‘All the world’s a stage’, so goes the famous epithet. Whether or not we are merely players or not is a question which I’ll put to one side for a slightly more existentially themed post, but (to draw upon the wisdom of another literary icon), it’s a truth more or less universally acknowledged that theatre can exist in an array of different arenas. This notion is one which permeates Savage Beauty, the V&A’s much anticipated retrospective of Alexander McQueen’s work and career. Perhaps more than any other designer, McQueen recognised and conveyed the innate theatricality of fashion, transforming the catwalk presentation from sulky sit in to a fully immersive experience- and one which blurred the boundaries between traditionally regimented presentation and a performance art showcase.
McQueen’s visionary approach to presenting his work saw him collaborate with set designers, musicians and video artists to immerse a (sometimes captive) audience in the totality of the world which informed every stitch of a catwalk collection. Crucially, he never saw the clothes which he created as being separate from the final runway show- they were symbiotic, each influencing and guiding the other through to completion- indeed, many of his collaborators recall that without a fixed show concept, he was unable to proceed with the day to day mechanics of putting a collection together. With the high production values and drama of collections such as Voss, The Widows of Culloden and the dance themed Deliverance, it’s no surprise that performance and spectacle have become as synonymous with the McQueen brand as the iconic skull print scarf.
Although the aesthetic of a collection and the visual impact of each expertly constructed piece was a core element of McQueen’s work, he was also fascinated with constructing narratives for collections and exploring the catwalk as an arena for storytelling. Informed by themes (It’s A Jungle Out There), history (Joan) and cinema (It’s Only A Game), his work not only challenged conventional forms of fashion, but also delved beneath pure surface appearance to present a vividly imagined world, with each garment taking centre stage in a procession of pure performative pageantry.
The extravagance, spectacle and unparalleled production values of McQueen’s catwalk presentations were ultimately informed by his fundamental belief that fashion was a form of pure escapism. His vision interpreted the runway as the ultimate stage, where aesthetics and stories converged to create pure moments of poetry in motion, ephemeral experiences which lingered in the mind long after the final fade to black.