The story of the last few years of Alexander McQueen has been a long, frequently angry tussle between his love of grand theatrics (which often deflect energy and attention from the clothes) and the more sullen straight-up parades flung on to appease the commercial guys (which only deflate his critics' expectations). For the first time, his spring collection resolved those conflicting tensions in a presentation, staged in the round in the Cirque d'Hiver, that framed all his romantic, historicist accomplishments without veering too far in either direction.

An ensemble of musicians and a dusty chandelier gave just enough background atmosphere to sustain the sequence of gracefully detailed Edwardiana, infanta dresses, and sharp signature tailoring. His collection notes quoted Barry Lyndon, Goya, and the Marchesa Casati, but really this was a revision of all the things the designer does best. Going back over his own history—as well as favorite points in fashion history—is something McQueen has done before; in this case it improved the sense of lightness and delicacy in his clothes. Nineteenth-century bodice-fitted jackets came out with chiffon jabot blouses and long skirts, followed by corseted dresses—some with hard, hip-exaggerated hourglass carapaces—which bloomed into lace-covered skirts. A palette of dusty gray, ivory, and faded pinks added to the poetic rendering of skills he has perfected over the years—both during his stint in couture at Givenchy and at the atelier he maintains in London to make wedding and special-occasion dresses.

From this last, perhaps, and the young clients who come there, he's learned about the softness a woman wants in a romantic dress today. Still, the standouts were a couple of more modern looks perfect for less dressy evenings: gray pants with versions of the season's tunics over them, one in asymmetric tiers of dusty-rose lace, and the other a gold-leaf-tinged elongated T-shirt. Looking at it from a broader perspective, it's true to say that this self-referential McQueen collection did not contribute to the new debate about how fashion can move on from its fixation with the past. But as a summation of all he has to offer in the way of refinement, it was one of his best.