Huffpost Arts
Bruce Helander Headshot

Alexander McQueen's 'Savage Beauty' At The Metropolitan Museum Of Art: Top 10 Picks

Posted: Updated:

Alexander McQueen's designs, on display until August 7 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, literally changed the course of fashion history and culture. This is one of the most memorable and imaginative fashion exhibitions ever mounted anywhere, and it should not be missed. There are about 100 ensembles and over 70 accessories that will keep you literally spellbound. Here is a list of my top ten favorites in no particular order:

--Perhaps taking a cue from primitive societies, McQueen often digs deep into unusual resources from the past and the present. Whether it's embellished with razor clam shells, butterflies, stuffed birds on a bare shoulder, or in this case, a sprouting elk horn headpiece, organic materials become startling with dazzling creativity. Here antlers serve as a clever support structure for a mysterious, embroidered veil with a sophisticated, matching dress that would make a stroll in the forest a bit risky.
2011-07-19-4.McQueenWidows20067.jpg
Alexander McQueen (British, 1969-2010)
Dress, Widows of Culloden, autumn/winter 2006-7
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

--Blooming stylized crocheted flowers in red and yellow are strategically connected from the bust line down to a feathered black train that could support a romantic impromptu flight to a magical garden of earthly delights. From the exaggerated neck covering to the elegance of the floating patterns that gradually disappear into the floor, this is simply a springtime melody to enjoy all year round.
2011-07-19-3.McQueenVOSS2001.jpg
Alexander McQueen (British, 1969-2010)
Dress, VOSS, spring/summer 2001
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

--They say that birds of a feather stick together, but what about ducks? In this fascinating, weather-proof outfit of unimaginable technical virtuosity, thousands of duck feathers have been intertwined to form an artificial but convincing "big bird" that could double as a costume for a dancer in the surreal, mysterious thriller, Black Swan. Perhaps it is a visual metaphor for the Angel of Death, a subject with which McQueen was preoccupied: "It's important to look at death because it is part of life."
2011-07-19-9.McQueenBlackDuckFeathersFall200910.jpg
Alexander McQueen (British, 1969-2010)
Dress, The Horn of Plenty, autumn/winter 2009-10, black duck feathers
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

--Ironically simple and shockingly bold in its conceptual complexity and its avant-garde, ambulatory installation, and originally inspired by a work from the contemporary artist, Rebecca Horn, of two shotguns firing blood-red paint at each other, this is a masterpiece of hybrid influences that utilize the female body as a de facto-stretcher to support an abstract canvas in an ode to Jackson Pollock or Franz Kline. In McQueen's most famous staged moment (of many), an unwilling and apprehensive model spins slowly on a mechanical plate while two aggressive, robotic, probing, outstretched mechanical arms stalk the figure like a pair of cobras waiting for a decisive moment, when they finally can spit colored 'venom' on the spinning dress to create an expressionist concert on the runway. (To see this amazing theatrical "dance" complete with an audiences screaming ovation go to:
http://blog.metmuseum.org/alexandermcqueen/tag/no-13/)
2011-07-19-6.McQueenNo.13Spring1999.jpg
Alexander McQueen (British, 1969-2010)
Dress, No. 13, spring/summer 1999,
white cotton spray-painted black and yellow with underskirt of white silk.
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

--This swirling, twirling, spinning, blurry Post-Modern hoedown, which has some DNA from Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, is nearly angelic, as the fabric becomes cloud-like in an otherworldly depiction of a graceful, operatic performance. Carefully sewn into the bias top are images with religious overtones, complete with a white dove on each shoulder, in case you don't see the heavenly metaphor en route to the pearly gates.
2011-07-19-10.McQueenAW2010GreyWhiteChiffon.jpg
Alexander McQueen (British, 1969-2010)
Dress, autumn/winter 2010-2011, gray and white silk organza printed in a fil coupé pattern with an image of the Virgin from the Annunciation of the Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, ca. 1475.
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

--Here is a "living dress" that is reminiscent of an animated tree trunk that seems to sway in the wind, making the wearer's arms natural branches that might support a bird house or two. The pearl white fabric is delicately draped with hundreds of layers in a pattern much like an oyster or scallop shell. There also is a strange, mystical sense that the draped figure is underwater, so that part of the upper dress seems to float like bleached seaweed taking a free ride on the Gulfstream. The entire composition takes on a contrapposto stance reminiscent of a Greek marble sculpture, but this one seems to move.
2011-07-19-11.McQueenAW200203OysterDress.jpg
Alexander McQueen (British, 1969-2010)
Dress, Irere, spring/summer 2003, ivory silk.
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

--Cubism meets figuration in the mysterious Asian-inspired combo that is topped off with a window box-sized chapeau, complete with hanging embroidered Spanish moss. Here's a contemporary take off on an ancient balancing act that incorporates a proud and useful tradition that produced that largest "hat box" in history. The embroidery is fit for a queen--Alexander McQueen, that is--providing a fantasy of graceful birds as attendants to a geometric throne.
2011-07-19-7.McQueenVOSSSpring2001.jpg
Alexander McQueen (British, 1969-2010)
Ensemble, VOSS, spring/summer 2001, jacket of pink and gray bird's eye embroidered with silk thread; trouser of pink and gray bird's-eye; hat of pink and gray bird's-eye with silk thread and decorated with Amaranthus.
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

--This stunning and highly unusual dress is a virtual walking bouquet garden tour carefully composed of artificial and real dried flowers. Those rose petals that fall to the floor are another realistic illusion, offering the idea that the entire dress has sprouted from seeds strategically thrown to create a vertical, sloping flower bed, bringing with it a natural aroma stemming from your unlimited imagination.
2011-07-19-12.McQueenSp2007SarabandeFlowers.jpg
Alexander McQueen (British, 1969-2010)
Dress, Sarabande, spring/summer 2007,
nude silk embroidered with silk flowers and fresh flowers.
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

--McQueen shifts into high gear by reproducing and incorporating a famous historic canvas onto the front and back of this jacket, presenting innovation and style that simply did not exist until Alexander put his magic "brush" to material. As with many Post-Modern artists, McQueen has created a triumphant marriage of art and fashion, complete with beautiful collaged imagery and provocative juxtaposition.
2011-07-19-21.McQueenGalleryViewRomanticMind.jpg
Jacket, It's a Jungle Out There, autumn/winter 1997-98, silk and cotton twill printed with an image from The Thief to the Left of Christ by Robert Campin, ca. 1430.
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

--This alien-proportioned showstopper is an out-of-this-world race to space from the neck to the stylized toe. Moving forward about 100 years from now, this might be a standard flight attendant's outfit for intergalactic time travel. Sewn together with literally thousands of shimmering metallic scales ,the reflective candy-colored surface has a built-in high frequency gravity-defying protective covering with no equal in this galaxy. Slim and graceful and certainly unforgettable, this undeniably underlines the extraordinary talent and mature inventive style of a designer that passed to the heavens long before his time.
2011-07-19-13.McQueenSp2010PlatosAtlantis.jpg
Is it an alien Cinderella shoe? Futuristic sculpture? A scale model of a modern building in Dubai? Or a festive armadillo all dolled up? This sparkling footwear could be anything--if the shoe fits, wear it.
2011-07-19-13a.McQueenSp2010PlatosAtlantis.jpg
Alexander McQueen (British, 1969-2010)
"Jellyfish" Ensemble, Plato's Atlantis, spring/summer 2010, dress and leggings embroidered with iridescent enamel paillettes.
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

You may leave the show with a permanent natural high unless you mistakenly stumble into the banality of conceptual "drawings" by art world sacred cow, Richard Serra, on view in the galleries next door: the absence of his grand, magnificent sculptures is another story. A quick trip to the Met's roof garden to see Anthony Caro's sublime, painted steel sculptures will make up for the potential wrong turn, and you'll get the extra bonus of a private bird's eye view of Central Park in all its summer glory. If you can't get to the McQueen show, the next best thing is to order Savage Beauty, the fabulous hardcover book with 240 illustrated pages documenting each object in the exhibition. The cover alone is likely the most disquieting, surprising image of ANY coffee table-sized book in recent memory. The disturbing, lenticular image magically morphs from the artist's face into a shocking, metallic custom-fitted skull, offering a symbolic spin on the artist's interest in and preoccupation with life and death. Published by Yale University Press in New Haven (where I just spent a week attending the Yale Publishing Course), it will amaze you and is only the second best thing to being there.

To order:
http://store.metmuseum.org/met-publications/alexander-mcqueen-savage-beaut/invt/80011804/

All images here courtesy of the The Metropolitan Museum of Art, copyright, all rights reserved, all photographs by Solve Sundsbo/Art + Commerce. Special thanks to Nancy Chilton, Senior Press Officer to the Costume Institute Communications Department.

For more information on Artists to Watch, please visit www.thearteconomist.com.