Book Review “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty”

Andrew Bolton (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011). 240 pp., 293 col. illus. £30. ISBN 978-1-58839-412-5 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) ISBN 978-0-300-16978-2 (Yale University Press).

This catalogue is published in conjunction with the exhibition held at The Costume Institute of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, 4 May-31 July 2011. It surveys the career of the British fashion designer, Alexander McQueen (1969-2010), whose suicide in February 2010 at the age of forty shocked the fashion world. A large-size hardback catalogue, it has a chilling image of McQueen on its cover in the style of a memento-mori hologram, which morphs between his face and that of a skull.

The catalogue is divided into thematic, photographic sections, the aim of which is to show McQueen’s engagement with various aspects of Romanticism. Each section is prefixed with the word Romantic. So there is Romantic Gothic, Romantic nationalism, Romantic exoticism, Romantic primitivism and Romantic naturalism. The photographs are stunning and of superb quality. They particularly show McQueen’s love of the tactile and his exploration of fabrics, featherwork, lace and embroidery. However, while it is a beautifully illustrated catalogue, the text is skimpy with a woefully brief preface and introduction. A greater tribute to McQueen’s work would have been the inclusion of an essay to match each theme and to help put the designs in context. A glossary, bibliography and index would also have been helpful.

There are several areas of McQueen’s oeuvre that are not addressed in any depth in the catalogue. He was celebrated for his artistry and some of his collections were inspired by fine art. His Autumn/Winter 2010-11 collection, for example, drew on the paintings of Jean Fouquet, Sandro Botticelli, Hieronymus Bosch and Hugo van der Goes. The catalogue might have explored his place within the language and methodology of art history, as well as, more specifically, within the British art scene, perhaps comparing him with artists of his generation such as Damien Hirst (b. 1965) and Jake and Dinos Chapman (b. respectively 1966 and 1962). McQueen was also noted for the theatrical presentation of his collections. Early in his career he had worked for a stage-costume company and near the end he designed costumes for Eonnagata, a collaboration with prima ballerina, Sylvie Guillem (b. 1965). Inspired by the life of the Chevalier d’Ėon, it was created with playwright and stage director, Robert Lepage, and choreographer, Russell Maliphant. This relationship with the theatre is another facet that might have been discussed.

While his inimitable technical virtuosity is depicted in the clothes illustrated, the majority of the examples chosen are attention-grabbing pieces and do not convey a sense of a distinctive fashionable wardrobe. The catalogue would have been more comprehensible if an essay had been included showing how, with the aid of photographs, McQueen could turn the vivid expression of his Romantic ideas into producing women’s collections of great sophistication and exquisite beauty.

Despite these reservations, the catalogue is a reference book and will be a stimulus for future fashion historians who may wish to write a monograph on this most creative and inventive designer.

Alice Mackrell

  • Cover of 'Savage Beauty'