McQueen did revel in his ability to shock and confront his audience, but he was also aiming for something more. About one runway show involving a two-way mirror (recreated to great effect here) he said, that "the idea was to turn people's faces on themselves . . . to make them think: Am I actually as good as what I'm looking at?" His desire to use fashion to provoke people into deeper thought regarding the nature of beauty and wealth and power was what set him apart from the Vera Wangs and Giorgio Armanis of the fashion world.
The moments of the Met show that are most arresting occur with the pieces that feel the most personal. "La Dame Bleu," a spiraled, balsa-wood skirt with a span of at least a few feet, hangs on a mannequin rotating slowly to the sound of melancholy strings. The ballerina effect is helped by the spotlight that shines through the piece's patterned holes to create a twinkling lacework on the floor. The mannequin's mask is almost dainty, wrapped like a silken bandage around its face. Watching it spin alongside the other works — a metal spine meant as outerwear, enough leather to outfit a fetish party, silver armor à la Joan of Arc — you sense a vulnerability and sadness filtering through the artist's shell, the endlessly costumed power plays. It's not difficult to see McQueen himself in the figure of the moving model — tender faced, but unable, like someone in his balsa-wood skirt, to keep the viewer anywhere but at arm's length, a royal woman trapped by the nature of her social position in an enormous, isolating gown.
History — and particularly history's most tragic female figures —was of particular interest to McQueen, and the Victorian-era struggle between the "animal" and the mannered were clearly a tension that inspired him. Most of his pieces refer to or incorporate the organic — jellyfish swirls, pony skin, impala horns — when not verging into a neo-goth fascination with lace and corsets and, or course, death. One piece from his Widows of Culloden runway show (autumn/winter 2006-07) merges both: a ballgown, dominant and stifling, is worn by a mannequin crowned with antlers that pierce through a canopy of lace, framing the faceless model in a veil. The beast and the lady here are gloriously made one.
If any part of the exhibition serves as a true memorial to McQueen, it is found not in the bondage wear or flashy costumes or even in the gorgeous handiwork of his more elaborate pieces, but in an installation fashioned by the man himself for a 2006 runway show. In a quiet center gallery, a haunting cello refrain plays. The room is dark but for an opaque floor-to-ceiling cube at its heart. The crowds crouch down a foot or two to peer through a lit strip of glass that allows them a glimpse inside the cube, their faces illuminated, quiet as rapt children. Inside, a glass pyramid frames a small, spinning hologram of an ethereal Kate Moss in a billowing, white organza gown.
>> SLIDESHOW: "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art <<