The show-stopping gown in a new exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is a red silk number from Alexander McQueen’s infamous Horn of Plenty collection. Its billowing skirts are only partially visible, however, beneath a gauzy white conservational wrap, while its distinctive headdress is entirely hidden. This outer layer catches the light in what must be the first time a McQueen creation has been upstaged by its own dust jacket.
Tim Walker: Wonderful Things, which opens on Saturday, plays with expectations in many ways. At a preview the photographer – whose twisted fairytale aesthetic has made him one of British fashion’s most prominent names – described the show as not a retrospective “but the end of a chapter”.
Three years ago he was asked to create a series of photographs inspired by the V&A’s archive. His choice of artefacts appears here alongside those works. The semi-shrouded McQueen dress is paired with a series of photographs about the V&A’s curators and conservationists. In the pictures, Karen Elson’s long limbs emerge from wooden dress boxes and polyester-chiffon clouds. These ghosts – as the set designer Shona Heath described them at the preview – are also suspended and illuminated in the rafters of the exhibition space, floating in the darkness like jellyfish.
Walker is best known for working with complex, otherworldly sets, and his most famous work appears in one brightly-lit room. Elsewhere, the set uses colour and lighting to immersive and disorienting effect. One dimly lit room becomes the hushed and darkened cloister of a cathedral. It glows blue with the light of a stained glass window covered in gold and skulls from 1520. The panel’s message – that all must die, regardless of status – feels apt as Extinction Rebellion stages a protest outside London fashion week just a few miles away.
Elsewhere Walker examines a plaster figleaf from 1857, once fixed to the museum’s plaster cast of Michelangelo’s David for royal visits. It becomes a jumping off point for a selection of sumptuous male nudes. Behind a pink plastic curtain, another gallery of nudes features Kate Moss and Beth Ditto. There is nudity, too, in black and white graphic photographs inspired by the Victorian illustrator Aubrey Beardsley. Nude photography comes with its own baggage in an era when so many photographers come under fire in the wake of #MeToo, Walker said, adding that during the show’s creation he felt impelled to stop “other people’s failures, irresponsibilities and darkness” impacting on “responsible” art and collaboration.
Creating the show, said Walker, “showed me the infinite possibilities of the communication of beauty over centuries”. In one searingly pink room, an exploration of London’s club scene is inspired by a small pink-lined embroidered casket from 1675, of the kind created by teenagers, at the time, to display their needlepoint skills and store their secrets. That a teenager from the 17th century “can make a treasure box that resonates with boys who feel really beautiful dressed as girls when they go out dancing in Hackney, often wearing kind of Tudor culottes or an Elizabethan collar”, is a balm that gives hope.
In general, the mood is vibrant and upbeat. Grace Jones is lit up in devilish red; a model appears Joan of Arc-like with shorn head, sword and halo, as stained glass light ripples over her body. Walker muse Tilda Swinton appears, staring defiantly at the camera, wearing gold turban and gobstopper rings, her eyebrows calligraphy lines, in a series inspired by her distant relative, the poet Edith Sitwell. A photograph of the Bayeux tapestry is recreated featuring “eco warriors – the soldiers of tomorrow”, the weapons replaced with recycled and repurposed ironing boards and hoovers covered in knitting.
“If we have so many terrible things,” said Walker. “We need wonderful things, too.”