Review: Savage Beauty

Savage Beauty by Andrew Bolton, Solve Sundsbo, Tim Blanks, and Susannah Frankel



I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.

I was never girlish. I made the transition from tiny, furious child to awkward, anxious, and still furious woman-sized child in the span of a few months in fifth grade. At that age, I had no concept of “style” (or the idea of wearing shoes other than a pair of giant white sneakers to school each day)—rather, my guiding light was my violent femmephobia, leading me to drown myself in baggy jeans and ratty t-shirts while feeling smugly superior to girls who wore anything cute. Mainstream culture and the gamer culture I clung to taught me that femininity was incongruent with power and control, the two things I craved most as a child.

So when I discovered the concept of hard femme—as encapsulated by the above quote by Alexander McQueen—blew my mind to pieces and put it back together, pulling back the curtains to reveal the monster goddess within. I had been taught that feminine was cute and precious, two things I could hardly manage; here was feminine as half full grown woman and half lioness from hell. A lot of hard femme incorporates punk imagery, but my ideal gender expression tends to fall on a line between hard femme and high femme, a grey area precisely expressed by Alexander McQueen’s couture.

High fashion is rarely on my radar, since I come to clothes from a costuming standpoint. But the stories McQueen told with his collections were dreamlike, fantastical, and edgy, and, perhaps most importantly, exquisitely tailored. McQueen was legendarily able to cut and construct a jacket at the drop of a hat, and its the construction—the supportive armor to all of his designs—that fascinates me the most. Through that construction, McQueen was able to bring even his most fanciful ideas to life. The infamous lobster claw shoe, as worn by Lady Gaga in her “Bad Romance” music video, is walkable, despite the extremity and simplicity of its design.

So, naturally, when I discovered my roommate had a copy of Savage Beauty, I had to rifle through it. In 2011, Savage Beauty was a retrospective exhibition featuring McQueen’s works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. McQueen’s suicide in 2010 meant that the collection had a finite story to tell about his work, although the fashion house Alexander McQueen continues to put out work. The companion book, like the exhibition before it, is divided into six sections—the Romantic Mind, the Romantic Gothic, Romantic Nationalism, Romantic Exoticism, Romantic Primitivism, and Romantic Naturalism.

As you might be able to discern from those sections, the exhibition relied heavily on imagining McQueen as a Byronic hero, tortured, wild, brilliant, and, of course, ultimately tragic. It’s hardly the thing to go to for a nuanced, balanced image of the designer, whose unique blend of confidence, vision, and sheer determination would make for more interesting reading. But Savage Beauty is, essentially, a coffee table book, and I’ve always found those to be much more forward about their viewpoints.

After an introduction and biography, the book turns to gorgeous photos of the pieces in the exhibition. Frustratingly, the pieces are only identified at the end of the book, despite the exhibition’s focus on McQueen’s development over time as a designer. They give a haunting effect nonetheless, photographed in a sterile room on artfully damaged mannequins with disturbingly real feet.

But, at the end of the day, can the art of McQueen’s designs be expressed solely in photographs? (I suppose this is a question that can be posed to any book playing companion to a museum exhibition. It’s a souvenir, not the thing itself.) A garment is, after all, a three dimensional object. It’s meant to be seen in motion, preferably in one of McQueen’s spectacular fashion shows. His 2001 razor-clam shell dress looks as stunning and ferocious as anything the hard femme self of my dreams would arm herself in, but the sound must have been something else entirely.

Still, I got what I wanted, which was to gaze adoringly at McQueen’s body of work. Adoringly, but not uncritically. It’s a little hard to take McQueen’s word that Highland Rape, the Scottish-inspired collection that put his name on the map, is only about the metaphorical rape of Scotland when he’s writing the story on the bodies of women. Of course, that’s a question that can be posed to the fashion industry as a whole and not just McQueen.

Bottom line: Savage Beauty is a gorgeous book; the exhibition must have been even more so. If you’d like.

I borrowed this book from my roommate.

5 thoughts on “Review: Savage Beauty

  1. High fashion is very very far from my brain, but I did hear wonderful things about this exhibition when it was on. My sister and I went to it, actually, but the lines were insane, and we ended up skipping that and looking at all the Babylonian stuff instead. Babylon had a lot of cool things.

    • Feared. Your syntax suggests that McQueen is dressing these women at their own behest, but it’s the opposite way around: McQueen is expressing himself through these dressed female bodies. Remember, the bulk of the work represented here are his runway shows, not his ready-to-wear lines. More art, less garment, although it is, of course, about what can be done and said with the garment and how it is worn by a person. It’s a different space than dressing for your day, even if you happen to be one of the rarified elite who can spend thousands and thousands of dollars on McQueen garments.

  2. I’m obsessed with McQueen. His designs were out of this world. And I love that one of his muses was a full-figured woman, Beth Ditto. Which is not to say he was entirely body-positive as a designer, but I like that he was imaginative to consider bodies beyond the “ideal,” unlike some other designers of his caliber.

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