28 July 2015

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the V&A had lots of stunning outfits but little information about them

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty was one of those blockbuster exhibitions that every arty person was obliged to see and so many arty people wanted to see it that extra evening and night sessions were added. It was one of those evening sessions that allowed me to see the show less than a week before it closed.

The V&A closed for the evening as usual at 5:45pm and then opened just for the exhibition at 6pm. That sounds simple enough until I missed the bit, which I am sure they told me, about which entrance to use. I tried the main entrance, the tunnel entrance and the Exhibition Road entrance before finding the Secretarial Entrance (staff only) beyond the main entrance. I found it with a good five minutes to go before my 6:30pm entrance time.

There were fewer people than I expected queueing up given that it was sold out. I suspect that the V&A were letting fewer people in than they had for other exhibitions as it was busy all the way around but never as busy as David Bowie is ... had been. Having slightly fewer people in made it much easier to move around the exhibition and to get close enough to the texts to read them.

I had heard of Alexander McQueen, obviously, but apart from one or two outfits that had appeared in other exhibitions I really had little idea of his work so was looking forward to learning something new rather than, as I had with Bowie, seeing some old favourites.

The V&A obviously thought that it had something to live up to in showing us Alexander McQueen and it was quite arty itself, probably over so.

There was a room that looked like an ossuary with walls made from painted bones. There were words of wisdom from McQueen painted on the walls, much of the lighting seemed designed for dramatic effect rather than to highlight the clothes and we were teased with different music in each room.

Despite the best efforts of the exhibition to get in the way of the content, the outfits were dominant, as they should be. There were many of them arranged in themes which sometimes, but not always, equated to collections.

My simple summary was that I loved the outfits but not the accessories. We were told that many of these were designed just for catwalk shows and were never intended for sale but, even so, some of the constructions were just weird, like the metal frame holding knees and elbows (you try walking wearing that).

There was a lot of exaggeration in the outfits, collars that rose to eye height and beyond, shoulders that ballooned or spiked, and skirts fluffed about with vasts amount of fabric. There was a lot of attention to detail too with some exquisite embroidery, neat and unusual fastenings and everything tailored precisely to the mannequins.

What was missing was much of an explanation for what it all meant, how it had been made, how his career progressed or who his customers were. The room texts were general, e.g. telling us that he liked Victorian Gothic, and the costumer texts just gave the show, the year and the main materials used. I suspect that this was all very deliberate as the V&A had a hefty book to sell.

I would have liked more words but even without them the exhibition took me 90 minutes to get around because there were so many fine outfits to see. My favourites were the Japanese inspired collection and those at the very end where digital printing on silk produced some extraordinary patterns.

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