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This is the final day of the Alexander McQueen retrospective, Savage Beauty, at the V&A and it doesn’t surprise me that it has been declared the most visited paid-for exhibition at the museum in the last decade and that demand for tickets triggered unprecedented late night openings.
I’d booked my ticket early in the year, not that I was huge devotee of his work or the fashion world in general, and whilst I appreciated that his Widows of Culloden and Highland Rape collections were inspired by Culloden and the Clearances, I suspected that these turbulent times in Scottish/Anglo history provided convenient antler shaped hooks on which to hang radical collections.
When I was warned by some that they had found the exhibition to be an emotionally charged experience, I put that down to overly precious artspeak hyperbole. Hadn’t I read that some model had experienced a direction changing ‘epiphany’ at the V&A’s Bowie exhibition for goodness sake?
As it turned out, nothing could have prepared me for Savage Beauty, and in particular The Widows of Culloden collection. Given that I was born just two miles from Culloden Battlefield, this is a deeply familiar period of history, both from an academic and emotional point of view.
Walking along the corridor, past the panoply of opulent red and white designs on one side and the ravaged tartan widows on the other, affected me at an unexpectedly visceral level.
My Glaswegian companion with no connections to the Highlands, was similarly moved, along with the internationally diverse mix of visitors around us, even though these exquisitely crafted garments were draped on manikins and lacking the real life models and theatrical complexities that marked the original show.
Without any form of animation, these pieces evoked a horror only matched by Peter Watkins’ pioneering 1964 Play for Today, Culloden, a powerful recreation of the massacre and post battle humiliation of the Jacobites.
Tartan and Gaelic were outlawed post-Culloden, the latter, even as recently as the 1960s was considered by some as a ‘tinkers’ language’. While the Victorians used tartan as a frivolous fashion statement, McQueen reclaimed its dignity. (No wonder that there had been a tendency for Highlanders to be self-apologetic, albeit underpinned by a quiet anarchy.)
The relationship between victim and aggressor was a recurring theme in McQueen’s work, and one that he presented with mesmeric sleight of hand. He could easily have skimmed the surface and still it would have retained its historical heft.
McQueen pushed the creative boundaries of craftsmanship without sacrificing past. The climax of The Widows of Culloden, saw Kate Moss as a wraith like figure floating over the battlefield like a Jacobean Angel of Mons.
This was created using the Victorian optical illusion known as Pepper’s Ghost which projected an image through angled plates of glass and was replicated in Savage Beauty by the original team who worked on the Kate Moss hologram.
McQueen’s skills as a collaborator, resonate throughout the exhibition, be it a jewelled headdress by Philip Treacy or working with prosthetics technicians. For many it would be enough to create the extraordinary designs, but McQueen executed a theme from the smallest detail to a dramatic finale.
Of course there was much more to Savage Beauty than the Scottish themes. The Cabinet of Curiosities dome provided a dazzling insight into the ideas that were inside the head of this hyperactive genius, so many of which are now an intrinsic part of street fashion, be it feathers, swallows, skulls or the bumster jeans.
It seems only right that Lee Alexander McQueen’s final resting should be on the Isle of Skye, home of his forebears and an island that witnessed some of the most savage Clearances. Carved on the headstone are the words ‘love looks not with the eyes but with the mind’.
Gunrobh fois siorraidh aig a anam.