What do Alexander McQueen, Vincent Van Gogh and Picasso share? At first glance, not a lot. But this summer they have become unexpectedly linked. For the past three months, the mighty Metropolitan Museum in New York has been running a retrospective exhibition of the work of McQueen, the late British fashion designer. When this show first opened, on May 4, the Met thought it would be quite a low-key affair. Although McQueen was made a CBE and won four British fashion awards in his lifetime he was never a household name in the US, partly because his fantastic couture designs were almost impossible to wear.
The collection on offer at the Met right now, for example, features frocks made from dead flowers and pheasant feathers, antlers poking through lace, clutches with skull motifs, pictures of bare-breasted women in ripped lace, and a display called “Highland Rape”. Ralph Lauren, this is not. Nor, for that matter, is it anything like the Met’s last big costume show, which featured Chanel.
To the astonishment of the Met, when those antlers went on display in May, the McQueen show produced the busiest opening day in the museum’s history. It has since attracted more than 500,000 people. Indeed, such is the (largely) word-of-mouth buzz that the Met has now extended the run and it is also opening the gallery on Mondays, for visitors willing to shell out $50 for the privilege. (When I visited last Monday there was a huge queue of people standing patiently in the rain to do just this.) Such crowds are normally only seen at exhibitions of Picasso or Van Gogh.
Why? A cynic might blame it on Kate Middleton. When she got married this spring, she wore a dress designed by the fashion house that McQueen founded (albeit one at the very sober end of its range, ie no antlers or skulls). The Grim Reaper is another factor. Last year, McQueen hanged himself, at the age of 40, in his Mayfair flat, shortly after unveiling a collection called Atlantis (theme: mankind is “devolving”, not “evolving”, back into the sea, and so must wear iridescent fish-style clothes).
As the furore around the death of Amy Winehouse shows, an untimely end can give a potent boost to somebody’s marketability, even – or especially – in a western society that normally has a cultural aversion to discussing death. In the case of McQueen, his tragic demise has almost certainly lengthened the queues.
A third reason behind this surprise success lies with the exhibition’s organiser Andrew Bolton, a British anthropologist turned museum curator. Bolton initially did academic work studying the symbolism of clothing in Thailand. Like most anthropologists, he is convinced that analysing costumes offers a powerful key to understanding society. Most people working in the fashion world would agree, insisting that clothes send messages about status, identity and so on. Hence their appeal.
But what is fascinating about McQueen is that the clothes do not simply send obvious messages; they also try to subvert cultural norms in a way that leaves Bolton likening the role of the designer in western culture to that of a shaman in other societies. Across the world, societies operate with systems of classification. However, most also have places where this classification system is deliberately “turned upside down”, for a period of time or in a particular place, usually on the margins of the calendar or group (or, as the anthropologist Victor Turner used to say, in a “liminal” space). Think of all those rituals – such as hen nights – designed to allow people to “let off steam” in western society. What McQueen was essentially doing with clothes was cutting across cultural boundaries and reordering our ideas – but in a safe, liminal space. This explains the raw, mesmerising appeal of his work. Seeing the work of someone “crazy” can make the observer feel cheerfully sane.
That does not mean that everyone likes it. At the museum last week, I heard a group of tourists loudly lament that “this stuff is just nuts”. (They were staring at McQueen’s “Armadillo” shoes, which are a foot high, shaped like a hoof.) Nor is it easy to define where this shaman fits in. Traditionally, the Met has run its “costume” department separately from “craft”, or “art”. Bolton, however, blends these three ideas together.
Even if McQueen is hard to define, what is crystal clear is that shamans sell. All those people are spending $50 to queue in the rain or humid New York heat. Somehow I find that oddly reassuring. If nothing else, it is a potent reminder that “art” can retain its power to surprise. Even in a jaded cyber age, and when it is not usually considered art at all.
For our feature on the designer’s remarkable archive go to www.ft.com/alexandermcqueen