Memories abound where my mother is concerned, but I do have a favorite. Although it is a singular experience, when we attended Alexander McQueen’s retrospective, “Savage Beauty,” that summer day in 2011 exemplifies noteworthy traits that my mother had in droves. Although the Metropolitan Museum of Art allowed its members to skip the monster line or attend on Monday’s, their “closed” day, just to be part of the fun, my mother (who was a member) and I, stood on the 2 hour line with the masses. This curated event of a hundred ensembles and seventy accessories was unprecedented and there was no way my mother would not be part of the crowded excitement; “By the time the exhibit closed, over 650,000 people had seen it, making it one of the most popular exhibits in the museum’s history, and its most popular fashion exhibit ever” (Savage Beauty Exhibition). #1: My mother loved a well-dressed party.
My mother voted Republican, that is until President Bush II made a mockery of his political party in a multitude of ways including sending soldiers off to die without near enough discourse in her opinion. Also she was fed up with gay bashing, especially because as a hospice caretaker she had witnessed first hand the prejudice so many AIDS patients had experienced even during their last days. But the final straw came about when several of her country club family and friends unleashed their bigotry while denouncing presidential candidate Barack Obama solely on race. Time to intermarry she would say. Somewhere along the last few decades of her life the “other” became increasingly important to my mother and this caused her to change both her conservative parish and her political party. With great joy she discovered new forums to express her spiritual and civic self. #2: She championed outsiders, those whose voice was silenced by greed or neglect, skin color or gender orientation. She sought out new stories. Alexander McQueen’s queerness only endeared him further for her.
My mother lived just a few miles into New Jersey via the George Washington Bridge, so popping into New York City for a concert or an opera, a luncheon with friends or to view a new exhibit, conveniently filled the free time in her calendar. On that July morning we drove down the West Side highway, surveying the broad Hudson for tugs and chatting up the day’s adventure. We parked underneath the museum and made our way to the snaking long long line. She was 84 but was definite, oh no, I don’t need the bathroom or a stop at the water fountain or a bench to rest on. A two hour wait for a two hour exhibit yet she was all set. I, on the other hand, visited the ladies room twice, and each time I came back, she was even more knowledgeable about either the museum pieces we were inching past or the people lined up around us. My mother made fast friends where ever she was, waiting in airports or restaurants, during any social engagement and handily on a slow moving queue. As much as she liked to talk, and yes, she was a talker, she marveled in your story. #3: Your life sounded far better in her retelling too.
Finally the moment came when we donned our audio guide and stepped into the first gallery. Within seconds my mother was swallowed by a swirling mass of people and was lost to me. Think crowded-metropolitan-rush-hour-subway-car, then add people moving in different directions, like a slippery serpent or an outstretched octopus, with no synchronous rhythm, no defined direction, just willy-nilly being drawn from one shiny figure to another, and my mother disappearing into that. I spent ten minutes somewhat frantic, unable to concentrate on McQueen’s masterpieces behind me, only squeezing between bodies and looking between shoulders to locate the one person I felt responsible to get home safely. When I did find my mother, she was intently studying a wall of objects. She asked if had I taken my time, had learned about his revolutionary construction, had fully appreciated the first room. So you’re okay, I screamed into her ear, because along with the crowd was the deafening music. She beamed this smile that was just her happy face. Jostled. Bumped. Stepped on. All true, yet she was unbothered and moved on fearlessly. She was a scholar absorbing all she could in the midst of genius. #4: Curiosity drove her toward all expressions; she was exactly what artists hoped for in an audience.
“The exhibition celebrates McQueen’s wild, unfettered and dark imagination: gothic Victoriana, dresses tufted with blood-red feathers, decorated with dying flowers or rattling with clamshells. The weird, wonderful accessories alone send a tingle down the spine — especially when horns appear as protuberances from the shoulders, or platform shoes seem like organic growths
” (Alexander McQueen in All His Dark Glory
). This was no carefree stroll through the pretty designs of Christian Dior or Oscar de la Renta beaded gowns, but the raw grit of the son of a cabby from London, a boy who knew he would design fashion from the start. “While McQueen had many anxieties, running dry wasn’t among them. He was supremely confident of his instincts and his virtuosity. That ballast freed him to improvise, to take wild chances, and to jettison received ideas about what clothing should be made of (why not seashells or dead birds?), what it should look like (Renaissance court dress, galactic disco wear, the skins of a mutant species), and, above all, how much it could mean. The designer who creates a dress rarely invests it with as much feeling as the woman who wears it, and couture is not an obvious medium for self-revelation, but in McQueen’s case it was. His work was a form of confessional poetry
(Thurman, Dressed to Thrill
). One needed to steel themselves for this aptly named exhibit, and as my mother and I wove our way through the labyrinth of galleys I observed only inquisitiveness in her countenance. No checking her watch, no mention of fatigue, my mother was there for the long haul, unimpeded by the affront of such a crowd. I took heed, readjusted my audio set, and realized that even though I’d lose her over and over again, I’d find her in the end. So, together, yet alone, we uncovered Alexander McQueen. #5: Acceptance of whatever comes your way, with faith in the process.
The museum curators prepped us with his background, which we agreed to be truth after having seen McQueen’s body of work:
“Every collection told a story. When you watched one of McQueen’s collections, you were always having these feelings of awe or wonder or fear or terror. My personal opinion was that McQueen was channeling the Sublime through his collections. And certainly the Sublime experience was something that certainly affected the audience. You were always not sure what to expect when you went into a McQueen show. And you also didn’t know what you felt when you left a McQueen show at the same time. You always were left with sort of feelings of confusion, and McQueen often said that he didn’t care whether you liked his collections or not, as long as you felt something. And the intensity of his collections came from the fact that it was often very much about his state of mind at a particular time…To him, fashion was a vehicle to convey or express complex ideas and complex concepts, but also could use fashion as a way to challenge our boundaries of what we think of as clothing and think about in terms of the requisites or fundamentals of clothing”
(About the Exhibition
After two hours of noise and crowds and history I did find her. Glowing. Energized. Asking me what I wanted to do next on this fine New York City afternoon. I was in the very confusion that a McQueen show was noted for and asked if she’d mind if we left the museum, drove to a quiet lunch spot and tried to unravel the vast outlandish and multidimensional experience. We did exactly that and talked for hours. We recalled favorite gowns, masks and head pieces, the progression of style and form. And McQueen’s suicide, the sad and sudden end of a brilliant artist. She spoke as a professor of art history and haute couture but without stale academia, instead an honest understanding validated by direct experience, by really looking. I stared as the slanting sun splashed over the sidewalk of our outside eatery to ease my overwrought mind, while hers still trudged on through all McQueen created in his short years. #6: She loved life. Every nuance. Her zeal outdid us all.
Most assuredly, there is far more that I could record on this larger than life grande dame, and for now, I will continue to do just that, chasing the ethereal until I see her even more clearly. There were many more exhibitions, and operas, and valley vistas, and living we did together. I guess that’s what keeps spinning around in my mind. Living was just better that day and most any day with this mother of mine completely bent on living.