The two-hour wait is your first clue that "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through August 7) is not your typical blockbuster exhibit. Your second clue is the crowd standing in the exhibit's winding line: a varied assortment of old ladies, tattooed FIT students, semi-bewildered international tourists, suburban dads with babies strapped to their chests, texting teens, and hand-holding couples from the outer boroughs. The line moves slowly through the sedate galleries of oil paintings but the crowd is surprisingly patient, buzzing excitedly as if awaiting an audience with a rock star. The uniformed gallery attendants confer via walkie-talkies with the seriousness of the secret service and the efficiency of air traffic controllers.
>> SLIDESHOW: "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art <<
Once past the last velvet rope and finally in the entry gallery, you'll find exactly what you'd expect from a sadomasochistic gay man with a genius for gorgeous goth irreverence: posed mannequins dramatically lit in Black Swan dresses of layered bird feather, or razor-clam shells, or impossibly beautiful cascades of blood-red medical slides. All the models' heads are outfitted in masks and headpieces, and a note below a set of jackets indicates that they contain clips of McQueen's own hair. As the crowd pushes forward into a third gallery, there are the sounds of howling wolves and wind. The mannequins wear S&M leather masks, their posture defiant and erotic and even watchful, outfitted in poofs of black duck feathers and a red pheasant-feather-and-skull choker — like harbingers of death with fertile, wide hips.
Just as you may be saying to yourself, "So THIS is what all the fuss is about," you round another corner and wormhole into a different world completely: one populated by glittery, dripping red faces, resin horns, balsa-wood wings, a crown of barbed wire snaking down the side of a mannequin's head. It's laid out like a wunderkammer and the whole teeming mass of people just . . . stops. "Keep moving," the guard says, but it's difficult to keep moving when you realize that you are standing in a moment in history, a site in time where a troubled man, a fashion designer, has been crowned, posthumously, an artist; and — perhaps even more profoundly — where fashion, a concept familiar to every clothed body around you, has suddenly and completely become art. Here you are, surrounded on all sides and in low light by artifacts of a beautiful mind and there is no question that it is, indeed, art — beyond art even: you've arrived smackdab in the center of a zeitgeist.
Long before his suicide last year at age 40, McQueen had been fashion's dark horse: in many ways, he was always been seen as an outsider. A working-class Scottish boy from London, hailed as a genius and sometimes dismissed as a provocateur (at one early show, he pulled down his pants and mooned his audience), his runway shows were famous for their spectacle and artistry — whether McQueen sprayed his models with jets of paint or bandaged their heads and had them stumble around behind a two-way mirror. He was interested in fashion as a platform to explore questions of identity, commerce, and death.