“Let me not forget the use of my own hands, that of a craftsman with eyes... that reflect the technology around me.”
Lee Alexander McQueen
Music Credits

savage beauty

cabinet of


A collection of wonders from across the world and beyond, the cabinet of curiosities celebrated the esoteric, and literally extraordinary, objects that seemed to defy nature. With its roots in the 16th century Wunderkammer, the cabinet of curiosity has long fascinated artists and thinkers of all kinds. In placing these enigmatic objects alongside others that diverge from the norm, collectors attempted to make sense of the world around them – a philosophical endeavour that led to the first public museums. It’s an arrangement that could also apply to McQueen’s juxtapositions of images from art, film, nature, history and ethnography on his mood boards. In Savage Beauty, the Cabinet of Curiosities showcased the breadth of McQueen’s inspirations, and the atavistic and fetishistic objets d’art made in collaboration with milliners, jewellers and scenographers, exclusively for the catwalk.

Irere, Spring/Summer 2003
"Beauty can come from the strangest of places, even the most digusting of places"
Lee Alexander McQueen
Shaun Leane, a jeweller collaborated with the designer since 1995 is responsible for some of the most visceral of Alexander McQueen’s accessories. The ‘Spine’ corset for Untitled (Spring/Summer 1998) not only reveals McQueen’s fascination with the ogee line and predilection for designing from the side but also, appended with a tail, the hybrid creature the corset suggests would be a prime candidate in any self respecting collector’s cabinet. (The ‘Spine’ corset was in fact inspired by the half-raven, half-dog mother from the film The Omen). Another spectacular metal bodice made in collaboration with Leane, the ‘Coiled’ corset in The Overlook (Autumn/Winter 1999), reveals McQueen’s fascination with tribal modes of dress. Inspired by the coiled necklaces of the Ndebele people of Southern Africa, to create the piece Leane and McQueen first cast a model’s torso in concrete, and then formed every coil one-by-one on the mould. Made from aluminium, the model had to be screwed into the corset from the side.
The Overlook, Autumn/Winter 1999 Photograph by Robert Fairer
In Memory of Elizabeth How, 1962 Autumn/Winter 2007
Horn of Plenty, Autumn/Winter 2009 Photograph by CHRIS MOORE
Backstage, The Hunger show SS 1996 Photograph by GARY WALLIS
Eshu, Autumn/Winter 2000 Photograph by CHRIS MOORE
Backstage, Untitled, Spring/Summer 1998 Photograph by ANNE DENIAU
Eye, Spring/Summer 2000 Photograph by CHRIS MOORE
Givenchy Haute Couture by Alexander McQueen Spring/Summer 1997
"It’s the ugly things I notice more, because other people tend to ignore the ugly things"
Lee Alexander McQueen
The Set at Horn of Plenty, Autumn/Winter 2009 Photograph by ANNE DENIAU
"It needs to connect to the earth. Things that are processed and reprocessed lose their substance."
Lee Alexander McQueen
Accessories, hair and make-up were essential to the way Alexander McQueen conveyed the narratives behind each collection in his catwalk shows. Treacy’s headdress from Eye (Spring/Summer 2000) for example, covered the face in a similar manner to a traditional Islamic veil. Made from metal coins, it connects the medieval armour of the Crusades with contemporary geopolitical concerns around oil. Other headpieces take their inspiration from the natural world ¬(McQueen, like the wunderkammer pioneers before him, collected taxidermied animals, some by the contemporary artist Polly Morgan). Birds were a recurring theme, and both Treacy and fellow milliner Dai Rees made a number of headpieces from feathers. Rees even fashioned a headpiece from porcupine quills for Bellmer La Poupée (Spring/Summer 1997), a collection inspired by the dysmorphic bodies of the surrealist artist Hans Bellmer. And McQueen would frequently present alternative visions of beauty throughout his career, most pointedly, when casting the Paralympic athlete Aimee Mullins in No.13 (Spring/ Summer 1999), where she wore a pair of prosthetic legs carved from elm.
Backstage, Widows Of Culloden, Autumn/Winter 2006 Photograph by ANNE DENIAU
Voss, Spring/Summer 2001 Photograph by Anthea Simms
Backstage, Widows Of Culloden, Autumn/Winter 2006 Photograph by ANNE DENIAU
Backstage, Le Dame Bleue, Spring/Summer 2008 Photograph by ANNE DENIAU
No 13, Spring/Summer 1999.Photograph by CHRIS MOORE
Backstage, No 13, Spring/Summer 1999 Photograph by ANNE DENIAU
No 13, Spring/Summer 1999 Photograph by CHRIS MOORE
"the finale of this collection was inspired by an installation by artist rebecca horn of two shotguns firing blood-red paint at each other" LEE ALEXANDER MCQUEEN
Backstage, No 13, Spring/Summer 1999 Photograph by ANNE DENIAU
With Shalom Harlow wearing a white cotton dress belted under the arms, she positioned herself centre stage on a rotating plinth. As Harlow, a former ballerina, began slowly spinning like music-box doll, two industrial paint sprayers on the sides of the runway suddenly came to life, and began spraying her with black and fluorescent green paint. It had taken over a week to program the robotic cranes and choreograph their movements against that of the model, and the result was nothing short of poetry in motion. A comment on the relationship between man and machine at the turn of the millennium, closer in spirit to a work of performance art than a vehicle of commerce, No.13 was the only runway presentation that brought McQueen to tears.
"When I used Aimee [Mullins] for [this collection] I made a point of not putting her in… sprinting legs [prostheses for running]. We did try them on but I thought no, that’s not the point of the exercise. The point is that she was to mould in with the rest of the girls" LEE ALEXANDER MCQUEEN
McQueen (‘99) prosthetic legs carved from ash for Aimee Mullins. Photograph by Anne Deniau
The beauty of Mullins’ hand-carved wooden prosthetic legs were part of a wider homage to the tactile design traditions of the Arts & Crafts movement within No.13, apparent in a number of other pieces in a collection rendered from raffia, lace, wet-moulded leather, and wood – most notably, the perforated balsa wood bodice and skirt which fanned out at the back to form a pair of wings. However, it was in applying the Edwardian Arts & Crafts movement’s mantras to the possibilities offered by modern technology to the designer which created one of the most iconic moments of McQueen’s career – No.13’s finale.
go to next section
Pepper’s Ghost