This weekend I went to Savage Beauty, a significant and striking retrospective of the work of fashion designer Alexander McQueen, originally presented at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and, until last Sunday, on show in an expanded form at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.
The show was the most popular in the museum’s history, a gesture of appreciation for the designer’s work from the city that he deeply identified with. “London’s where I was brought up. It’s where my heart is and where I get my inspiration”, McQueen said, in a quote reproduced on the wall of the exhibition’s opening room.
For me that identification was obvious even without the quote. This collection of work from a man who was the son of a black cab driver and who trained on Savile Row was crammed full of details that I associate with London, sometimes for reasons that are hard to explain. To list just a few: impeccable tailoring; tough feathered creatures; handmade theatrical magic; punk tartan; piles and piles of bones; and the inescapable presence of water.
Together these details also summed up something about London as a whole: it is a city that has a culture that is all its own but, paradoxically, has been shaped in large part by cultures from elsewhere – hardly anyone or anything in London has ever really been just from London.
That elsewhere could be ancient Rome, eastern Europe, Africa, Ireland, or any one of a thousand other places, regions and worlds. McQueen himself, as the show made clear, saw himself as a Londoner through and through but also deeply identified with his Scottish roots and engaged with Indian culture, African culture and many other cultures from across the world in his work.
And on top of these geographical elsewheres, London – that seemingly civilised capital of government, law, commerce, culture and church – has also always had to contend with the heavy presence of its long history and a deep salting of the uncanny and uncomfortable.
There is the city’s rich tradition of harbouring the unconventional and the macabre; the way it has been carved forcibly through the ages from a place that once was wild; and its problematic relationships with colonialism, slavery, inequality and desperate poverty. All these seem to be to be present in McQueen’s work – in too-sharp Victorian-style tailoring, ripped kilts, sealed leather masks, and fabulous creations seemingly designed to transform their wearer into half an animal.
The show also made me think about some of the fashion traditions of New Orleans, particularly its habit of costuming for carnival, and about the city in comparison to London.
Many Londoners would see themselves as ultimately from somewhere else, while many New Orleans’ inhabitants always feel inseparably associated with the city, especially those who have found themselves exiled from it in recent years. A London designer creates suits and party frocks solely for very rich people that seem on the verge of flight away into a multiplicity of lives of their own, while the ordinary people of New Orleans make fantastical costumes for high days and holidays that stitch unusually real communities together.