With all the talk about Alexander McQueen and the Sarah Burton for McQueen dress worn by Kate Middleton on her wedding day to Prince William, it is not surprising that the spectacular Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute Gala in New York City celebrating the life and work of the late designer would gather such publicity. As one of the most anticipated exhibitions of the summer (I included it on my list of exhibitions to see in 2011), Alexander McQueen, Savage Beauty is described in the press release accompanying the show as expanding what is claimed as “our understanding of fashion beyond utility to a conceptual expression of culture, politics, and identity.”
All of this now seems terribly ironic as McQueen himself was known in his earlier days as the “l’enfant terrible” of the fashion world. Here was a designer whose shock tactics stunned more traditional designers, and a man who was closely associated with the aesthetic vision of a still more controversial Lady Gaga (who has made McQueen’s designs infamous). Indeed, when McQueen committed suicide only last year at the age of 40, it had only been a few short years since his designs had found a kind of mainstream appeal. Fast forward to this past week and the name McQueen is on the lips of millions of everyday people who watched the Royal Wedding from around the world.
Interestingly enough, an attempt to maintain McQueen’s ties to his avant-garde status and more radically “artistic” designs occurred this past week when the luxury NYC department store Barney’s invited Daphne Guinness to perform a six week “installation” that included her prepping and dressing for the McQueen gala (in a McQueen design of course) in their highly visible window display on Madison Avenue (see image at top of post). Guinness, who is perhaps better known as the heiress of the famous Irish family who makes Guinness beer, is a self-described artist and a collector of haute couture. Her decision to partner with Barney’s and utilize the storefront to showcase and wear key pieces from her personal collection was inspired as a way to provoke conversation about one of the taboo topics in the art world—accepting fashion as art. In particular, Guinness has made a name for herself in recent years by declaring her interest in fashion and clothing as one continuous work of performance art inspired by the likes of McQueen. In a Harper’s Bazaar interview, Guinness explained her interest in fashion as a parallel to her interest in art: "I treat clothing or a piece of jewelry like it was a piece of art," she says, "even though people who collect clothes get a bad rap because they're told it's all vanity." All of this has proven deeply controversial as commentators scramble to argue just why clothing cannot be seen as art.
Still, the curator of the McQueen retrospective, Andrew Bolton, vehemently defends the work of the designer as art, and supports the efforts of people like Guinness to activate an art-minded sensibility around his work: “Alexander McQueen was best known for his astonishing and extravagant runway presentations, which were given dramatic scenarios and narrative structures that suggested avant-garde installation and performance art," said Bolton in the Met’s press release, “His fashions were an outlet for his emotions, an expression of the deepest, often darkest, aspects of his imagination. He was a true romantic in the Byronic sense of the word – he channeled the sublime." For her part, Guinness also defends her position in a NY Times article and challenges people to think differently about the work of designers like McQueen: “ “There’s been this discussion for longer than I’ve been alive that fashion is not art,” she said. “My feeling is that this is another piece of evidence that, yes, there is a commercial side to fashion that is needed, but there are these crossover moments that do become art.”
A YouTube clip of Guinness's performance from this past week:
Miller, Sanda. "Fashion as Art; is Fashion Art?." Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture11.1 (2007): 25-40.
Taylor, Melissa. "Culture Transition: Fashion's Cultural Dialogue between Commerce and Art." Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture 9.4 (2005): 445-459.