Reading Alexander McQueen with my kid

I find beauty in the grotesque. Like most artists I have to force people to look at things.

– Alexander McQueen

Yesterday I was lucky enough to get the Alexander McQueen retrospective Savage Beauty from the library. (We have an awesome system in Orange County where you can order books online and have them delivered to your door for free.) The book is tall and heavy. No wonder coffee table books are meant for the coffee table, they’re almost impossible to prop up on one’s tummy in bed!

My kid and I did our valiant best, however, and we lay next to each other and paged through the book.

I’ve always loved fashion. When I was in high school, I’d forge notes from my father to get me out of gym class, and head across the street to the University of Hawaii library. I’d sit in the fashion magazine section and pour through carefully preserved copies of old Vogue. I learned so much from those hours, about Yves St. Laurent and Pucci and Halston and and a host of designers from the 40s – 80s. All of this is still in the back of my head, as it is for so many secret guilty fashion-o-philes, ready to emerge at the drop of a chapeau.

The book posited that McQueen’s clothing was not ephemeral, that the designs were based on radical theories of art. The full-page photos were interspersed by the words of McQueen, and I admit that Alba and I skipped the wordier introduction and conclusion.

She read the quotations to me, stumbling over a word or two.

“What does ‘Atelier’ mean? And ‘Givenchy’?”

“An ‘atelier’ is a fashion workshop where a bunch of people work on the designs of a master designer, so that they can learn and branch out into their own work. Your grandmother Rene worked in the Bergdorf Goodman atelier in the 1930s, learning to cut and sew so that she could make her own art. Givenchy is the name of an old and famous French fashion house where McQueen worked in the atelier.”


Alba often made me pause, pointing at a picture and giving her considered opinion.

“I want to wear that one,” she said, thoughtfully staring at an irridescent one based on the dream that humans will someday be forced by environmental conditions to return to the sea.

“It costs as much as our mortgage downpayment, child,” I said.

“OK, now THAT is overpriced,” she said.

“But it’s artwork, so it’s more than just something to wear.”

And then, a little later, “Mama, I don’t think I’ll ever be wearing that one!”

Alba pointed to an item that revealed much more than it hid. It’s true — for us bourgeoisie folk, ‘clothing’ is the functional stuff that we put on to get through our day. Works of art for the body are out of our means and morality, and I’d get stuck in prison if I allowed my child to go to school with her tush hanging out. And so it goes, the divide between art and function. I think we’ll have to let couture remain art, inaccessible to our world except as inspiration. (Sad, right?)

The book was full of beauty and philosophy. I really loved McQueen’s interest in clothing as an artform that evokes strong emotion. He wanted people to vomit from his clothing or fall madly in love with it, but not be bored.

The clothing that made me FEEL the most were based on ancient Eastern designs — shoes like Chinese slippers, headpieces reminiscent of historic Japan, silk-embroidered fabric. I’m glad that his words were there to guide me, because my first reaction was, “HEY! That’s not your culture!” In the words of McQueen: “I want to be honest about the world that we live in, and sometimes my political persuasions came through in my work. Fashion can be really racist. Looking at the clothes of other cultures as costumes. That’s mundane and its old hat. Lets break down some barriers.”

Okay, sold.

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