Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 13, 2011

Savage Beauty: the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the Met

Filed under: fashion — louisproyect @ 5:37 pm

Always looking for an opportunity to disassociate myself from a herd mentality on the left, I have found occasion in the past to write about haute couture designers, including Karl Lagerfeld, Valentino Garavani, and the Project Runway veterans Austin and Santino, who were featured in a Bravo series last year about designing fancy gowns for women in the boondocks who drove trucks, worked in construction, etc.

From time to time, I get complaints from people who read my blog about my failure to address burning issues of the day like the trade union struggles in Madison. I always defend myself by saying that I am not trying to compete with Znet or Counterpunch. I write about what interests me, even if that opens me up to the charge that I am an intellectual dilettante. Or maybe I concur with Karl Marx who concurred in turn with the Roman playwright Terence’s dictum “Nothing human is alien to me.” (Nihil humani a me alienum puto.) After spending 11 years in a disciplined Marxist-Leninist group that functioned more or less like the Borg in Star Trek, I made up my mind after resigning that I would follow my own path wherever it might lead, including a visit to the Metropolitan Museum yesterday to see “Savage Beauty”, an exhibition of the work of Alexander McQueen, the high fashion designer who killed himself in February 2010, a month before his fortieth birthday.

On the occasion of McQueen’s untimely death, I posted a NY Times obit to the Marxism mailing list that included these paragraphs:

In March 1995, at his most controversial, Mr. McQueen dedicated his fall collection to “the highland rape,” a pointed statement about the ravaging of Scotland by England. The models appeared to be brutalized, wearing lacy dresses with hems and bodices ripped open, their hair tangled and their eyes blanked out with opaque contact lenses. This had come on the heels of a spring collection that, paradoxically, was full of precisely tailored suits and crisp shirts.

He was called an enfant terrible and the hooligan of English fashion. The monstrous, sometimes sadistic, styling of his collections became a hallmark, as when he showed models wearing horns on their shoulders. A collection in 2000 was shown on models with their heads bandaged, stumbling inside a large glass-walled room with the audience on the outside as if its members were looking into a mental ward. But many of these motifs were actually based on historic scenes, from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch to the films of Stanley Kubrick. Mr. McQueen once said he had sewn locks of human hair into his jackets as a nod to Jack the Ripper.

Well, call me a dilettante but how in the world would I turn down the opportunity to see the clothing described above with my own eyes?

McQueen was in the news lately when it was revealed that Kate Middleton would be wearing an Alexander McQueen wedding dress. As it turns out, the dress was actually designed by Sarah Burton who was the head designer at the firm founded by McQueen. That being said, it was likely that McQueen would have worked on such a gown if he had been alive. Despite his outsider posture, he understood that his ambitions were inextricably linked to the upper class that he so detested.

That same contradiction exists within the Metropolitan as well. The curators were obviously sympathetic to McQueen’s rebellious nature even though the board of trustees at the Met typifies the tastes of American blueblood society, including the Anglophilia that prevails at PBS television as well. Despite this, the curators did not mince words:

“The reason I’m patriotic about Scotland is because I think it’s been dealt a really hard hand. It’s marketed the world over as . . . haggis . . . bagpipes. But no one ever puts anything back into it.”

—Alexander McQueen

McQueen’s collections were fashioned around elaborate narratives that are profoundly autobiographical, often reflecting his Scottish heritage. Indeed, when he was asked what his Scottish roots meant to him, he replied, “Everything.” McQueen’s national pride is most evident in the collections Highland Rape (autumn/winter 1995–96) and Widows of Culloden (autumn/winter 2006–7). Both explore Scotland’s turbulent political history. Highland Rape was based on the eighteenth-century Jacobite Risings and the nineteenth-century Highland Clearances, and was the first collection to introduce McQueen tartan. Shown on semi-naked, blood-spattered models that staggered down a runway strewn with heather and bracken, the clothes were intended to counter romantic images of Scotland. In contrast, Widows of Culloden, which was based on the final battle of the Jacobite Risings, was more wistful, featuring exaggerated silhouettes inspired by the 1880s. McQueen’s message, however, remained defiantly political: “What the British did there was nothing short of genocide.” Despite these heartfelt declarations of his Scottish national identity, McQueen felt intensely connected to England, especially London. “London’s where I was brought up. It’s where my heart is and where I get my inspiration,” he said. His deep interest in the history of England was most apparent perhaps in The Girl Who Lived in the Tree (autumn/winter 2008–9), a dreamy quixotic fairy tale inspired by an elm tree in the garden of McQueen’s country home near Fairlight Cove in East Sussex. Influenced by the British Empire, it was one of McQueen’s most romantically nationalistic collections, albeit heavily tinged with irony and pastiche.

If you are inclined to see “Savage Beauty”, my suggestion is to go early in the morning and on a weekday unless you are willing to put up with a half-hour wait on line. I am not quite sure why this is such a hot ticket right now but you will get the most out of the show if you are not forced to compete with other attendees for a unblocked view of the clothing on display.

Like Lady Gaga, Alexander McQueen understood that a career in the arts could be advanced by being outrageous. One might be sure that he would have appreciated her showing up at a Grammy show in a meat dress, a move obviously indebted to the McQueen esthetic.

For most of the past century, avant-garde art, including some haute couture designs, has proceeded on the basis that we are in a period marked by decadence. As you walk your way through the McQueen exhibit, you feel as if you have walked into a Poe short story. The dominant colors are black and gray, relieved mostly by the colors of artwork that have been integrated into a dress or a gown. In one jacket, you see an image drawn from “The Thief to the Left of Christ” by Robert Campin, a fifteenth century artist. In another item, you see elements of a Hieronymus Bosch painting of tormented sinners. This is hardly the sort of garment you would see at a cocktail party in the Hamptons, needless to say.

In fact, most of the clothing on display challenges conventional understandings of what constitutes haute couture. Platform shoes have impossibly high heels that threaten to topple anybody wearing them. Dresses made of black leather look like the sort of thing you’d find in an S&M boutique even if they incorporate McQueen’s ravishing sense of style.

This mixture of beauty and decay is what might be expected from a social system that is on its last legs. The artist cannot help but understand that art is resting on rotten foundations, just as was the case in Edgar Allen Poe’s “Fall of the House of Ushers”. In the 17th century the Dutch masters were content to represent the burghers as benign figures, but in the 20th century onwards—after two world wars, countless colonial wars and the threat of nuclear annihilation—it is impossible not to notice the rot all around you, starting from the heads of society: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Barack Obama, David Cameron, et al. In such circumstances, Lady Gaga’s meat dress and Alexander McQueen’s “savage beauty” make perfect sense.


  1. Really good review.

    In my world I have room both for Wisconsin public workers, and some fashion decadence.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — June 13, 2011 @ 11:07 pm

  2. Lou,

    My mother, who was very beautiful, became a model for Vogue in France after fleeing her violent husband in the mid 1950s. Later on, she worked for Nina Ricci and other famous brands. By the early 1970s I began to think (and believe) that that social system was on its last legs — no more Hermes ties, Rolex watches, handmade suits — all of which I experienced during that time…

    My mother is now in a luxury nursing home in Toulouse, France. Rolexes, Hermes ties, handmade suits are booming businesses. My gorgeous nieces (six of them) are all following the social system. My younger brother, who is a wealthy courtier in champagne, and with whom I got back in touch in the wake of my father’s death early April of this year, just sent me and my dear Jan 24 bottles of Brut Veuve Clicquot (upon my asking, mind you) for the occasion of Jan’s 50th birthday.

    I happen to love them…

    But, tell me when the last legs of the social system will take place… (You do read the NYT, don’t you?) It won’t, IMHO, till the ecological mayhem, if it occurs, takes over,

    1789, (forget about the American Revolution which was essentially about property rights), 1848, 1917, etc., the last legs of the social system is no where to be found.

    Enjoy decadence.

    Wonderful entry, BTW…

    Swans Commentary

    Comment by Gilles d'Aymery — June 14, 2011 @ 12:59 am

  3. It’s a ridiculous strain of peasant morality that causes persons of socialist inclination to turn their red noses up at reality. They should learn there is no “socialist God” in the heavens watching them and writing down everything they do. The import of Marxism is that society moves through the development of vast impersonal forces which care not an iota about individual creatures. Whether Louis writes about the crushing of workers in Wisconsin or the doings of artists in high capitalist society makes no difference to the universe. If Marx was right, capitalism will destroy itself, but it won’t stop to ask if Louis wrote about high fashion in Paris and New York. It’s this stupid individualism that makes people think that their every little action must be predicated on the cause. Foolishness. I suspect the problem is that most persons are not philosophers and are not “up” on the way thought works.

    Of course I agree with you, Louis.. there is nothing that is not of interest.

    Comment by Jasper Stoodly — June 17, 2011 @ 12:06 am

  4. Louis Under Liberty’s Masterful Shadow

    The Borg evolved during the course of their time on Star Trek and became rather interesting. Which is more than I can say for most hipsters. And more than I can say for sixty one year old hipsters. Especially sixty one year old hipsters who believe they’re the only Leftist bloggers with varied interests. All in all, the latest on Wisconsin IS a hell of a lot MORE interesting than a whiff of politics among high fashion designers. Anyway, this is old ground, including the fact that the enemy depends on you babbling to yourself and your coterie…
    “To-morrow the rediscovery of romantic love,
    the photographing of ravens; all the fun under
    Liberty’s masterful shadow;
    To-morrow the hour of the pageant-master and the musician,

    The beautiful roar of the chorus under the dome;
    To-morrow the exchanging of tips on the breeding of terriers,
    The eager election of chairmen
    By the sudden forest of hands. But to-day the struggle.

    To-morrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
    The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
    To-morrow the bicycle races
    Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But to-day the struggle.

    To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
    The consious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;
    To-day the expending of powers
    On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.

    To-day the makeshift consolations: the shared cigarette,
    The cards in the candlelit barn, and the scraping concert,
    The masculine jokes; to-day the
    Fumbled and unsatisfactory embrace before hurting.

    The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
    We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
    History to the defeated
    May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.”

    — Auden, excerpt from “Spain, 1937”

    Comment by Jeff — June 17, 2011 @ 10:09 pm

  5. Especially sixty one year old hipsters who believe they’re the only Leftist bloggers with varied interests.

    Sigh. I only wish I was 61 again.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 17, 2011 @ 10:14 pm

  6. excellent article; heres to hoping you remain a ‘dilettante’

    Comment by tony mckenna — June 19, 2011 @ 12:36 pm

  7. Thanks for posting that wonderful video Louis. It cast more light and the apparent darkness of McQueen’s work. This is truly an epic exhibit.

    Comment by Glenwood NYC — June 20, 2011 @ 3:47 pm

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