The devil is in the details, as they say. In Lee Alexander McQueen: Mind Mythos Muse at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the angels are, too. Opening with fragmented sculptures of seraphim next to a pair of silvery caryatid heels from the designer’s final collection, the show’s — and McQueen’s — juxtaposition of the macabre and the sublime is established from the start.
A prominent British fashion designer in the 1990s and 2000s, Lee Alexander McQueen’s meteoric fashion career was spurred by his theatrical, boundary-pushing runway shows and magpie-like approach to style. He studied tailoring and fashion design before starting his own label and becoming chief designer at Givenchy, and ended his life by suicide in 2010 at the age of 40. The LACMA show capitalizes on McQueen’s wealth of stories and stylistic influences, aiming to explore the designer’s historical inspirations by contextualizing his works among the art that inspired it.
It’s a fascinating approach, as history is always being retold, repurposed, reframed, and refashioned. What better way to examine this impulse than by looking at works drawing on similar stories and imagery, centuries apart? The show provides varying degrees of this analysis across its four sections: Mythos, Fashioned Narratives, Evolution and Existence, and Technique and Innovation.
Mythos touches on the influences of Greco-Roman myth, Christian iconography, and European Orientalism. The nightmarish landscape of Jan Mandijn’s c. 1550 “St. Christopher and the Christ Child” is placed next to a McQueen dress that features portions of Hieronymus Bosch’s fantastical works. A casual glance tells you they are visually related, but the text to explain that Mandijn’s work followed Bosch, or even that McQueen did, is hidden behind a QR code. This was a frustration throughout the exhibition, which provides only brief introductory texts and identifying labels on the walls; any rigorous analysis requires a sharp eye and a smartphone camera to find. As much as McQueen’s clothes tell their own stories, the point of an exhibition is to contextualize his takes, too. For those who want to revel in the visual effect of a trip down the runway, it’s a great layout — but it requires extra effort for those who want more of the story. Both physical and digital options would accommodate all forms of access.
The second section delves into McQueen’s explicit retellings of history, including the Salem witch trials in America, Scottish Highland raids (a collection that appeared in a controversially violent runway show), British imperialism, and Asian trade routes. Drawing from a wide range of personal influences, McQueen deconstructed myths and facts and refashioned them into his desired story — creating a characteristic combination of hard-edged iconoclasm and glamorous romanticism. McQueen’s “punk history” interpretations, as one friend put it, come across strongest in this section. Ernst Barlach’s moody 1920s woodcuts “Witches” and “Lilith” are a stunning pairing with McQueen’s silver and black beaded 1930s-esque vamp dresses, each art form illustrating the ways women have been demonized in dramatic black and white. It would be nice to see more context for “The Girl Who Lived in the Tree” (2008/9): an Indian patka and early 19th-century English engraving of “A Lady of Hindoostan” are genteelly interspersed between McQueen’s and 19th-century dresses, but the tensions of colonial rule and exchange here seem softened into McQueen’s fairytale rather than interrogated.
The exhibit does nicely visualize how textile patterns are adapted across time and place through trade. For example, a Japanese kesaor Buddhist priest’s mantle, is installed above a McQueen dress (“Scanners,” 2003-4) that mirrors its interlocking pattern, and in turn draws on the influence of Tibetan kati rimo brocade that is echoed in the trunk beside it.
Another standout section on McQueen’s 2000 collection “Eye” features an embroidered liturgical veil and traditional headdress with his coin-lined, Turkish-inspired outfit. Opposite them are Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s c. 1790 “Portrait of a Lady in Turkish Fancy Dress,” depicting the 19th-century European trend for exoticizing ‘turquerie’ that McQueen’s work played into, and Youssef Nabil’s contemporary photograph of Natacha Atlas, which aims to complicate and challenge the history of this fetishizing gaze. This excellent confluence made me wish for more space to explore this concentrated interplay of histories and perspectives.
Though slightly narrow at points, the exhibit’s layout of angular, runway-like corridors creates exquisite tableaux and lines of sight between its dividing pillars. Like McQueen’s work, it can rise to gorgeous heights — like catching the echo of a gown’s embroidered detail in a photograph of a flock of birds across the room — or create intentionally discordant effects. Evolution and Existence feeds on this chaotic aspect of the designer’s work, highlighting some of his film-inspired collections with video clips and mannequins frozen in forward motion. These are put in conversation with Barlach’s skeletal “Dance of Death” (1924) to evoke the tradition of the danse macabre.
The largest, final room is given to tailoring and construction. It illustrates how McQueen drew inspiration from historic styles, including fitted leather doublets inspired by Elizabethan fashions and an intricate, high-collared gown that is reminiscent of the starched ruff and gold embroidery of a c. 1616 portrait of King Louis XIII. While a few historic garments are intermixed with McQueen’s, this section mostly revels in his technical finesse. Direct artistic influences are included as well, including Wanda Wulz’s iconic 1932 photograph “Io + Gatto” that McQueen restyled as a laser-cut back to a dress. With a surfeit of great examples, the section proves a bit more of a catch-all than a cohesive story of its own.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s blockbuster 2011 exhibition Savage Beauty classified McQueen in the Romantic tradition. His dramatic fashions and even biography lent themselves to that narrative, but there is more to McQueen’s work than a shock of emotion. Happily, LACMA has avoided the impulse to define McQueen’s restless, questing talent by one genre or period. Instead, the show features McQueen as a standout designer who interpreted global influences through his idiosyncratic perspective. Through the medium of fashion, he spun history into fantasy. And what fantasies they were.
Lee Alexander McQueen: Mind Mythos Muse Continues at LACMA (5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Mid-Wilshire, Los Angeles) through October 9. The exhibition was organized by the museum.