is a contributor of 7STOPS magazine. She works in marketing at another (less-interesting) magazine in New York city. Born in Houston, educated in Austin and currently in New York for the past four years, she is continually on the hunt for legitimate breakfast tacos and bearded gentlemen.
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beautyby Andrew Bolton
Blow by Blow: The Story of Isabella Blowby Detmar Blow
Alexander McQueen Fashions: Re-created in Paper Dollsby Tom Tierney
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