In that rarefied, and manufactured world that surrounded Alexander McQueen during his terribly short life, he was careful to cultivate his intellectual yearnings, as well as his creative ambitions. In “Savage Beauty,” we can see that McQueen had more to work with than the average designer’s pea’s worth of a brain, his brilliant intellect embellishing the sculpted work more than all the blood-red beadwork, gold thread, and metallic sequins in the world. For McQueen, design aesthetics and fashion were deeply imbedded within the political and the historical (and vice versa), a vision that allowed him to see “beyond clothing’s physical constraints to its ideational and ideological possibilities”.

When he regarded the ‘African’ as many designers do, McQueen invoked the Romantic to exoticise and frame the African as ‘primitive’ in the same old problematic manner: “What I do is look at the ancient African tribes, and the way they dress. The rituals of how they dress…there’s a lot of tribalism in the collections.” In It’s a Jungle Out There (autumn/winter 1997–98), which was “inspired by the Thomson’s gazelle” (“the poor critter” at the bottom of Africa’s food chain) there’s a lot of brown skin, gazelle horns, and miniature crocodile and vulture skulls. We are assured that “all were by-products”—the animals were killed for meat, and not solely for their skin or fur.

Yet, McQueen famously said that his collection Eshu (autumn/winter 2000–2001) “was a reaction to designers romanticizing ethnic dressing, like a Masai-inspired dress made of materials the Masai could never afford” (like those we’ve mocked in previous posts—see Armani, who was suddenly “inspired” by the Touareg). And he once designed an infamous latex dress embroidered with locusts: a “statement on famine.” This was no empty gesture: the same modernity that promised to sanitise the world unleashed destruction and misery on swathes of people, while insulating itSelf from suffering.

His work has been described as postmodern reconstitutions of the Romantic notions surrounding the Sublime—in which the artist is able to evoke and signify competing emotions of wonder, terror, incredulity and revulsion. But McQueen also juxtaposed such philosophical abstractions with the concrete symbols of nationalism, and the continued fascination of modern nations/nationals with primitivism and naturalism.

In Eshu—“inspired” by the Yoruba people and the synonymous deity—the “tribal details” of horsehair, skin, and skull are tailored so precisely with beadwork and luxurious fabrics that the locations on which the two meet are impossible to critique. So surgically exact are the constructions that the inherent primitivism referenced in these pieces enters the technological and modern in weirdly seamless ways. The coat of black synthetic hair and a dress of brown horsehair embroidered with yellow glass beads and others in the It’s a Jungle collection meditate on the interchanges between the modern and primitive, and the dynamics of power between prey and predator, haves and have-nots, as might a Nollywood film.

McQueen’s ability to highlight the body and design as sites of contravention are obvious in the first dress that confronts the galloping herd of museum-goers: a gleaming, bleeding-red, one shoulder dress that calls attention to how brilliantly our diseases helped dress the fame of many a celebrity. The upper part is a cascade of dyed-red glass microscope slides; the bottom, a plumage of billowing red ostrich feathers. Here, sewn together, hangs our primitive, ebullient past, and the technologically precise present, rapier sharp in its diagnosis of our collective illness. Walking in to that dark space, all I could think of was how those glass slides were smeared in blood, carrying the harbingers of our destruction. What McQueen does, in coupling these glass rectangles with the delicacy of fine ostrich feathers, is to make us question the supremacy of instruments that attempt to define, isolate, and contain our futures within their 90-degree angles.

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, is currently showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Exhibition Hall, second floor. Free with Museum admission (you pay what you can at the Met!).