Each day, seven thousand people wait for hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan to look at women's high-fashion clothes designed by Alexander McQueen. The exhibit, Savage Beauty, on view through August 7, showcases highlights of the career of the British fashion designer who committed suicide last year at the age of 40. According to the New York Times critic Holland Cotter, the show is "a button-pushing marvel: ethereal and gross, graceful and utterly manipulative, and poised on a line where fashion turns into something else." I arrived the other day to view the exhibit during the special early-morning members' hour. At 8:15am, a hundred people were already waiting. By 8:30, another hundred were snaking around the fountain at the 81st street entrance. By 9:30am, four hundred people had arrived. I came to find out two things: What is all the fuss about? And -- what do the shoes look like?
Could it be that thousands of people are interested in unwearable sadomasochistic costumes? Perhaps in the midst of the heat wave, when comfort trumps fashion, a desire to gaze upon clothes made of heavy, uncomfortable fabrics, leathers, and metals overtakes museum-goers otherwise content to gaze upon Renoirs and Van Goghs. Maybe looking at bodices so constricting even a skinny model fainted while wearing one at a 2008 McQueen show offers relief. Their air conditioning may be on the blink, but at least these art lovers are wearing cotton T-shirts and not passing out.
McQueen's creations hang on mannequins who either lack faces or whose faces are completely effaced by wigs, hats, or -- most commonly -- masks made from black leather or armor. I admit knowing little about fashion, but at a minimum I expect runway creations to share some wisp of resemblance to garments worn by real people. In Savage Beauty, you will see a corset made of aluminum and black leather with a protruding tail, a bodice made entirely of mussel shells, and a football helmet and matching shoulder pads painted with pink and green designs. It seemed to me that McQueen, or curator Andrew Bolton, recognized that these clothes are not for real women. How else can we make sense of the mannequins whose heads sprout futuristic rabbit ears?
The shoes, likewise, are more of a wink at footwear than anything a rational woman would slip her feet into with the expectation of walking. Is it even possible to move across a room in the "alien" shoe, with tentacles coil around a ten-inch heel and four-inch platform? Or the ten-inch-high "armadillo" shoe, which three models refused to wear at the spring 2009 McQueen show?
I admit, though, that one pair made me smile -- a super-high stiletto that looked entirely conventional until I noticed distinct imprints of toes pushing against the leather. I was gratified to see evidence of a woman's actual body straining against the punishingly narrow toebox, with room for two or three toes, not five -- however horrifying the sight. But these shoes were uncharacteristic for the show, which overwhelmingly hides not only women's faces but also that human beings need to sit, stand, and breathe.
Here is the real horror: many women mistake the fantasy for reality. Even if they're not wearing ten-inch stilettos, many women wear painful shoes on a regular basis. According to Rep. Michele Bachmann, wearing high-heeled shoes may trigger her intense migraines. Yet she continues to wear them "all the time," according to her son. Last time I checked, high-heeled shoes were not compulsory either in Congress or on a presidential campaign. Nevertheless, she -- along with millions of others -- chooses shoes that have more in common with aliens and armadillos than with human feet.
Sensible people recognize that they cannot walk around in public wearing clothes that could just as easily have been placed in the Arms and Armor exhibit. They should similarly realize that wearing high unstable shoes is an invitation to a broken ankle. They would do better to wear heels from designers -- such as Alice Alan or Cordani -- who create stylish, beautifully constructed shoes with room for all five toes, and with a heel never obscenely high or a pitch (angle of the bend of the foot) that's severe. Too much pressure on the ball of the foot and any woman, regardless of political affiliation, can get a migraine.