It’s hard to imagine that at one time not that along ago, New York was a city awash in fashion, in its own sense of New York style and feeling. Now you walk up Fifth Avenue, and “style” is the Hollister store, the NBA store, H & M, and other dreary corporate dreck-sellers, where the important thing is selling not a look or feeling but the shopping bag that the stuff comes in.
But New York, especially lost gay New York was all about fashion; this sense that you felt fantastic, and sexy, so everything you put on felt that way too—and you could be outrageous with it. One incarnation of this was cranberry red velvet jeans. It seemed that in 1968 they were all over the place. You saw men in them and women in them; they were of a red of such unabashed intensity that it stopped traffic on the street, so walking down New York avenues became like Morse Code: lots of stops and dashes, just looking at this amazing color stretched across the thighs and asses of so many good-looking people. Fashion seer Diana Vreeland once said that the two most stylish periods of American life were the 1920s and the 1960s: she was right. There was this sense of outrage and also just the right amount of money running around—you need money. Fashion needs money, but even more it needs a sense of permission, something that Right-Wing gorgons like Michelle Bachman want to choke the hell out of.
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, still running at the Metropolitan Museum reminded me of this full flowering of youth and excess that is now barely glimpsable. The show, the most popular in the history of the Metropolitan Museum, is both wondrous and sad.
(photo: Alexander McQueen, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)
In case you didn’t know, Alexander McQueen, this Scottish enfant terrible of the British fashion, died a suicide in February of 2010, at the age of 41. Coming from a very working-class, counsel-flats Scottish family, he apprenticed himself fully in the fine art of British bespoke tailoring: in other words, he knew how to make a suit, both for men or women, from the ground up. He was a consummate tailor, and used this skill and knowledge both to reinvent and reinforce the formality of style and explode it. In other words, for clothes to be truly exciting, you have to know they are there. He loved Victorian and Edwardian style and excess, and the corruption of class that went with it. In other words, if you belonged to the class of people who changed clothes four times a day, you had to have a full staff of people to make sure you looked great in them.
This tradition of British tailoring became the backbone of McQueen’s look; he added to it a large does of Orientalism, the romantic desire to capture the East and all of its forbidden eroticism; sadomasochism—McQueen was a full-court leather queen and knew the power of erotic dress; and the romanticism of his own downtrodden Scotland and the history and effect of this country on European culture and the world. Scotland had been a huge force on the European imagination in the nineteenth century; it was the wild, untamed, myth-soaked country. German composers like Felix Mendelssen (“Scottish Symphony”; “The Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave)”); Italian composers like Gaetano Donizetti (Lucia Di Lammermoor) based operas on Scottish themed novels by Sir Walter Scott; and La Sylphide, one of the most popular of all ballet blanc, had men in kilts partnering fairies and sylphs.
McQueen’s show at the Met presents all of these influences and shows his high-speed evolution from a tailoring prodigy to an artist. And he really was an artist; that is the sad, miserable repercussion of his life. What you become aware of in the almost numbing dazzle of this show is that Alexander McQueen was really trapped in the too-small world of fashion, and yet, sadly, was probably not able to leave it—to take his fantastic ideas to another art form, like painting, dance, or writing—where he would have not been under the thumb of aggressive market forces, and might have given himself some relief from the high-pressure, drug-soaked life of the Style Demimonde.
On the other hand, although McQueen was famously, painfully shy (on the show’s accompanying audiophone there’s an account by Sarah Jessica Parker of her accompanying McQueen to a Metropolitan Museum Costume Department Gala, where he was to be honored, and how during a long cab ride up to the Museum they hardly said a word—he was too shy and she was too aware of it), he adored the utter drama of fashion which now does have its own history and mythology, aside from that of being merely the purveyance of clothing. So McQueen is both the worshipper of fashion, especially of fashion being more than simply decoration but a powerful signifier of identity; and also its victim.
I was very lucky to be able to see this fantastic exhibit twice, first in a “private” evening viewing as part of the Met’s Post-Pride Cocktail Party and Reception on Wednesday, July 20, and the next day when I saw it with my partner Hugh, and even in the midst of a fire-sale crowd I was still just shocked by it. I kept wondering why are all these thousands and thousands of people lining up for hours to see this show? Some of them are coming because it’s now famous and they're curious: it’s part of the New York tourist must-see attraction. They came to gawk, titter, imagine how difficult these things that combine perforated leather, clams shells and feathers, must be to wear; gasp at the sky-high armadillo shoes; and leave about the same way they came in, just more tired.
But others allowed themselves to be lost in this very queer story; in its sheer, exquisite deviance—Prospero says about actors in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “We are such things as dreams are made on,” and this show is the total canvas for dreams. I was so moved, so humbled, by Alexander McQueen’s presence, or even more sadly, his non-presence, that I wanted to stay in it. I didn’t want to leave it. It has a natural force—McQueen said that Nature was his greatest inspiration—like being in the presence of some uncontainable aspect of Nature. Something that you cannot take with you, but can only experience: it is ephemeral, but still lies in your brain, triggered by a touch, a sight, or feeling. This show changes the way you look at reality, and in doing so becomes very real. I felt worn out looking at it, and I could only imagine how worn out Alexander McQueen must have been producing all of these gowns, accessories, ideas, extravagances, devices and effects. I am sad that you are gone, Lee, but I will remember you.
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty will only be on view until August 7. So hurry to see this.
You can learn more about 3-time IPPY Award winner and gay activist Perry Brass at his website, www.perrybrass.com . You can order his new book The Manly Art of Seduction from Amazon in regular paper format or on Kindle. You can also learn more about his books at SmashWords , the complete Internet marketplace for all things EBooks and otherwise, and on his Author Page at Amazon. The Manly Art of Seduction was recently named a gold-medal winner of an IPPY Award for 2010, from Independent Publisher. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or comments you want to personally direct to him. He will be in Washington, DC on August 6, as part of the OutWrite Book Fair, sponsored by the DC Center. To learn more about the OutWrite Book Fair, go to http://www.thedccenter.org/blog/2011/06/outwrite-lgbt-book-fair-august-6th.html