People find my things sometimes aggressive. But I don’t see it as aggressive. I see it as romantic, dealing with a dark side of personality.
I oscillate between life and death, happiness and sadness, good and evil.
Lee Alexander McQueen
On that glorious, unseasonably warm and Summery day last week, I had tickets for the gloom of the McQueen show at the V&A. We are set up for a funereal visit. The exhibition isn’t Autumnal misty-gloom, it is darkest-before-the-dawn gloom. Most of the rooms were as black as your soul, only the clothes illuminated. Music playing is lush and romantic, perfect for sitting by the casket of a beloved pet. There is a corridor made to look like a catacomb, the walls molded from human bones. What extraordinary clothes it leads us to. There are signs of death everywhere. Skulls, not just as a pattern, actual skulls are used. I winced at the baby alligator heads used as epaulettes. There’s a dress made from razor clam shells. There are antlers and a flock of red butterflies for a hat. Dead animals are an essential signifier of the late twentieth century, young, cool, British art scene. Think of Damien Hurst and his zoo of vitrines. That generation, obsessed by death like so many goths, stuffing sharks and sawing sheep in half. It all gets incorporated, all becomes part of the great mush that is the world. Everything, if reproduced enough, loses its meaning. My unfashionable 20-something niece and her even less fashionable 50-something mother both wear scarves with skull motifs. They love them. They make them feel kicky.
The colours used are straight from Morticia’s wardrobe; faded jute, pale ecru, damp mist, ailing cloud, dead mink, rigor mortis. There is much dead black and blood-red. Death is everywhere in these clothes. This exhibition is the most beautiful suicide note in history. I once passed Mr McQueen in the street. He was dressed in denim and his bull terrier was on a lead. His face like a raw potato, he wasn’t unhandsome. They looked like brothers, Mr McQueen and his dog. As theatrical in death as he was in life, he hanged himself in his wardrobe with his favourite brown belt. He’d slashed his wrists with a ceremonial dagger and a meat cleaver, and left a note on the back of a book called The Descent of Man, saying ‘I’m sorry… look after my dogs…’ and £50,000 for their care.
These clothes on show are like no clothes I’ve seen before. Hips are exaggerated to proportions not seen since the reign of Louis XVl. Waists low enough to make a display of arse cleavage. Jackets don’t close and have nothing beneath. Shoes make feet look like those of unearthly animals. Animal motifs, death motifs, patterns from nature. There are screens showing McQueen couture shows – exciting and provocative theatrical events in themselves. There’s a glass cell with lifelike mannequins looking at us and a glass pyramid with a life-sized holograph of a model being blown by the wind. I imagine wearing these clothes made you feel like the sexiest and most powerful woman in the world. There are echoes of Leigh Bowery, that flamboyant, conceptual artist of London’s 90s club scene fashion, also of Mary Shelley and Augustus Pugin. Maybe hints of Miss Havisham, too.
The exhibition made me think about ‘taste’, especially ‘good taste’. These concepts can only ever be put in inverted commas. There are no absolute rules that tell you what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ taste. Or even that ‘good’ taste is a good thing and ‘bad’ taste a bad thing. Context is important. As a graphic designer I often try using ‘ugly’ typefaces or ‘bad’ photographs. I might make an awkward page layout, put a heading at the bottom of a page, place type too close to the edge of the page. I want to see what effect ‘mismatched’ colours have. (Nature has no concept of ‘mismatched’ colours, of course). I’m looking for an emotional response and sometimes the way to achieve this is by making something unbeautiful. It shakes things up. One of those things might be me. I’m trying to find a new way to express something. And that, I think, is where the baby alligator heads, the antlers, the skulls and the butterflies, the ‘grotesque’ shoes and expanded hips take us. The world is amazing, even at its ‘ugliest’. Bodies are beautiful, even when twisted and exaggerated. Butterflies are beautiful and maybe sinister, too, both responses are relevant. Some of it may veer towards fancy dress, but look how exciting it makes people look, how beautiful they are. Masks and highland drag look dramatic, romantic and sexy. ‘Ugly’ takes us to ‘beautiful’ very directly when seen through Mr McQueen’s imagination. These are emotional clothes. He was some kind of dangerous genius. And that’s why I love Alexander McQueen.
Alexander McQueen, 17-3-69 – 11-2-10
Inside, 2000 © Ann Ray / Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Photographs by kind permission of Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Main picture, top: Unfallen Angels II, 2009 © Ann Ray/Victoria and Albert Museum, London