Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the V&A

Alexander McQueen

Tucked away in the opening room of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, the V&A’s new exhibition that celebrates the life of the late fashion designer, is a quote that goes straight to the heart of McQueen the label, and McQueen the man. ‘I want to empower women’, it reads. ‘I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.’ The tipping point between empowerment and fear is a concept that’s embedded into the very fabric of McQueen’s designs, from the scarlet lining of a tailored jacket pulled from his 1994 graduate collection to the iconic ‘armadillo’ shoes that featured in Plato Atlantis, his last catwalk show.

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Plato’s Atlantis, Alexander McQueen, Spring/Summer 2010

The exhibition is an evolution of a retrospective originally staged at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011. Fittingly, as the V&A was one of the designer’s favourite research haunts, it occupies one third more space and includes 66 garments not previously exhibited. Arranged thematically, starting with ‘London’ and moving on to ‘Savage Mind’, it offers a unique perspective on one of the city’s favourite enfants terrible, allowing the viewer to explore and understand the themes, ideas and references that would frame his entire career. Unlike many designers, McQueen’s direction was set from that graduate collection, his ideas growing stronger and more mature but always circling back to key preoccupations, including death, decay and gothic romance.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ – a wonderfully varied, double-height room that showcase all the contradictions that made up McQueen. The 120 objects on display include carved wooden horn-like prosthetics, butterfly headpieces, feather-tipped nose bars, and floral body armour, many made in partnership with long-term collaborators Shaun Leane and Philip Treacy. These curiosities are by turn fantastical, fetishist, weird and uncomfortable… McQueen at his most uncompromising. The room is dominated by a rotating mannequin clad in the famous black and yellow spray-painted dress, a piece of performance art that closed the designer’s Spring/Summer 1999 show.

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Alexander McQueen, Spring/Summer 1999

If McQueen was preoccupied with turning his fashion shows into theatre, the exhibition’s curator Claire Wilcox and production company Gainsbury and Whiting (who staged many of the designer’s catwalk shows) have taken that theme and run with it. Complaints that fashion exhibitions are too static and lifeless cannot be levelled here. Each room’s décor is inspired and captures the essences of the designs on display: ‘Romantic Primitivism’ is inspired by ossuary (the walls are covered with skulls and bones) whilst ‘Romantic Nationalism’ depicts a stately manor house. Other highlights include the mirrored box from the spring/summer 2001 Voss show and a scaled-down version of the Kate Moss hologram from the Widows of Culloden collection.

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Romantic Nationalism room

London’s where I was brought up’, McQueen proclaimed. ‘It’s where my heart is and where I got my inspiration’. It was clearly important for Wilcox to build on the success of the original Met exhibition and add something more, to make this homecoming retrospective truly spectacular. What’s lacking in chronology and context is more than compensated by the spirit of Lee McQueen that’s threaded through the rooms – from the arresting black and white video portrait at the entrance, to the echoes of his voice over a sparse electronic soundtrack and the McQueen tartan that symbolises the Scottish heritage he promoted with such pride.

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Romantic Gothic room

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Voss, Alexander McQueen, Spring/Summer 2001

And perhaps pride is the most important thing that this exhibition impresses – pride in a young talent who made good on the world stage but never forgot where he came from. Pride that Central St. Martin’s and Savile Row (where McQueen was a student and an apprentice respectively) could produce a designer with such technical skill. He seems like an easy designer to understand and laid his interests and obsessions out for everyone to see – but Savage Beauty captures something deeper, a spirit and a narrative that’s missing from much of today’s cookie-cutter sportswear minimalism. Go see and marvel. Just make sure you book tickets in advance.

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty is at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 2 August 2015. For more information and to book tickets, see the V&A’s website.

This post originally appeared on Running in Heels.

There’s No Business Like Show Business – CinemaScope’s most spectacular musical?

Poster - There's No Business Like Show Business This post is part of The CinemaScope Blogathon, hosted by Wide Screen World and Classic Becky’s Brain Food. Read all the wonderful posts here.

Lavish, colourful and dazzling, Walter Lang’s 1954 musical There’s No Business Like Show Business makes the point conveyed in its title empathetically. It’s a musical about musicals, a nostalgic overview of an entire genre – maybe much of what it covers had been said before, but surely never in such a sumptuously extravagant manner. Budget wasn’t a constraint; this was Fox’s first CinemaScope musical and, like many films shot using the technology during its earliest days, it had a budget of over $4 million and a running time of almost two hours.

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theres no business like show businessNo Business (as I will now refer to it for brevity’s sake!) certainly takes advantage of the new CinemaScope format. The sentimental story centres on Molly and Terry Donahue (Ethel Merman and Dan Dailey), a husband and wife vaudeville act, and their three children. The vaudeville act allows for multiple musical set pieces that do little to advance the plot but a lot to encourage a good-time sing-along. And there must’ve been a lot of that, as the score is built around some composer Irving Berlin’s ‘greatest hits’, including the title song, originally written for the stage version of Annie Get Your Gun, which also starred Merman. There are just two new Berlin songs (“A Man Chases a Girl Until She Catches Him” and “A Sailor’s Not a Sailor ‘Till a Sailor’s Been Tattooed”).

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Monroe was reportedly reluctant to be cast in another musical, but Fox persuaded her to take the role by promising that her next lead would be in The Seven Year Itch. Monroe acquiesced. Perhaps Fox thought that Merman alone wasn’t a big enough box office draw – it’s true she never achieved the success in Hollywood she did on Broadway – but she was fresh from the 1953 film adaptation of Call Me Madam (also directed by Lang). Reportedly she wasn’t keen on Monroe – whose reputation for lateness and difficulty already preceded her – but was philosophical about her casting: ‘Hell, she’s the one we need to sell the picture’. But although Monroe is probably the main reason why the musical remains as well-known as it is today – a quick Google search mainly pulls up a series of stills featuring the actress – it doesn’t really feel like a vehicle that showcases her talents. She doesn’t show up until 29 minutes in, and her ‘storyline’ is really just a plot driver. It’s easy to see why she objected to another blonde bombshell role.

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Mitzi Gaynor (playing Merman’s daughter Katy) made it three female leads, but in spite of the overcrowding, each actress gets a chance to shine and there’s suitable differentiation between the (admittedly stereotyped) characters. This female trio probably wouldn’t have worked in anything but a musical – the show stopping moments allow each to have their chance in the limelight. In fact, one of the film’s best numbers is the aforementioned “A Sailor’s Not a Sailor”, which ‘stars’ both Gaynor and Merman. But still, this is Merman’s film. The vaudeville numbers suit her bold singing style and persona, she’s a matriarch who’s not to be messed with.

theres no business like show business

At the time of the film’s release, critics were unimpressed with Monroe’s turn. Bosley Crowther claimed in The New York Times that her ‘wriggling and squirming… are embarrassing to behold’; similarly Time magazine observed: ‘Marilyn… bumps and grinds as expressively as the law will allow’. It’s true that this is a ‘typical’ Monroe role – Vicky Parker is a sexy, breathless blonde with a dash of vulnerability – and although it got the actress to Wilder, it probably did more to cement her bombshell image, rather than the acclaim as a serious actress that she craved. It doesn’t help that No Business isn’t a particularly great film. It’s entertaining, but the characterisation is problematic, as is the plot, and it’s mostly held together by a series of big show tunes that are visually spectacular but ultimately hollow. Audiences weren’t keen either. Although the film eventually turned a profit, it wasn’t a box-office sellout. Perhaps filmgoers were jaded by the relentless upbeat optimism of musicals of this ilk, perhaps Merman really wasn’t a big draw… either way, it’s a film that’s grown in importance during the years – partly because it sits within the legend of Monroe – but also because it showcased the potential of CinemaScope and the genre.

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Some notes on the costumes

Marilyn’s wardrobe was designed by long-term collaborator Travilla. Merman and Gaynor’s were by Charles Le Marie. This divide not doubt contributed to Merman’s cool reception to Monroe, especially as the show-stopping costume number was centered around a song originally intended for Merman. “Heat Wave” probably contains most of the ‘wriggling’ that Crowther was so opposed to and indeed, Monroe’s skimpy costume for the song certainly leaves little to the imagination. Joe DiMaggio was so unimpressed that he refused to pose for pictures with his new wife whilst she was wearing it on his (admittedly rare) set visits.

Theres no business like showbusiness heatwave

Travilla’s “Heat Wave” costume is flamenco inspired, and features a full palm-print skirt with a shocking pink lining and a waterfall-style slit, cut to the top of the thigh. The skirt was held in place by a wide waistband with a tiny belt that covered Monroe’s belly button – it was this seemingly insignificant detail that got the design past the censors (see how it was added on after the original sketch!). A bandeau bra with an asymmetric shoulder strap and a white, flower-bedecked hat (worn over a black turban) completed the look. There’s something of Carmen Miranda in the aesthetic if not the moves, apparently the designer had a love for Spain and flamenco styling, and the costume was directly inspired by his trips to the region.

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Marilyn’s other standout piece is a bodystocking-style cocktail dress with strategically placed starburst embroidery and a rosette detail at the waist. The formal aspects of the long sleeves and high neckline were more than offset by the allusions to nudity and the thigh-high split. A bejewelled feather headpiece was the finishing touch, a final statement of glamour with intent. This dress meant business, as did anyone wearing it.

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Further reading: Dressing Marilyn by Andrew Hansford / Dan Dailey’s long journey into the night / The Hollywood Musical by Clive Hirschhorn

When Harry Met Sally, or… When Reiner Met Ephron

When Harry Met SallyWhen Nora Ephron passed away in June 2012, director Rob Reiner penned a wonderful tribute to the late screenwriter, with whom he partnered for the 1989 romantic-comedy When Harry Met Sally… “She had an incredible capacity for observation…” he recalled, “there were truths underneath there; it was all based on very funny, truthful observations on how men and women treat each other.” Along with Reiner’s direction, Ephron’s screenplay – filled with those wonderfully sketched observations – helped create one of the most enduringly popular romance stories of the last 25 years.

When Harry Met Sally

Much of success of When Harry Met Sally… stems from its realness. The semi-autobiographical film was loosely based on both Reiner and Ephron; the characters of Harry and Sally were inspired by real-life events and experiences. According to Reiner, Ephron approached the writing process in her usual journalistic style, interviewing both him and his friend Andy Scheinman about ‘what men think and what goes on inside our heads’. Reiner had recently divorced after 10 years of marriage, and was easing himself back into ‘the dating game’. The resultant screenplay was a culmination of Ephron’s thoughts about being a woman and his ruminations on being a man. Could either of them have known that a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue (‘Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way’) would open up a whole new lens and discussion on to male and female relationships?

When Harry Met Sally

Harry and Sally’s ability to speak to both male and female filmgoers is surely one of the reasons that made the movie a box-office success, grossing more than $92 million and become the 11th-highest grossing movie of the year. Although it’s a lightweight glossy comedy with a blissfully predictable conclusion, it speaks to preoccupations that have plagued both gender for years: not only the sex vs. friendship question, but also what it means to love, to be in love, to know someone better than you know yourself. But in spite of the cliché potential, When Harry Met Sally remains engaging and entertaining, thanks in part to Ephron’s sparkling Academy award-nominated screenplay and Reiner’s direction, but also the sense of collaboration that’s embedded into the film.

It’s a small cast – the plot centres around Harry and Sally, his ex-wife Helen, her ex-boyfriend Joe and a couple of friends. It’s intimate, as the best films often are – drawing you in to the characters and making you feel them, rather than simply observe them. By all accounts, Billy Crystal (Harry) and Meg Ryan (Sally) were involved in developing their characters and suggesting improvements – that famous fake orgasm scene was suggested by Ryan, who was keen to film it in a crowded public place for maximum effect. Bonus fun fact: the woman who wants ‘what she’s having’ was actually Reiner’s mother.

When Harry Met Sally

When Harry Met Sally

Of course, there’s something nostalgic there too – this is a romance story that borrowed directly from the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s, the decades when the genre was at its peak. Harry and Sally’s detailed, recurring discussions about Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) are probably the most obvious connection, but they’re also there in the split screen phone calls, the ‘hate-at-first-sight’ relationship and the opinion differences. When Sally drives Harry to New York in the film’s opening scenes,

But there are several crucial differences between When Harry Met Sally… and those earlier films. Firstly, the somewhat earnest and emotional ending; secondly the emphasis on the link between finding (and accepting) love and personal happiness that seems to have become the sole preoccupation of contemporary individuals (that’s both on and off-screen). Perhaps the early screwball audiences were less preoccupied with navel-gazing… or maybe they just favoured the silly over the sentimental, and were looking for a good time movie, rather than a feel-good one. And it’s somewhat disheartening to look back over the screwball genre as a whole and realise that strong female characters were so often the driver and instigator of romance and relationships – fast forward some 50-odd years, and it’s back to the ‘natural’ patriarchy order as Sally waits for Harry to make the first move (but only after he has undergone some personal maturing of course. Sally might be a successful career woman (or so we’re led to believe), but that doesn’t correspond to ‘success’ until she finds a man. That’s not too say Ephron wasn’t a feminist (her Crazy Salad essays definitively prove that she was), it’s more that she was realistic enough to understand when and where the battle began and stopped.

When Harry Met Sally

The other comparison that is often drawn is with Woody Allen – notably Annie Hall, Hannah and her Sisters and Another Woman. Upon the release of When Harry Met Sally…, the New York Times’ film critic Caryn James observed that it was the ‘most blatant bow from one director to another since Mr Allen imitated Ingmar Bergman in ”Interiors.”’ Of course, Allen had been focusing on quirky romantic comedy-type stories (often set in New York) years before Reiner and Ephron came along, but he didn’t have the monopoly on the genre and none of his films had ever really achieved the same level of box-office success.

When Harry Met Sally

Moviegoers just didn’t respond to his jaded realism in the way they did Reiner’s more outré humour and Ephron’s happy ending. Perhaps it’s the undercurrent of ‘male-ness’ that dominates Allen films – the knowledge that he’s a man, ruminating on male/female relationships and their complexities. Or maybe it’s just that we don’t always want to watch a movie that tells us so much about real life. Harry and Sally (or Reiner and Ephron) feel authentic; this isn’t a story that’s so fantastical it requires a suspension of belief. And although screwball homages and clichés abound, When Harry Met Sally… is a film about love that was born out of friendship and admiration – the way all the best relationships are.

This post was originally posted as part of MovieRob’s Meathead March. Thanks for having me Rob!

Further reading: When Harry Met Sally… the scriptRomantic vs. Screwball Comedy: Charting the Difference by Wes D. Gehring

Sonia Delaunay: craft, costume & collaboration

sonia delaunay

This post is part of the Russia in Classic Film blogathon, hosted by the wonderful Fritzi of Movies Silently. Read all the entries here.

Sonia Delaunay lived in – and created – a world of colour. Along with her husband, painter Robert Delaunay, she explored how pure, abstract hues and tones (‘colour rhythms’) could stimulate the senses. Whilst Robert’s work mainly focused on painting, Sonia’s scope was considerably broader and, early in her career, she translated her bold, instantly-recognisable visuals onto clothes, bags, furniture, textiles… even cars. However, it’s redundant to consider Sonia and Robert purely on the work they created, because the duo were in fact at the forefront of Parisian creativity in the early decades of the 20th century, shaping and defining a new visual language called ‘simultaneity’  – the idea that contrasting colours create movement and can have a life and meaning of their own.

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Electric Prisms by Sonia Delaunay (1913)

The movement might have been born in tandem, but for a long time – as is so often the case with female artists – it was Robert the history books remembered. His paintings cast big shadows over her ‘decorative’ textile work, despite the fact they explored the same theories and ideas. But this omission isn’t solely the fault of historians. Sonia painted before she met Robert (at a party in 1907) and continued to paint for many years after his early death from cancer in 1941. There are suggestions that he was jealous of her fame and recognition, that she publicly downplayed her artistic endeavours and shifted the focus to her role as a mother. But even there she found an outlet for her creativity, cutting up her young son’s blankets and stitching them back to together in ‘improved’ ways.

Sonia Delaunay

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Sonia Terk was born in the small village of Gradizhsk (then Russian, now Ukranian) in 1885. Her family were poor Jewish labourers, and Sonia was swiftly adopted by a wealthy uncle and transported to St Petersburg. There, she lived in a lavish home filled with books, paintings and art and spent time visiting the city’s many museums and galleries. Apparently Max Lieberman, the famous German Impressionist painter and a close family friend, gifted Sonia her first set of paints. Those early experiences surely set her on the creative path: first she studied art in Germany and then in Paris, where she would meet (and marry) Robert. After the birth of their son she turned her attention to crafts, decorating their apartments with furnishings inspired by her artistic training but also the ‘pure’ colour she remembered from her childhood in Ukraine, and the bright costumes worn at peasant weddings. Fashion design soon followed, garment versions of the new language the couple were starting to create. These clothing designs directly influenced her own painting – in fact, Bal Bullier, one of her most famous, plays on a dress she designed and wore.

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Bal Bullier by Sonia Delaunay (1912–13)

History, in the shape of World War I, intervened and the Delaunay’s were forced to move to Madrid after the Russian Revolution stemmed the funding flow from Sonia’s uncle. It was a surprisingly serendipitous move however, as it was in Madrid that Sonia opened an interiors boutique and first met Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of the acclaimed dance company the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev persuaded the couple to assist with his 1918 production of Cléopâtre. Robert would design the sets, Sonia the costumes. Although little evidence remains of the artistic collaboration, that which does evidences how Sonia was able to translate her art into costume. The colourful geometric quilting, emphasised with beading, mirrored inlays and pearl embellishments, could have come from the same preliminary sketches of Bal Bullier.

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Sonia_Delaunay_Ballet Russes

Whilst the Ballets Russes collaboration allowed Sonia to expand her artistic skillset, it also opened the doors to other creative partnerships, as avant-garde directors and filmmakers tapped her (and often Robert) to lend their modern visual language to their artistic endeavours. After the Delaunay’s moved back to Paris, they were approached by Marcel L’Herbier and René Le Somptier, who were keen for the couple to ‘dress’ two (separate) films. An odd move, considering that the Delaunay’s aesthetic celebrated colour and both films were due to be filmed in black and white, but a powerful reminder of how influential the couple were seen to be, and how their visual language was associated with the modern ideas of chic and (pre)‘deco’ that both directors were keen to convey.

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L'herbier vertige Stills from Le Vertige (Dir: Marcel L’Herbier, 1926)

Set in Russia, Marcel L’Herbier’s film Le Vertige (released in 1926) opens with the overthrow of the Czar during the Russian Revolution. L’Herbier’s muse Jaque Catelainis was cast in a dual role as a murdered officer and a ‘living image’ who haunts the French Riviera. The dual role called for contrasting costume designs – Sonia provided sportswear and luxurious loungewear whilst Parisian tailor Yose provided sharp double-breasted jackets. Robert contributed to the sets, and some of the paintings – in fact, the glamour of Paris is represented through Robert’s famous Eiffel Tower paintings.

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René Le Somptier delaunay

Stills from Le P’tit Parigot (Dir:René Le Somptier, 1926)

Similarly, René Le Somptier’s film Le P’tit Parigot (‘The Small Parisian One’, also released in 1926) utilises the Delaunay look to convey a certain flapper spirit. Shot in six parts, Sonia was responsible for the costumes, and again, Robert contributed to the sets, including several canvases that were exhibited at the 1925 Paris exhibition. Full disclaimer: I haven’t actually seen this film as it’s virtually impossible to source, but (limited) online synopsis suggests that it tells the story of ‘P’tit Parigot’, son of a professor and captain of a football team, who quarrels with his father and runs away to become a mechanic (further plot explanations very welcome!). Plenty of stills exist from the production, which is similar in look and feel to L’Herbier’s and even seems to include another of Sonia’s geometric dressing gowns. One in particular is visually arresting: Romanian dancer Lizicai Codreanu performs wearing a zig-zag patterned costumes with a large disk shaped collar (the disk was a recurring motif in both Sonia and Robert’s work).

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sonia delaunay bathing suits

What’s interesting about Sonia’s involvement with these avant-garde films is that, at the same time, she was also collaborating with the Amsterdam department store of Metz & Co and developing a line of furs and accessories with couturier Jacques Heim. These profitable collaborations (and the interiors store in Madrid and a later partnership with the Liberty store in London) that provided a source of income for the family, facilitated the ‘avant-garde’ partnerships and allowed Robert to keep on painting. This mix of low and high sensibilities now looks very modern, but it was probably another barrier that prevented Sonia from being viewed as a serious artist – quite simply, her multi-genre/commercial work enforced a designer-and-maker label that disregarded her early, more purely ‘artistic’ works. Ironically, it was these commercial partnerships that sold Simultaneity to the masses and extended its reach far beyond the confines of Paris through spreads in fashion and lifestyle magazines.

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Although Delaunay was recognised in her later years – and was in fact the first living female artist to be honoured with a solo exhibition at the Louvre (in1964) – it’s telling that the ten-year period she spent designing clothes and textiles and fostering creative collaborations remain somewhat overlooked. The bold geometric designs she favoured resonated with women of the era (including Gloria Swanson and Nancy Cunard) and allowed them to express new, bolder aspects of femininity – but this commercial success came at a price. Choosing applied art over fine art and utilising her ideas for ‘everyday’ designs pushed her work into the domestic sphere but simultaneously broke down the barriers between art and craft. In many ways, she is one of the defining artists of the 20th century.

Further reading: Sonia Delaunay by David Seidner / Colour Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay by Matilda McQuaid / The EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay at the Tate Modern (opens 15 April 2015)