There are plenty of awe-inspiring moments in the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the V&A in London, but only one that almost brought me to tears. About halfway through, after ogling the “Cabinet of Curiosities”—a room filled floor to ceiling with astounding catwalk showpieces and elaborate accessories—you move to the next darkened room, and are faced with a single dress.
Spot-lit against a black wall the dress is a tumbling ruffle of white silk organza. An asymmetrical drape across one shoulder, and another around the waist, give way to layers upon layers of feather-soft frills, circling to the ground and ending in a froth of fabric at the feet. I wanted to touch it, but its silent perfection prevented me. Behind the wall is a film of the dress, which was the finale for McQueen’s AW06 show, “The Widows of Culloden”. But this isn’t a “film” as we know it; it is a “Pepper’s ghost”—an illusion created with projectors and mirrors that glimmers to life inside a glass case. Victorians believed the technique called real ghosts back from the grave. To modern eyes it’s a curious vision that is somehow more real than a hologram, but less real than a digital projection.
In the film, a model wearing the dress floats above the catwalk, slowly turning in a spectral dance to the plaintive violin solo from “Schindler’s List”. The model is Kate Moss, although it need not be. The dress, with its ruffles soporifically swaying in the breeze of a wind machine, alternately envelops her and ripples away. She is ethereal, beautiful and disarming. It’s a breathtaking two minutes of melancholy romance—the theme which suffused that season’s collection.
“Savage Beauty” is an emotional show, thrumming with juxtapositions. McQueen always wrested his ideas from personal experience, recreating his inner conflict in designs that grapple with darkness and light, innocence and malevolence, wonder and terror. He wanted his designs to break the rules and transcend trends. Fashion, he believed, is a form of escapism. A quote from McQueen: “There is no going back for me now. I’m going to take you on journeys you’ve never dreamed were possible.” For those two minutes, I was carried away.
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty V&A, London, March 14th until August 2nd