6.20.2011

McQueen for a Day



When I was in New York last week, I was happy to be able to make some time to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Savage Beauty exhibit, which explored the work of Alexander McQueen. The retrospective has been so popular that I was encouraged to arrive at the museum before opening in order to get in line.

I got there about an hour early (I am not a subway master yet and wanted to be on the safe side) and enjoyed my morning on the steps (a la Blair Waldorf and Serena van der Woodsen). As promised, a line began to form. It grew and grew and grew until it stretched down the steps and along the sidewalk, prompting museum staff to establish a second line--which, instead of stemming the line, caused the waiting throng of people to seemingly double.

The exhibit itself was fascinating. While it draws from just a snippet of McQueen's work, it seeks to explore the overarching themes and concerns of his designs. It moves essentially chronologically to give visitors a sense of the change in his work over time. For this reason, beginning with selections from his thesis collection, which featured exquisitely tailored pieces on rolling dress forms, situates the viewer in what might become his most conventional take on fashion.

The museum's website for the show features some really wonderful photograph excerpts as well as the corresponding audio tour bits. You can also watch narrated video's of McQueen's shows to get an idea of how he turned the objective viewing of his work into a highly charged, dramatic experience for the audience.

The critics and even McQueen himself, in the quotations and commentary provided, return again and again to the importance of McQueen's training as a Savile Row tailor. McQueen found the most inspiring part of his design work took place on the model as he fit her into the clothes. Fit was everything, and it's clear throughout the collection that the impeccable marriage of clothing and model are at the heart of his accomplishment.

Although Project Runway has legitimized the purpose of the designer-as-tailor, it still feels like McQueen was of a different breed. In the show, he claims to work by hand, often himself, on the garments because he enjoys it, not because it's some kind of statement on fashion. I think this love is present in the work.

The focus on craft is such a good reminder to me as a poet. Craft isn't sexy because at its most accomplished, it becomes invisible. We strive to keep our seams from showing, to keep our reader from stepping out of the movement of the poem (at least on a first read) and down into the nuts and bolts of its language and structure. If language is our thread, the structure of our poems--as diverse among as the words we choose--are our signature stitches.

2 comments:

  1. I absolutely see this connection between fashion and poetry (there is something so unabashedly performative about both poems and clothing).

    I often think there should be a poetry reality show (although it would infuriate people, huh?)--I would so love to do something like that. Did you see Bravo's "Work of Art" series? I thought it was fascinating how it exposed the "assignment"-ness of art (usually, we don't get to see an artist being given a concept from an external source--we just see the result, and assume some grand inspiration was at work).

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  2. I saw a snippet of Work of Art, oddly, while I was in New York. But I think it holds true of other shows like Project Runway, Top Chef, and the rest of its ilk.

    I totally agree with you on the vanishing of the "assignment." Pamela Painter has a great essay about this in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Flash Fiction. Painter says, essentially, that assignments and self-directed exercises aren't inauthentic because the writer must still wrestle with any number of individual biases and choices in crafting the final work.

    And I think when you look at these creative competition shows, you see it--13 designers asked to craft a garment out cotton muslin alone--and not a one resembles any other. It says a lot about the role both of craft and artistic vision.

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