Harriet Walker: This is high fashion that appeals to the masses

When I went to the Met in June, the queue snaked through the post-Renaissance portraiture wing and included people of every nationality, age and creed. What Savage Beauty has – and it is something that many other fashion exhibitions do not – was universal appeal.

The Met exhibitions, which are some of the biggest events in the fashion calendar, are usually sponsored up to the hilt and draw on collectors around the globe. But Savage Beauty presented rare work from McQueen's own archive. Collaborators, apprentices and aficionados produced an exhibition that was not so much about story-telling as collective memory.

Of course, the layout and presentation were impeccable – Anna Wintour is on the board of the museum, after all – and dresses were presented on ghostly mannequins fashioned from digital renderings of McQueen's own fit model. There were clothes from every era here, emphasising the versatility of this visionary even as they spoke of a career cut short.

There were provocative pieces – such as the torn Highland Rape dresses and "bumster" trousers. There were also fairy-tale confections laced with mummified fresh flowers, beautiful ballgowns of whispering silk and painstaking proportion-play with structure and the feminine silhouette, often extreme but always effective.

Exhibits came alive with footage from McQueen's notoriously grand catwalk shows, but were mesmerising enough on their own. To see them up close was to understand the mastery of their creator. It was the perfect balance of clothes to awe, inspire and fall in love with, and clothes to provoke the sort of contemplative response usually deemed beyond mere "fashion".

The broader story of McQueen's life and work has since his death been given the easy gloss of a modern tragedy: an East End boy made good, his talent noticed by the institutions and presented on a global stage with such vigour and bombast that he was left powerless in the face of commercial and personal pressures. But, while this may be what gets people through the Met's doors, it isn't really what is at its heart.